The Sun King

Once upon a time, he and a buddy named Elvis made music history at Sun Studios in Memphis .  Now after more than two decades of silence, Scotty Moore returns to rock all our blues away.
By Pete Cronin

It’s hotter than hell in Nashville today, but it doesn’t bother Scotty Moore.  A lifelong Southerner, the 61 year old guitarist shrugs off the weather with and Arthur Godfrey-like chuckle, then stops short.  “Shoot, I gotta cut that daing grass!” he says, laughing himself into a cough.  In a perfect world, the guy who served as six-string midwife to the birth of rock and roll and helped launch one of the fantastically successful and influential music careers ever would have someone else doing his yard work.  But almost 40 years down the road, with no visible trace of bitterness and with a dry sense of humor still fully intact (even in this humidity), Scotty sums up the music business the way he always has: “If you can make a living, you’re lucky”.
As Elvis Presley’s guitarist/true friend/musical soul mate and first professional manager, Scotty made a pretty good living for awhile there, from the mid-Fifties well into the Sixties.  In the beginning, back in 1954, Scotty’s “honky-tonk” experience (heck, he’d played all around Memphis with Doug Poindexter’s Starlite Wranglers, for God’s sake) and calm business savvy were invaluable in getting the young, inexperienced singer’s career off the ground and keeping it on course, while his impossibly inspired, seat-of-the-pants guitar blasts helped Presley rearrange the squeaky-clean face of American music.
As Scotty knows better than anyone, the story’s been told a million times.  He and Sam Phillips have been arguing for decades about what happened when, but both agree that magic went down that night in 1954 when Elvis, Scotty and bassist Bill Black, nearing the end of a frustrating session at Phillips’s Sun Studios in Memphis, flew into a hopped-up version of one of their favorite tunes by the blues man Arthur “Big Boy” Crudup.  Fortunately, Phillips had good ears, and knew enough to egg the trio on and hit the “record” button.  The song he captured on tape, “That’s All Right, Mama,” was soon a regional hit that sent Elvis, Scotty and Bill out on the road for an endless series of one-nighters that would turn them into the band that changed the world.
Out on the road, Scotty was “the old man.”  He got the band out of bed and down to the radio station for the interviews (“Elvis was a slooow starter in the morning”) drove the car (“…my wife’s brand new, ’54 Belair Chevrolet.), packed the instruments (“Heck, nobody else could do it!”), and collected the cash after every gig.  Even after Bob Neal took over as manager in 1955, Scotty was still the one that kept it together on the road.
Until Presley exploded nationally in ’56, the trio traveled the South and Southwest relentlessly, playing everything from high school gyms to roadhouse to flatbed trucks to parking lots, usually provided with nothing more than one vocal microphone and a public address system that would make a Sixties-vintage Shure Vocal Master seem high-tech.  To this day, Scotty just can’t get used to stage monitors.
Col. Tom Parker took over the show in ’56, and things slowly began to change for Presley’s band members.  Scotty saw his share of the creative and financial pie getting smaller as Elvis got farther into bad movies and farther away from good music.  Disenchanted, the guitarist began spending more time in Memphis and Nashville.  Contrary to popular belief, however, Presley’s ’68 TV special was not a comeback for Scotty.  He’d been playing regular studio dates with Elvis right up until that time.  The difference was in Presley, who seemed rarely to concentrate on making real music again.
“That TV special was fun,” Scotty says.  “We went out to the house to see the baby [Lisa] for the first time, and he asked me, ‘Could you block out your studio for a week, and all of us get in there like we used to, and see what we come up with?’ He also wanted to do a European tour, but those things never happened.”
Shortly thereafter, when the King went to conquer Vegas, Scotty was invited along, but he passed.  Who could blame him? He’d already managed to get himself off the fastest, wildest ride the music business had ever seen, and was real hesitant to jump back on.  With all the studio work in Nashville, hell, he’d make money staying home.
And that’s exactly what Scotty Moore did.  He stayed in Nashville and worked sessions (mostly as an engineer), owned a couple of small record companies over the years and bought a tape duplication business, which he just recently sold.  In the time between the ’68 comeback special and last year’s release of The Complete ‘50s Masters, RCA’s lovingly compiled box set collection of Presley’s pre-Sixties’ sides, Scotty did only a few interviews and barely played a lick.
When we last spoke, he was getting ready to leave for Europe to play his first gigs in 24 years, and he was feeling more than a little apprehensive about the whole affair (“I gotta relearn this stuff!”).  Now, a year later, Scotty looks relaxed and rejuvenated by two trips overseas to play rock and roll with “some of the old guys,” including Presley-drummer D.J. Fontana.  He’s also getting back into the record business, resurrecting his Belle Meade label and releasing a Scotty Moore/Carl Perkins collaborative effort recorded last year and a solo album (“I basically cleaned off the shelf”), along with projects by guitarists Chip Young and Thom Bresh.
Overall, Scotty seems gratified, somewhat perplexed and even a little exasperated by the overwhelming adoration shown him by European fans.  (“Sometimes they ask me the same questions over and over, and I just want to scream!”) But the endless interviews have served to hone his memory, and he seems like a man who’s come to terms with his indelible place in rock and roll history.
Sitting in air-conditioned comfort in his untucked, loose-fitting, tropical-weather sports shirt, his now-ample frame overflowing his folding chair, chain-smoking Viceroys and Travis-picking on his Gibson Chet Atkins guitar, Scotty Moore offhandedly demonstrates that, as a musical force and as a player, he never really went away.  Throwing his thumb over the neck, he snaps the low E-string and climbs into his solo from “That’s All right,” looking up with a crafty smile and that same old twinkle in his eye.  

Country Guitar: Scotty, you didn’t play guitar for 24 years.  What made you want to pick it up again?

Scotty Moore: Well, Carl Perkins and I did that album last year [706 ReUnion (Belle Meade Records)], and that was a lot of fun. We’d never done anything together before except the “EP Express” [single released on Polygram in 1975, re-recorded for 706 ReUnion ], and that was only one song.  Then I did a show in Memphis last year during Memorial week.  It was Carl, Ronnie McDowell, D.J. [Fontana] and myself, and the Jordanaires.  I guess that just kind of set the pace.

How does it feel after so long?

One day I’ll pick the guitar up, boy, and it’s just as fluid as water, and I think, “Lord, let me find a recorder quick,” you know? [laughs] Then I may go a week and every notes a chore.  My fingers are stiff because I’ve got arthritis now, so it takes a little longer to get in the groove.  But I’ll tell you what I’m having to do that I don’t want to do is go back and relearn what I played on the early sessions.  I’ve been doing shows with the [Elvis] fan clubs overseas and I want to do something new, but if I went over there and played some instrumental or something, they’d throw rocks at me. [laughs]

Is that frustrating for you?

Well, the fans over there are just wonderful, so it’s worth doing it for them.  They’ll come up to me after a show – people my age and older – and they’ll have their grandkid with ‘em that’s an Elvis fan already.  Their hands will be shaking, tears rolling down their faces, and they’ll say, “I’ve waited 30 years just for this, just to meet somebody that was so close to Elvis.” I’m still in awe of it.  It’s hard.  Over there, they’re really not that much into that stuff from Vegas on.  After doing this for the past year, I’ve come to the conclusion that its not so much him as it is the music.  When Elvis talked about that European tour, he had a sense.  He knew.  I knew how bad he wanted to tour over there, and I feel like I’m somehow doing something that he never got to do.

You were a professional musician before you ever played with Elvis.  When did you actually start playing?

I had a little group when I was in the Navy.  We were putting a ship out of commission in Bremerton, Washington.  I run into two other guys who played steel and rhythm guitar, so we formed a little trio—basically country.  I went up to the radio station and got us a Saturday morning, 15-minute gig.  That would have been late ’49 or ’50.  Time has erased the names of the others, but I remember the radio station was KBRO.

What kind of guitar did you play then?

We were buying Japanese guitars, electrics with frets made out of real soft material.  They’d wear out in, like, three months, so I bought a Fender Esquire in ’52.  Then I saw one of those Gibson ES-295’s with the gold hardware, and I said, “Wow!” So I got one of those, and that’s what I had when I started cutting with Elvis.

Tell me about your first guitar.

One of my brothers gave me a Kalamazoo flat-top.  I have three brothers and I got the bug from them, I guess.  Then, all of a sudden, they all moved away from home.  I remember my brother showed me one chord, just a good ol’ long-handle A chord, where you catch the A position with the little finger.  I was maybe 12 by then, and I remember thinking, “That’s the most beautiful chord I’ve ever heard.  When I was about 15, I decided I was going to quit school, and my dad said, “All right, but you’re gonna work.”  He gave me an acre plot of cotton for my own.  When the harvest came at the end of that year, I bought a big, jumbo Gibson flat-top guitar.  Cost every penny I made.  Then one of my brothers, when he was fixin’ to go in the service, gave me a beautiful, brand-new Silvertone Gene Autry model.  Actually, he conned my ass and said, “I don’t want to take this on the ship, salt water and everything.  Let me trade you.”  Of course, I didn’t know until years later that he got the best deal! [laughs] I’ve never let him forget it, either.

You put a band together when you got to Memphis called “The Starlite Wranglers.”  Was that a country band?

We called ourselves a country band, but it was more what I would term honky-tonk.  We’d play clubs, whatever was popular on the jukebox.  Somebody would make a request, and if all you could remember was a few notes of the damn song from when you heard it on the radio, you’d just flub through the chords, try to get the beat, and just don’t stop. [laughs]  A lot of country songs had steel guitar, so if there wasn’t a steel on the gig, I’d do the slide with my fingers on the minor chords and catch the volume control, just do the wah, wah, wah with the little fills.  I’d imitate it well enough to where people would say, “Yeah, all right!”

What was going through your head when you came up with the guitar part to “That’s All Right”?

On the lead, I was thinking about horns, like a horn riff.  I was a fan of Merle Travis—I’d never seen him, but I’d heard the records.  I sat at home and listened to how him and Chet [Atkins] did the thumb and finger stuff—I could tell it was the thumb they were using.  Up until then I’d been playing straight pick, so when we did “That’s All Right,” I started doing it that way.  But it needed more rhythm.  I must have had the thumbpick in my pocket from when I was playing at home, so I started doing the finger thing and putting these little stab notes in.

By the time Elvis had those first sessions at Sun, did you feel pretty confident about your playing?

No! Lord, no.  I hated most of the stuff I was doing, ‘cause I was trying to play something I wasn’t schooled in.  It was a challenge playing the thumb-and-finger stuff and trying to play fills; I was stretched to the limit.  For the most part, if someone asks me to go back and play it note for note, I can’t do it.  We were just jamming, but I would always try to find something that would accent the singer of the song.  We were experimenting.  Make more noise, that was the whole thing.  That was one reason we were always in open keys; it was easier to get rhythm using the open strings.  I was pushed into the Merle thing because it needed more rhythm.  Some of those riffs may have come, like, after 10 takes, when I was just burnt out with it.  Finally, you just get so frustrated and mad, and it was just “Dammit, take that one!” [laughs]

What was Elvis like as a guitar player?

He wasn’t accomplished, but he played good, solid rhythm.  He’d break strings all the time.  In the early days he’d just keep beatin’ on it until we got through the set.  Not like now where you’ve got three or four guitars sittin’ there.  Feel was the most important thing in everything I ever did with Elvis.  If he missed something, he might stop, but if but if somebody hit a bad note or something, and the thing felt good to him, he didn’t bother with it unless it was a real bus wreck. [laughs]

When Elvis appeared at the Grand Ole Opry in 1955 (54), he was not all that well received.  What was that like?

The Opry crowd was polite.  They didn’t boo, hiss or anything.  They didn’t jump up and down in their seats, but they didn’t do that for anybody.  But Elvis was disappointed.  It was a big thing to be on the Grand Ole Opry stage.  That was a week or two before we did the Louisiana Hayride, and I remember Bill [Black] and I saying, “What are we gonna do now? This is it, as high as you can go.”  We just went out and did our regular thing.  We only did two numbers, ‘cause that was all we had, two sides of the record.  I guess “Blue Moon of Kentucky” was what got him on at the Opry, ‘cause it was a country song.  I think a lot of it was that the crowds at the Opry weren’t from here in town, and the records hadn’t gotten out further.  Only a handful of people on that given night had heard it.  But he went over big at the Louisiana Hayride.

On the Fifties box set, there’s a live version of the original trio performing [Chuck Berry’s] “Maybellene” at the Hayride in 1955.  It’s clear that you used a slap back echo on your guitar.  How’d you pull that off?

Sam Phillips used the slapback tape delay on “That’s All right” and “Blue Moon,” and others.  He had two tape machines—he’d cut it straight and transfer it to get the slapback.  I remember thinking, “If we get a job somewhere, how’m I gonna get that sound onstage?”  It was about that time I heard Chet Atkins get that effect.  With us, the echo effect was on the whole record, but here came Chet, and it was just on the guitar. So I just checked up on it, and found out he used a custom-made amp with a tape loop built in, made by a guy named Ray Butts up in Cairo, Illinois.  So I got in touch with him and ordered the amp.  It’s called the EchoSonic.  He wouldn’t sell it on time, so the music store in Memphis bought it and put it in the payments for me.  It was like $498, which was heavy duty back then,  Mine was the third one ever made. [laughs]  The first record I ever cut with that amp was “Mystery Train”.

Did you get to jam much with other musicians on the road?

Once in awhile we’d get to jam backstage, or if we were out there making a movie for a few weeks somebody might come by and jam a little bit.  I know Ricky Nelson used to come up and, I think [Nelson’s guitarist], Fred Carter—this was before James Burton played with Ricky.  It was funny, but Ricky wouldn’t bug Elvis.  He’d come up and hang around with the band.  He was a nice guy.  In fact he tried to hire the whole bunch of us but I think his daddy stepped in.  They had guys already living out there that they’d just call when they needed them for a TV episode.  They would’ve had to pay us a lot more.

With Elvis’ music so dependent, as you say, upon feel, was it strange when it came to playing for his movies?

Yeah, ‘cause we didn’t read, and they started pulling out all these charts.  We were afraid we were gonna get caught up in this thing where it had to be right down to the cat’s whisker because it was gonna be tied to the film, but we always kept it loose.  We did the first recording, and Walter Scharf, who scored the thing, brought the score back and showed us.  He had every drum beat, every guitar beat—the page was just black! [laughs] Eventually, Elvis gave up as far as the music they wanted him to do was concerned.  There might be one song in each picture that he really liked, but he hated all of it, just about.  Mostly, he’d say, “Come on, guys.  Let’s do this piece of shit, and get it over with.”

Did that have something to do with your decision to put the guitar down?

To be very honest with you, it was a disappointment.  When he did the ’68 special, I had the studio here, Music City recorders, and D.J. and the Jordanaires had been doing sessions here around town.  Elvis was through with all the movie contracts, and we did this in-the-round jam session.  It was great, because he was as much like he was in the early days as I’d ever seen him.  He was relaxed, he looked good and he was full of devilment.  We went for dinner out to his house in Belair, and when we were done eating, he called D.J. and I into another room and said, “How would you guys like to do a European tour?”  I said, “Great, fantastic.”  Elvis said, “Ever since I was over there in the army, I’ve really wanted to do one.”  Then he turned to me and said, “You still got your studio?  Do you think it would be possible for us to go in and just lock up for about a week and see what we come up with?”  I said, “Sure.”  The next thing I knew the call came asking me to go to Vegas.  We all got together and figured it up, and the money they were offering for a week was like one day’s work for a session.  It was strictly economic.  We had to turn it down, and that’s what made me hang it up.

As far as your guitar playing is concerned, have you ever had any regrets over the years?

If I’d had the chance and had a little more training, I’d have liked to get a little more into jazz.  With the thumb-and-finger thing, I felt like I got cheated.  I was listening to jazz guys like Tal Farlow and Johnnie Smith, and I was starting to absorb and get a feel for the jazz-type things.  But I lost it somewhere along the way because I was forced into the thumb and finger style.  You get into a rut playing the same thing night after night.  I finally resigned myself with, “Okay, you wanted to play music, you’re at least making a living, so shut up and pick.” [laughs] But there’s still that desire.  Jazz is all I listen to, basically.  Somebody recently asked me, “What would your druthers be now?”  I said I’d like to go to Paris and just set there and play blues every night, and drink some good Bordeaux wine.

Any sage advice for up-and-coming players.

It all depends on how determined you are, but keep your day job. [laughs] And don’t go in the water until you learn how to swim.  As soon as you learn the basic chords, get a good teacher and try to learn everything.  It’s all been done; it’s just the way you put the notes together.  You’ll find your own groove, something you can do better than others.  From a learning standpoint, if I was starting over, I’d probably study classical.  Hopefully that would help me play other things I wanted to play.

What about the future for Scotty Moore?

What I really want to do is work on this record label, and I’d like to play with a lot of different guitar players, some of the greats, maybe.  Unless this arthritis gets too bad, I plan to keep on playin’…

This interview originally appeared in the Winter 1994 issue of Country Guitar magazine


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