The KING and I

This interview appeared in the November 1992 issue of Guitarist Magazine.

Scotty Moore on 92 UK tour playing 83 Super 400 and Ray Butts amp

Photo by Roy Barker© courtesy Guitarist magazine

Scotty Moore – the KING and I

Along with D.J. Fontana on drums and Bill black on bass, Scotty Moore’s innovative jazz/country guitar playing helped lay the foundations of modern popular music when the trio backed Elvis Presley on Sam Phillips’ famous Sun sessions…

by Neville Marten

Although you might not know it, some of modern popular music’s most cherished players have just returned to the States after a dismal British tour.  Scotty Moore, D.J. Fontana and Elvis’ original singers, The Jordanaires, teamed up for a unique tribute visit to the U.K., originally to have been fronted by fellow sun stablemate, Carl Perkins.  However, due to Perkins’ poor health, illness on the part of the tour’s organizer – and, I would hazard, a severe case of under-publicity afflicting the venues concerned – the gigs were poorly attended and the whole thing abandoned midway.

I had been badgering the tour’s publicist for an interview with Scotty, who apparently arrived toting his original ray Butts amplifier with built-in tape echo, but things weren’t looking too hopeful.  Scotty was weary, the gigs were far apart, he’d had a touch of the ‘flu and, at over 60, really didn’t feel up to it.  But then the final few dates were dropped and Scotty phoned the office in person, to say he’d now love to talk to us.  So I dashed to a central London hotel and sat with both Scotty and his longtime friend, drummer D.J. Fontana.  Over a whiskey or two in the hotel’s lounge Scotty recalled the days when perfect pop chemistry created music which – unless your ears are square, or closed altogether – you couldn’t fail to find compelling and irresistible, even thirty five years on…

Winston ‘Scotty’ Moore grew up in Humboldt, Tennessee, around 80 miles from Memphis, and picked up guitar by listening to his father and three older brothers.  Moore’s first decent instrument was a mid-wars Gibson ‘Kalamazoo’ which he played in the family group when aged only eight.  Later, Scotty formed a country band ‘The Starlite Wranglers’ with Bill Black on upright bass and D.J. Fontana on drums (D.J. never played with the Starlite Wranglers), and it was this outfit which producer Sam Phillips put behind his new signing, a white boy with the feel of a black artist.

Although Scotty is reputed to have recorded over 500 sides with Elvis, its those early sessions which evoke the most passion:  Phillips’ Sun recordings where Presley was at his raw best and where the band was allowed to gel, with improvisation and vitality the order of the day.

Recording sessions in the ‘90s are well organized, with musicians having at least some idea of what’s about to go down.  I asked Scotty whether this description suited those long gone days at Sun…

“Oh no, it was all very informal.  We’d go in and maybe Elvis would have a couple of tunes he’d want to try, or maybe Sam would have some ideas, so we’d try different things and finally just lock into one of them.”

And everything was done in straight takes.

“Oh yes, we had no overdubbing, no splicing.  What you hear is what we played.”

And when we hear Elvis slap the back of the guitar on those records, it was simply his exuberance…


People talk about Sam Phillips the great producer.  What exactly was his input?

“Sam had a lot of input, especially after the first record, because then he had a direction. But he would dig through anything that he had published or recorded before, so a lot of those old things from other artists were re-done.”

Would they have been country and gospel-based songs?

“Yes. And then people started bringing material in: Stan Kentford (Kesler) for instance with You Forgot To Remember and I’m Left, you’re Right, which were basically country songs.”

As a band, how much influence did you have over what came out on those recordings?

“We had more or less a free hand.  Sam might say, ‘That was a little busy,’ or whatever – just little comments like that – but as far as any kind of dictation to play a certain thing, there wasn’t any.  In fact there never was, even later on in the Victor and RCA years.”

Did Elvis have good ideas about what he wanted to do, or was he basically the guy singing?

“He was basically the guy singing.  He had ideas, sure, but not being musically trained, he didn’t go round to each person and say, ‘Play this, play that.’  He just knew it when he heard it.  And we would go through a song and everybody would keep trying different things.  I don’t remember any takes being identical; there would always be some little something different on each one.”

Did you do many takes for each song?

“On some things we did.  I’ve seen it written, ‘they did seventy takes on this,’ but a lot of these might be the count-off between every start.  And back then they would slate each false start…”

Did you rehearse the music in the studio or did you learn the songs outside?

“No, everything was done in the studio.”

What kind of studio was it?  It must have been very basic compared to now.

“Oh yes. You didn’t have the baffling and separation then; everybody would get as close together as they could.  Back then musicians played off each other.  They didn’t play loud; they played where they could hear each other in the studio, and that natural leakage – as I learned later when I got into engineering – actually helped to blend the tonal quality.”

It kept it human…

“Right, exactly.”

Did you play for any of the other Sun artists?  Jerry Lee Lewis, Roy Orbison or Carl?

“No, just Elvis.”

There were stories about the echo on those records being created by someone standing down the end of the corridor and playing.  Is that true?

“Well, the first record we did for RCA, it was literally a long hallway.  Sam had been using tape echo, or slap-back, and whether he was doing it on purpose or not, he also treated Elvis’ voice like another instrument.  The voice was real close to the rest of the music and most times back then, in country and pop, the vocal was always way out in front; even on RCA the voice was out more than we were used to.  But in Heartbreak Hotel, which was a real deep echo, they had a speaker set up at one end of this long hallway and a microphone at the other end, and a sign on the door saying ‘DON’T OPEN THE DOOR WHEN THE RED LIGHT IS ON’.  Room echo back then was virtually unheard of in recording, although they used it in motion pictures for sound effects.”

And people are doing it again now, in order to try and re-create those sounds.  They’ve got all this digital equipment and yet they’re standing down the end of  a corridor…

“Yes, they’re using bathrooms and stairwells.”

Your solos with Elvis are legendary.  Were they completely off the cuff or did you have some idea of what you were going to do?

“No, they were completely off the cuff, I never sat down and played the same thing twice.  You might get a bass riff or something, as a hook for the song, but the solos were strictly ad lib.  Even now I’ll go back and I can’t play note for note what I played then;  I can get the general feel of it but I can never go back and hit it note for note.  It just doesn’t feel right.”

But you must be aware that lots of guitarists today are still trying to do exactly that…

“Yes, there’s a boy on this tour we just finished, plays every note I ever played – even the bad ones!  His name is Peter Davenport and it just amazed me to watch him.”

But is it flattering, or do you think it’s silly?

“No, I think it’s flattering that somebody would take the time.  Especially with songs like Too Much, which was in an unusual key for us at the time.  It was in A flat, and we’d done two or three cuts on it, but on this particular cut I just got absolutely bonkers, just got lost, but somehow or other I came out of it and that’s the one Elvis picked.  He said, ‘That thing felt good,’ because feel was what it was all about.  But anyway, this boy Peter would stand there and play that sucker note for note.”

You’re so well known for the ES295 Gibson guitar that it became dubbed the ‘Scotty Moore’ model, but you didn’t use that guitar all the time, did you?

“No, actually I didn’t use it for very long.  When I came out of the service I bought a Fender, but I just couldn’t hold on to it; it was too small and the weight was wrong.  But then I got the ES295 and I used it through most of the Sun sessions.  Then I got a Gibson L5 and went from that to a Super 400, and I’ve stayed with the 400s down through the years.”

Is the one you’re using now an old one?

“No, it’s new.  When I decided to hang it up, I just sold everything off.  I never was one to collect a bunch of guitars like some people do.  But then I had to go out and buy another one…!”

If you had the old one now it would be worth thousands.  I don’t know if you’ve heard of a guy called Danny Gatton.  He’s an American guitarist from Washington and he told me he thinks he has your ES295.

“No, a guy by the name of Jimmy Velvet has a museum; he has the original and the body’s busted on it.  D.J. here can tell you that he’s traveled all these years and he says he’s run into my guitars all over the world!”

The amplifier that you’re using on this tour, is that the Ray Butts amp that you used on Elvis’ ‘Comeback Special’?

“Right, it’s an amp I got in late 1954.  Ray Butts made the first one for his own guitar player, then he took it to Nashville and showed it to Chet Atkins and Chet bought one.  Then I heard Chet using his on some records and started investigating and found out how he was getting that sound.  So I drove up to Illinois, where Ray was living at the time and got him to build me one.  And I’ve had it ever since.  In fact Ray did a little work on it before we came over on this trip.”

What kind of power output has it?

“It’s 175 watts, through just one 12” speaker, and it has a tape loop built into it.”

Did it transport here okay?

“No, the airline just about destroyed it!  I had it in an Anvil case, and a shipping crate built for it which cost almost as much as the amp did originally, and it got thrown or dropped real badly, did quite a bit of damage to it.  I managed to get it working, but I’ll have to have some extensive repairs done to it when I get back home.”

Is it correct that up until this tour you hadn’t played, literally, for twenty years?

“That’s correct.  I did one record with Carl Perkins in ’75, ‘EP Express’, and overdubbed a couple of things for Billy Swann.  But the last thing I did was for a guitar player in Nashville,  Chip Young, who put together an album – which incidentally is getting released pretty soon – and he has ten tracks with ten different guests: local session players, myself, Chet’s on one, Grady Martin, Jerry Reed, Jerry Kennedy, Wayne Moss and various other guys, but I think guitar players out there will like it.”

I know that if you don’t play for a week, that can be great; sometimes you actually fire up and feel better and play differently.  But what’s it like after twenty years?

“It’s rough!  Like you say, a couple of days off now and then, you seem to come back a little bit more fired up.  But no, if you hang it up that long it’s hard work.  But I guess the bug bit.  Carl Perkins and myself, with D.J. and everybody, got together and did an album in April.  It was something that he and I talked about over a two-year period, and then he got hit with throat cancer a little over a year ago.  But I called him up one day and asked him how he was doing and he said things were pretty good, so I asked if he still wanted to do that album.  We talked back and forth and eventually went back to Sun studio and did a few tracks down there.  And then we took a remote truck down to Carl’s house and did a few things in his den.  We didn’t go in and try to do a hit record, just a documentary, homecoming get0together with a bunch of friends.  We did some of the old songs and Carl wrote a few things we did new.
“But I bring that up because you were asking about how you get back into it after that length of time.  On the album I make the comment that somebody had asked me the same question and I said, ‘Yep, my left hand’s doing good, right hand’s doing alright, my mind’s as sharp as a tack.  Now if I can get all three of them to work together we’ll be alright…!’”

When Elvis went into the Army, were you guys just left on the shelf?

“Sure were.  We were left hanging out to dry!”

Were you simply salaried musicians?

“Well, when he went into the Army the salary stopped.  That’s basically when I got in with a guy in Memphis and we started Fernwood Records, and I got interested in the engineering side of it.  We had one hit record, Tragedy, a million seller, and spent all the money trying to get some more!  I did that until Elvis came out of the Army, and then we went back to work with him, went in and did the sessions, did an album in Nashville, got on a train, went to Miami and did the Frank Sinatra show.  Of course, not long after that he got into the movie thing.”

But you did quite a few of the movies, too, didn’t you?

“Yes, we did a lot of the soundtracks and we were in the first four or five.  It was an interesting first time out, but after a couple of them I realized it wasn’t my cup of tea.”

Was it Elvis’?  I don’t know whether he was actually forced into it, but I think he did it well…

“I think he really enjoyed the first few, then the stories and the music got so trite, but he’d go ahead and do them.  I guess the management, and the bottom line, won out.”

Do you think Elvis understood that you were people who needed to make a living on a day-to-day, month-to-month, year-to-year basis?

“Well, management definitely didn’t.  I think that’s probably come down through the years and things are still that way for musicians: get them as cheap as you can and never give them the credit that they deserve.”

Were you thanked?  There are stories of Elvis being a very generous person, not just financially but on a personal basis…

“Oh, he was very generous to all his friends, but we always seemed to be in the wrong line.”

So someone would come and clean his car and he’d give it to them, yet you would work your guts out for a fairly modest salary…

“I honestly don’t think he ever gave us anything.  I’ve never held it against him, but I’ve always wondered why.  I think he must have just looked at us as guys who could take care of themselves, no problem.”

Maybe it was a compliment, though I’m sure the odd Cadillac wouldn’t have gone amiss.  Did the band actually split up?  Was it like, ‘Okay, it’s all over…’?

“Yes, Bill Black and I quit in the fifth year, just before Elvis went into the Army.  Basically, we struck for more money, that’s all.  And we never did go back on the payroll after that.  We went back to do one tour, I guess about a month after we quit, around the actual time he went in the Army.”

So when he called you for the Comeback Special, was that something you did happily?

“Yes, well there again, after he came out of the Army he was still doing a lot of movies, and I had a recording studio in Nashville; D.J. here was living there, too, doing sessions.  So when he called us to do the – well, it wasn’t the Comeback Special, it was the Christmas Show originally – it was fine, it really was.  He was just like he was in the very early days; he asked us to come out to his house and have dinner.  And for all his fans over here, I’d like to let them know that he called D.J. and me aside then and asked us if we’d be interested in doing a European tour.  We told him we sure would, and he said, ‘Well, I really want to do one.’  Of course it never happened, but he definitely wanted to do it.
“The only reason I can imagine is – again, going back to the management and the bottom line – that he went into the Vegas thing.  But I’ve heard him quoted as saying that one of the reasons he didn’t come was because they didn’t have a venue large enough, because people would want to come from all over Europe.  But I don’t quite buy that.  I think something big could have been found – a cow pasture or something like that!”

Of your own playing with Elvis, what were your favourite, most memorable things?

“Well, I don’t really have a personal favourite.  There’s so many things that after we recorded them we never played them again.  And if I had to play them today, I’d have to get off in a room with a record player, probably for a couple of hours and learn them.”

But when you hear some of the songs, you must think, ‘That really worked; yes I’m glad that I had that bit of inspiration there’?

“I suppose I’ve been kind of labeled with the Mystery Train riff…”

Did you invent that? Was it just out of thin air?

“Yes.  Of course it’s faster than the Junior Parker version.  I never tried to copy those guitar players, but I tried to steal it and kind of change it a little bit/”

You play with a thumb pick and fingers, don’t you?

“On a lot of the stuff.  But I was kind of forced into that because it was only bass and guitar and I was trying to do as much rhythm as I could, but stab a few notes in here and there to make it sound like there was more than there really was.  But the thumb and fingers was not where my head was at, really, even though I was a great Chet Atkins fan, and Merle Travis and all those guys.  But gosh, I was listening to everybody, jazz guitarists like Tal Farlow…”

I suppose your playing is kind of country, but with a jazz sound.

“Well, I always thought I was just trying to be abstract, in some form or fashion, just trying to get something different.  I always looked for the sounds; whether it was musically correct or not didn’t bother me, but it had to have a certain sound to it.”

Was Elvis appreciative of his musicians’ work?  If you played something good would he say, ‘Hey, I really liked that, can you do that again?

“Oh yes, sure.”

What about Elvis’ own guitar playing?  He could strum a few chords, but the acoustic guitar on the records, is that him or is it you?

“On the early things on Sun it’s him, and then later on, on RCA, occasionally he would play or, like you mentioned before, he would turn the guitar over and just keep time on the back of it.”

Hank Garland came into the picture later on, and the band got bigger…

“Yes, the band got bigger.  Hank came in and did a lot of recordings, which I was glad of because it gave me some relief.  And I was a great fan of Hank’s.  He was a great player, and he was just beginning to get the notoriety that he really deserved when he had his terrible car accident.”

Do you think Elvis would have been a good character to have lived into his old age?

“No, that’s one thing I’ve always said, that with his vanity and with his looks, I don’t think he could have grown gracefully into old age.  I don’t think he’d have wanted to jump off a cliff or anything, but I think it bothered him – you know, the weight gain and things like that.”

As members of the band, were you, D.J. and Bill idolized?

“If we were, we didn’t know it.”

Well, you would have been if you’d come here…

“We’ve found that out in the last ten days.  We were talking just last night about how the people here seem to love us, and I said, ‘Well, I don’t really take that personally – more that we were connected with a happening.’  That’s the way I feel about it.”

But had it not been that actual set of people – Sam Phillips, the band, Elvis and The Jordanaires – the chemistry might not have been such that it worked.  And who knows, Elvis might not have become the phenomenon that he did…

“It’s quite possible, I mean, it was a fluke that it all happened, because that kind of music was being played all through the South East – Louisiana, Arkansas, Mississippi, Tennessee.  And a good example is Carl Perkins: we didn’t know it until years later, but Carl and I were born and raised within fourteen miles of each other, and I’m only about three, or four months older than he is.  Carl and his brothers were playing up around Jackson, Tennessee, and we called it honky-tonk music.  There were very few groups that stayed together as a unit all the time; you just got together and played what were current country hits, current pop hits, with whatever instrumentation you had.  But you had to play them all well enough for people to dance to, because that’s what you were there for.”

Did you have any writing ability, and did you ever get any chance to write songs for Elvis?

“No, I guess it just wasn’t my thing.”

I bet you wish it had’ve been…

“Well, there was a lot of money being made on the side, that’s for sure.”

This interview originally appeared in the November 1992 issue of Guitarist magazine.
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