His melodic style was the backbone of Elvis Presley’s hits and inspired guitarists of THREE generations. Scotty Moore talks to Jenny Knight about life with the King, his love affair with the hollowbody and being the last of the great sidemen…
Photo © courtesy Karen McBride
by Jenny Knight
Scotty Moore was literally Elvis’s right-hand man. Not only was he omnipresent at The King’s side on stage throughout his most musically exciting period, but pre-Colonel Tom, he managed his career. Now, as the last surviving member of the original band, he is at the centre of this year’s 50th Anniversary Of Rock’n’Roll celebrations. Guitar caught up with him on a tour of England following a serious illness – Scotty suffered bleeding between his skull and his brain, and the surgery has taken its toll. In true rock’n’roll form he frets about his hair, which had been cropped for the brain surgery, but he needn’t worry – it’s already quiffing back into that familiar thick wave.
Backstage at Manchester Academy, Scotty’s British band – pianist Liam Grundy, Pete Pritchard on upright bass, guitarist Dave Briggs and drummer Jimmy Russell – swarm about, munching on Kentucky Fried Chicken. Surely that should be Memphis, boys? Frontman Paul Ansell, moonlighting from his rockabilly band No 9, confesses between tokes on his cigarette: ‘I always wanted to be Elvis,’ and this conviction shows when they hit the stage later. But for the time being, Scotty has swapped his usual Johnny Walker Red (‘once he drank so much he sounded like Keith Richards,’ says his partner Gail) for a more sedate bottle of red wine and hovers around as we chat. Bizarrely, Jerry Lee Lewis is also in town – something which prompts dark mutterings from the Moore camp. Things have always been a touch fraught since the pair got into a fist-fight back in the 1970s over Scotty’s prowess as a guitar player…
Back in ’54, Gladys Presley entrusted her precious son to Scotty’s care, which must have been a daunting task. Although he was only a few years older, did Scotty see himself as a mentor to the young Elvis?
That guy you used to play with. The one with the hair.
‘Nah!’ he says dismissively, with his usual self-deprecating humour. ‘What few chords he knew he used very well. At first he sort of just wore the guitar around his neck to have something for his hands because he wasn’t accustomed to being on stage, but after he started the dancing moves he didn’t fool with the guitar much any more.
‘Actually, he wasn’t a bad piano player. The Jordannaires said Elvis used to come in in the middle of the night and they’d play all night long – he’d play piano and they’d all sing gospel songs.’
While he doesn’t own any of his original guitars from the Elvis era, Scotty remains a Gibson man 50 years on, and keeps all his guitars tuned and in use.
‘I bought my first Gibson in 1953, which was the ES-295,’ he remembers. ‘Previous to that I had played a Fender Esquire
[actually Scotty played a Telecaster], which was the precursor to the Stratocaster, Telecaster – that line. I don’t have it any more but I had a friend of mine at Fender pull out the plans for the 1952 guitar and remake one precisely to the specs.
‘And then I discovered the neck was bigger than I wanted it, so I sent it back to Mike Eldred at the Fender Custom Shop and he took the specs of my Chet Atkins Country Gentleman instead. So I own the only 1952 Fender Esquire with a Chet Atkins neck on it!
‘I only played four guitars when I was with Elvis,’ he continues. ’The first one was the ES-295, which was a new one that I bought in 1953. The next one I had was the
L-5, which was one of my favourite guitars of all time. Then I played the two Super 400s. The first one was
blonde and I traded it for some equipment for Sam Phillips’ Sun Studio before Sam fired me. It got sold at an auction for $108,000 and it’s now hanging on someone’s wall in California. I’ve told her, “Please, let someone take that out of the case and play it!” Because she doesn’t play and I don’t want to see it die.’
What is it about the hollowbody that has kept him so faithful?
‘It sounds really beautiful, and it gives me something to hold onto on stage,’ he grins. ‘Matter of fact, I did
an album with Carl Perkins in 1992 down at Sun Studios. Carl played this little black enamel Fender and I had this huge
Super 400. Carl says, “Scott, can I play your guitar?” So I hand it over, and Carl wraps his arms around it and he says, “Oh, it’s just like hugging a big fat woman!” Then he strums his finger across it and says, “But don’t she sing purty?”’
The ‘other woman’ in Scotty’s life is his Chet Atkins Country Gentleman, the guitar he plays live now. Chet himself donated the guitar in the late ’80s.
‘It was one of the prototypes of the original design Chet did for Gibson,’ Scotty says proudly. ‘It had more of a jazz tone than any of the guitars I had. I got nervous about taking it overseas, so I had the Gibson people make
an exact replica and that’s the one I play on stage all the time. I had special pickups put on it by
Butts, a talented technician who also invented Gretsch FilterTrons, also made Scotty’s famous amp, the
Echosonic, which can be heard on songs from Mystery Train onwards.
‘Mine was the third ever made,’ says Scotty, adding with a twinkle in his eye: ‘and the fourth and fifth went to Carl Perkins and Roy Orbison! Ray was an accordion player in a band and he had made one of the tape delay amps for his guitarist when Chet heard it and had him make him one. Sam Phillips would use a tape delay on all the Elvis recordings at Sun for an echo effect and I had complained that when we were on stage it sounded very flat, so when I heard this thing that Chet played with its built-in echo I had to have one. So I contacted Ray in Illinois and he said he’d make me one for $500 cash, which was a very expensive amp in 1955.
© courtesy Karen McBride
Paul Ansell, David Briggs, Scotty, Liam Grundy, Peter
Pritchard and Jimmy Russell
Milton Duffy, Alan Hibbs and Gail Pollock - Manchester, UK Feb 28,
‘At one time I had a man who worked at the same studio as Gail in Nashville work on it. I mentioned it to Ray and he just threw a fit. He said, “Scotty, you have to understand – these are only to be worked on by one person. If you need something, you have to bring it to me!” He was really upset that I even let somebody else take the screws out of the back, so any time I needed to have it serviced I’d take it to Ray’s house, up until he died last year.’
Did his secret formula die with him?
‘Rickenbacker bought the patent to it and tried to make one, but they cheapened it down and it was no good. Ray wouldn’t let anybody see the schematic, so now he’s dead, if anything breaks it’s every man for himself!’
After one hell of a ride, it was all over when Elvis switch his attention to films. Moore became a studio manager for Sam Phillips, working with the likes of Charlie Rich and Jerry Lee Lewis, before he and Phillips fell out. In ’64 he opened a studio in Nashville and performed one last time with Elvis for the
’68 Comeback Special. Halfway through, Elvis unexpectedly switched guitars with Scotty, taking the sunburst
Gibson Super 400 for himself and leaving Scotty with the
J-200. After it was over, Moore hung up his guitar… for the next 24 years.
‘Once in a while a special friend would ask me to do a few notes here and there and I’d do it,’ he says, reluctant to go into details as to why he quit, ‘but other than that I basically didn’t play. I was busy with a lot of other things, doing live engineering. I did the engineering from Tennessee Performing Arts Theater on Jerry Lee’s 25th Anniversary Of Rock’n’Roll and I did Waylon on the road, as well as some TV specials like Dolly Parton and Carol Burnett’s Together Again For The First Time. I also for a number of years did the live engineering on the Country Music Association Awards every October.’
While he still performs, Scotty’s true love seems to be the studio. So it’s no surprise he has one set up in his home.
‘As a matter of fact, there’s a new album coming out here in the UK,’ he tells us. ‘Alvin Lee came over last April and
recorded an album with me and DJ Fontana. I co-produced it and played a few overdubs. I don’t have much modern equipment – one of my trademarks is that I have a very clear tone.’
Scotty’s combination picking style of thumb and three fingers is so light that his hand seems to glide over the fretboard. He wedges black foam next to the bridge to dampen the strings, as he hates the sound of them being plucked.
‘See his nails?’ says Gail. ‘Hold out your hand! I harden those three nails with layers of silk and resin to keep him from breaking a nail mid-song. It’s a formula made by a Swedish classical guitarist called Miro Simic.’
This unique style still continues to inspire, and he’s got no end of famous fans. Gail takes up the story…
‘Mark Knopfler has taken what Scotty does and made it a whole lot better!’ she exclaims, to hoots of laughter. ‘Well, he did! He’s a fantastic guitar player and he’s also a sweet, sweet man. He and Scotty did a session together in Abbey Road studios several years ago and Scotty was not happy with the amp that they had gotten. So he was fiddling around with this amp and Mark had come in with his own tech, who was setting up his station. Mark picks the ones he wants and the guy packs up everything else and all of this. Mark comes over and says, “Scotty, are you having problems with your amp?” Scotty says, “I’m really not happy with this one – I want a tube amp.” Mark says, “Oh, I’ve got one out in the van,” so he runs out – he runs out, not the tech – and he brings in the amp, unhooks Scotty’s stuff down on his hands and knees and plugs it in, stands back and says, “Try this one.” And I thought that was so neat! Just a charming man!’
Keith Richards once declared that when he was growing up all his friends wanted to be Elvis, but he wanted to be Scotty Moore. The pair met in ’89.
‘I wasn’t really sure what the Stones did,’ remembers Scotty, ‘so Gail pulled out some of her albums and played them to me. After the show I went to a hotel room with Keith and Ron and they had two guitars. Ron kept saying, “Keith, I wanna play, give me the guitar!” And Keith said, “Get your own guitar.” “That is my guitar!” After a while he started to get tired of it and said, “Come on man, give me a guitar!” Keith said, “Go to your room!” “This is my room!”
‘We drank a lot that night…’
It’s time for Scotty Moore to take the stage, but before he does so he explains why this tour means so much to him.
‘Elvis wanted to come here too,’ he says. ‘The last night that I was with him on the ’68 Comeback Special, after the show we went back to his house in Los Angeles. We had dinner there and Elvis talked about how he would like to do a European tour.
‘Of course, he couldn’t because his manager was an illegal and couldn’t get a passport, and wouldn’t let Elvis go without him. I felt from the first time that I came over here that I was doing something that Elvis was meaning to do, so really it’s a tribute.’ And then, moments later, there’s those opening chords of Mystery Train…
Knight is the staff writer at Guitar Magazine, UK
article originally appeared in the August 2004 issue of Guitar Magazine, UK and
is reprinted here with permission.