Can't Keep a Good Man Down

By Kevin Woods

Oh how time flies. It had been 7 years since my last interview with Scotty. The first one was in 1993 and the second one was in 1997. So I figured it’s probably time once again to sit down with this great legend. Scotty and I work occasionally together with my boss, Curb recording artist, Ronnie McDowell. This interview was done at a recent gig we did together in Branson Mo. Also, we just finished cutting 14 of the old Elvis songs. Scotty mostly engineered the project, but also put his thumbprint on several of the tunes. Also on the recordings were the other original Elvis bandmates: The Jordanaires, Millie Kirkam, and D.J Fontana. I always try to soak it all in when I’m around these great American Treasures and not take it all for granite. 

Scotty underwent surgery for a subdural hemotoma several months back and it has been tough for him trying to remember the old songs and the licks, but he is coming along really well now. I recently went down to Scotty’s house from my home in Kentucky with amp guru, Bob Burriss ( Scotty wanted Bob to check out a few of his amps. And yes, he still has the Original Ray Butts amp, which was the third one made. Scotty told me that he often wondered in the last few years why the cabinet was stamped #8 instead of #3 because he knew that he had the third one made. Then he said he remembered doing a show around 1957 where the amp fell off the stage and he sent it back to Ray, which in turn put a new cabinet on it with the newer number. Do I get cold chills standing in Scotty’s house looking at him beside that amp? Oh yeah! It gets deeper.

Scotty holds one of the records from Elvis' original collection
Photo © James V. Roy

As Bob and Scotty were talking, I happened to notice a small suitcase on a top shelf. I was pretty sure I knew what was in it. I asked Scotty if I could look in it. He hesitated and then I said that I would be Very careful. He gave me the okay. What I was about to look at would be considered the Holy Grail to a lot of people. It was Elvis’ original record collection. These were many of the first records that Elvis had bought. The King of Rock ’n Rolls original record collection was in my lap! His influences! As I carefully removed the covers of these 78s I soon saw Big Mama Thorntons “Hound Dog”, “Baby Lets Play House” by Arthur Gunter as well as other noted Elvis songs that he had done sometime in his career. Elvis had given Scotty these records in the late 60’s for Scotty to put them on tape for him. There was still the 1968 Commercial Appeal Memphis newspaper in the case where they had been wrapped in when Elvis gave them to Scotty. Scotty said that when he got them from Elvis he remembered seeing him playing those particular records on his wind up record player when he use to go over to his house. 

I would like to thank Bob Burriss for making great amps and for taking time to help Scotty out with his amplification needs. On July 5th, the 50th Anniversary to the day of Elvis’ first recording of “That’s Alright Mama at Sun”, Scotty will push a button in the studio that will start playing the recording of that song which will be simulcast across the country and around the world to participating stations.

Kevin Woods: It’s been a while since our last interview, Scotty. Let’s start off by talking about some recent projects you’ve been involved in, like the Alvin Lee project.

Scotty Moore: Oh, it went very good. Alvin and his wife came over. It was actually done in two studios. We cut all the soundtracks at my house in my home studio. D. J. Fontana was on drums, Pete Pritchard was on bass. Pete lives in England and is also working a tour with Alvin this summer. Stan Dacus was the Engineer. I overdubbed on a couple of songs and put a few licks in best I could. Mostly I just sat and listened. It turned out well; I got a copy of the album.

So it sounds like it was somewhat of a departure from his Ten Years After days.

Yes it was and I think it has been a while since he’s done a project.

Scotty and Alvin Lee
Photo© courtesy P. Pritchard

Speaking of British guitarists, you just returned from a trip to England. How did that go?

That went good; I was still having some trouble with my hearing. My left ear dropped out on me. Of course, I had just got out of the hospital when I done that.

So for all our readers that may not be aware of your recent health issues, could you give us an update?

Well, the doctors claim that I bumped my head at sometime in the past. It wasn’t the brain sack that holds the brain but it was in between the sack and the brain. It was like a bleed, but it put a lot of pressure on my brain and it messed up my playing and speech, and I’m not over that yet and they said it would take at least three to six months to get it back completely and then I’ll be okay.

You could have bumped it on Bill’s upright bass when you guys were unloading the gear in the old days?

[Laughter]…I could have.

Speaking of bad timing, how about the 50th Anniversary Party at Gibson in honor of you?

Ironically, that was the night I was operated on; I didn’t get to attend the party. All reports are that it went real good; I sure am glad.

Invitation to Gibson 50th Anniversary party for Scotty

Yeah, there were a lot of people there that missed you. I know that. Referring back to your home studio when talking about Alvin earlier, you’ve added a new room and made some changes, right?

Right, it’s a small studio but I can still accommodate probably 8-10 people comfortably. It’s not a huge room, but it’s big enough for that size group. Of course, you still have the ability to overdub as much as you want to. I added a room on to the side and turned the living room into a control room because no one ever sits in the living room any more. Everybody goes to the kitchen where the food is [laughter]. So it’s working out real good, and as soon as I get my capabilities back maybe I can start doing a few things again.

In the Year 2000, we saw you get inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, which was long overdue. Did that catch you off guard?

Yeah, I’m still kind of torn because it’s strictly a political thing. As everybody knows, The Hall of Fame ceremony and performances are in New York City and the actual Hall of Fame is actually in Cleveland. And I’ve always felt kind of bad about it because all of us – Bill Black, D. J. Fontana and I, should have went in the same time Elvis did because we were a group and we weren’t just side men playing around with different people. Patsy Anderson at Graceland was probably responsible for getting me in. I know she was working on the whole group. Of course, I was the only one. But I’ve got a trophy and a jacket, if anybody wants to buy it, I’ll talk to them [laughter]. So that gives you my impression of it.

As we know, this is the 50th Anniversary of Rock and Roll. Do you have any events that you are going to be taken part of?

Yeah, there is an event coming up in Memphis where Bill Black, D.J. and I will be inducted into the N.A.R.A.s Hall of Fame.

The Memphis Music Heroes Awards?


There are also a couple of other famous guitarists that will be inducted as well that we all know, right?

Right, Ike Turner and Gatemouth Moore.

You mean, Brown, you’re Moore, right [laughter]?

[Laughter]…Yeah, Brown. I’m Moore. They’re fantastic, I’m looking forward to seeing Gatemouth; he’s a good friend.

You’ll also be playing with another good friend.

Oh yeah, Joe Louis Walker! And you’re going to be there too! Along with Wade Bernard on bass, Steve Shepherd on piano, and guess who we’re going to have singing? I think we all know him.

Oh, yeah, my boss!

Yeah, Ronnie McDowell.

As well as the 50th Anniversary of Rock and Roll this year, there is also the 40th Anniversary of the Beatles. Now you have met three of the Beatles, right?

Well before I get into that, there’s been a lot of controversy regarding the first Rock and Roll song, and I’m not going to argue the point but a lot of people think that “Rocket 88” was probably one of the first one and there’s a few other ones, “Rock Around the Clock” was a little before us. And I can’t explain it other than maybe Elvis was so different that he got a little more recognition. And, I have to say that we didn’t get along, but he had one hell of a manager [laughing].

Now back to the Beatles. Ringo, I did a session on him several years back.

You were the Engineer on that, right?

Right, I had a studio at that time. I had quite playing for about 24 years.

Was that Ringo’s first solo album?

I think so. I think that was the first thing he had done after the Beatles. I met him there and later on, within the last couple of years, D. J. and I went and had dinner with George at his house in London, and he was really a nice man.

Scotty, D.J. with Robert Plant on May 1, 1999 and George Harrison at George's home April 28, 1999

And George’s neighbor was???

[pause]…Somebody was [laughs]…

Alvin Lee!

Yeah, Alvin you’re talking about; I was thinking about the guy that broke into his house.

How about McCartney?

I met him the same year I went into the Hall of Fame. We cut the original song that we had done with Elvis, “That’s Alright Mama”. And there was another verse I had never heard that Elvis’ mother would never let him sing because it was a little risqué’, but Paul put it in there.

Did you guys ever view the Beatle’s as competition back then?

No, I was glad to see other groups doing the same stuff. I still think that with all these groups that come along, they broke away from the main line; so to speak, the producers seem to help those groups along. When we started, we had no one to say, “play this” or “sing that”. Sam Phillips was looking for something different and I was definitely looking for something different and I just wanted to play and Elvis just wanted to sing and Sam just kind of turned us loose and let us go. We tried different songs in his styles, a lot of them were Sam’s because they just naturally fell into that.

Back then recording capabilities were a lot different from today. Were you using two tracks?

Oh, mono, one track! When you got through, you were done.

So not many overdubs, huh?

No, you could overdub, but you had to transfer from one machine to another and, of course, you would lose some quality that way.

Seems like I remember hearing Elvis double his voice on one of the real early ones?

I really don’t remember, we did so many things. I can remember one thing we did, “Shake Rattle and Roll”, Elvis recorded it and wanted to put voices on it, so D. J., Bill and I and Elvis, we overdubbed the voices. That was the last and only thing I ever attempted.

Who are some of the other people you engineered over the years that people may not be aware of?

Well, there were so many. I did a bunch of demos for Dolly Parton when she was starting out. She was still in her contract with…pause…her publishing company. I can’t remember the name.

Carol Burnette?

Yeah, she was on something I did later on. I did a lot of network TV stuff. They would have several artists on those things.

You were recently reunited with an old Navy buddy, Durwood Ramsey. Was he a musician?

Durwood and I have just hooked up within the last year. We were in the Navy together. I think he said his nephew saw my name and put it all together and contacted me. I have some pictures of us together and there is a third person that neither one of us know, we can’t remember who that was; we’re still trying to find him [laughs].

Scotty and Durwood play in South Boston, VA
Photo courtesy D. Ramsey

Now he was a picker too?

Oh yeah, he’s a good player. He is several years older than I am and he’s still playing.

I hear you’re keeping up with the times and have a new Web site…

Yeah, I’ve seen it . Jim Roy from Boston is heading that up. Gail Pollock who kind of takes care of me feeds him the information.

Well, that’s a good way for your fans to keep up with what you’re doing?

Yeah, Gail does all of that. She’ll bring over a stack of stuff for me to go through, and I’ll look at it and say, “Good God almighty, I don’t believe this” [laughs]!

New guitars…you have a few new instruments. Weren’t a couple of those compliments from Gibson?

Yeah, it’s kind of funny when I quit playing, like I said 24 years and I only had one guitar and I sold it and I kept the amplifier (the original Ray Butts echo amp), I think I did two overdubs during that period of time, then when I started back playing I bought one guitar and now I’ve got about a half dozen and I can’t even keep them all strung up. Gibson gave me two L-5’s, one was their new style L-5, the body’s a lot thinner, but it’s real comfortable.

Didn’t they also give you a Tal Farlow?

A Tal Farlow model right.

Isn’t he one of your favorite players?

Ah, he sure is. I’ve always loved jazz. I can’t play it, but I really love it. I like the old style. Some of the new stuff, I don’t consider it jazz.

What are your future plans?

Well, like I said earlier, I’m still having some trouble with my hand, I haven’t got all my playing ability back and there is still some pain in my right hand. I can play rhythm real good, I just can’t remember a lot of the notes, but it’s coming back slowly, so hopefully, in a month or so I’ll be back to normal. Good Lord willing, as long as I’m able to get up and go, I love to play.

Onstage in Branson April 8, 2004
Photo © courtesy Dana McDowell

Okay, Scotty, we better get ready for our next show tonight right here in Branson and as always it’s an honor to play with you and stand up there with a part of rock and roll history. I know you guys don’t really like to be referred to as history, but it’s a good feeling and a piece of Americana and we have a blast doing it every time. So let’s go get tuned up!

Alright, Kevin, thanks a lot!

A condensed form of this interview originally appeared in VG’s August ’04 issue.
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