June 28, 2016 – Winfield Scott “Scotty” Moore III, (Elvis Presley) was born on December 27, 1931 near Gadsden, Tennessee. He learned to play the guitar from family and friends at eight years of age. Although underage when he enlisted, Moore served in the United States Navy between 1948 and 1952. Moore’s early background was in jazz and country music. A fan of guitarist Chet Atkins, Moore led a group called the “Starlite Wranglers” before Sam Phillips at Sun Records put him together with then teenage Elvis Presley. The trio was completed with bass player Bill Black, who brought a “rhythmic propulsion” that much pleased Phillips.
In 1954 Moore and Black accompanied Elvis on what would become the first legendary Presley hit, the Sun Studios session cut of “That’s All Right”, a recording regarded as a seminal event in rock and roll history.
The session, held the evening of July 5, 1954, proved entirely unfruitful until late in the night. As they were about to give up and go home, Presley took his guitar and launched into a 1946 blues number, Arthur Crudup’s “That’s All Right”. Moore recalled, “All of a sudden, Elvis just started singing this song, jumping around and acting the fool, and then Bill picked up his bass, and he started acting the fool, too, and I started playing with them. Sam, I think, had the door to the control booth open … he stuck his head out and said, ‘What are you doing?’ And we said, ‘We don’t know.’ ‘Well, back up,’ he said, ‘try to find a place to start, and do it again.'” Phillips quickly began taping; this was the sound he had been looking for. During the next few days, the trio recorded a bluegrass number, Bill Monroe’s “Blue Moon of Kentucky”, again in a distinctive style and employing a jury-rigged echo effect that Sam Phillips dubbed “slapback”. A single was pressed with “That’s All Right” on the A side and “Blue Moon of Kentucky” on the reverse.
Phillips rhythm-centered vision led him to steer Moore away from the pretty finger-picking style of Chet Atkins, which he deemed fine for pop or country, but not for the simple, gutsy sound Phillips was aiming at. “Simplify” was the keyword.
For a time, Moore served as Elvis’s personal manager. They were later joined by drummer D.J. Fontana. Beginning in July 1954, the Blue Moon Boys toured and recorded throughout the American South and, as Presley’s popularity rose, they toured the United States and made appearances in various Presley television shows and motion pictures. The Blue Moon Boys, including Moore, appear in the few 1955 home movie clips that survive of Elvis before he achieved national recognition. Moore, Black, and Fontana also appear on the Dorsey Brothers, Milton Berle, Steve Allen, and Ed Sullivan live TV shows of January 1956 to January 1957. Moore and Fontana also reunited on the 1960 Timex TV special with Frank Sinatra welcoming Elvis’s return from the Army.
Moore played on many of Presley’s most famous recordings, including “That’s All Right”, “Good Rockin’ Tonight”, “Milk Cow Blues Boogie”, “Baby Let’s Play House”, “Heartbreak Hotel”, “Mystery Train”, “Blue Suede Shoes”, “Hound Dog”, “Too Much”, “Jailhouse Rock”, and “Hard Headed Woman”. He called his solo on “Hound Dog” “ancient psychedelia”.
During the filming and recording of Loving You in Hollywood in early 1957, Moore and Black drove the boredom away by jamming with Presley in between takes, but they usually saw little of Presley, who stayed only a couple of floors away from them. They grew hurt and resentful at the separation, which they came to perceive as willfully organized.
They did not accompany Presley on the soundtrack recordings for his first movie, Love Me Tender, because 20th Century Fox had refused him to use his own band, with the excuse that they could not play country. By December 1956 they were experiencing financial difficulties, because there had been few performances since August – when there were gigs, they received $200 a week, but only $100 when there were not. Moore and his wife were forced to move in with her three sisters and brother-in-law. In an interview with the Memphis Press-Scimitar that December, they spoke about this and about their lack of contact with Presley himself. The reason for the interview was their announcement that management had given them permission to record an instrumental album of their own, which RCA would release. Such permission was needed in order to appear as a group without Presley.
During Presley’s 1957 tour of Canada, concert promoter Oscar Davis offered to represent them as his manager. Moore and Black, who had seen Presley become a millionaire while still earning $200 a week themselves, were willing to work with Davis but backing vocalists the Jordanaires were not, because they did not trust him.
Tension came to a climax right after the September 1957 sessions for Presley’s first Christmas album. Moore and Black had been promised an opportunity to cut tracks after the session, on Presley’s studio time. Yet when the session was over, they were told to pack up. That same evening, the duo wrote a letter of resignation. They had only had one raise in two years, and with the lack of personal appearances had to live off $100 a week. They also felt the Colonel was working against them. They had been denied virtually all access to Presley, and felt as if “they were no longer even permitted to talk to him.” Colonel Parker did not interfere, but RCA executive Steve Sholes, who had little regard for the ability of Presley’s band, hoped the separation would be permanent.
Back in Memphis, a journalist found out and interviewed the duo. Presley responded with a press statement wishing them good luck, saying things could have been worked out if they had come to him instead of bringing it to the press. In an accompanying interview, Presley revealed that during the last two years people had tried to convince him to get rid of his band, so from his point of view he had stayed loyal to them.
Presley was scheduled to appear in Tupelo within the next two weeks and started to audition new musicians. He performed with Hank Garland on guitar and D.J. Fontana’s friend Chuck Wiginton on bass, but despite their musical ability it didn’t feel the same to him. The week after his Tupelo engagement he hired them back on a per diem basis. In the meantime, the duo had played “a miserable two-week engagement at the Dallas State Fair”. Moore declared there were no hard feelings, though Presley himself, according to biographer Guralnick, seems to have taken a more melancholic view. One day, Guralnick writes, Presley heard “Jailhouse Rock” on the radio “and declared, ‘Elvis Presley and his one-man band,’ with a rueful shake of his head.”
Moore and the Blue Moon Boys perform (and have additional small walk-on and speaking roles) with Elvis in four of his movies (Loving You, Jailhouse Rock, King Creole, and G.I. Blues) filmed in 1957, 1958, and 1960.
Early in 1958, when Elvis was drafted, Scotty began working at Fernwood Records and produced a hit record called “Tragedy” for Thomas Wayne Perkins, brother of Johnny Cash guitarist Luther Perkins.
In 1960, Moore commenced recording sessions with Elvis at RCA, and also served as production manager at Sam Phillips Recording Service, which involved supervising all aspects of studio operation. Moore played on such Presley songs as “Fame And Fortune”, “Such A Night”, “Frankfort Special”, “Surrender”, “I Feel So Bad”, “Rock-A-Hula Baby”, “Kiss Me Quick”, “Good Luck Charm”, “She’s Not You”, “(You’re The) Devil in Disguise”, and “Bossa Nova Baby”.
In 1964, Moore released a solo album on Epic Records called The Guitar That Changed the World, using his Gibson Super 400. For this effort he was fired by Sam Phillips. Moore reunited with Fontana and Presley for the NBC television special known as the ’68 Comeback Special, again with his Gibson Super 400 which was also played by Presley. This special was the last time these musicians would play with Presley, and for Moore it was the last time he ever saw him.
Moore is given credit as a pioneer rock ‘n’ roll lead guitarist, though he characteristically downplayed his own innovative role in the development of the style. “It had been there for quite a while”, recalled Moore. “Carl Perkins was doing basically the same sort of thing up around Jackson, and I know for a fact Jerry Lee Lewis had been playing that kind of music ever since he was ten years old.” Paul Friedlander describes the defining elements of rockabilly, which he similarly characterizes as “essentially … an Elvis Presley construction”: “the raw, emotive, and slurred vocal style and emphasis on rhythmic feeling [of] the blues with the string band and strummed rhythm guitar [of] country”. In “That’s All Right”, the Presley trio’s first record, Scotty Moore’s guitar solo, “a combination of Merle Travis–style country finger-picking, double-stop slides from acoustic boogie, and blues-based bent-note, single-string work, is a microcosm of this fusion.”
Many popular guitarists cite Moore as the performer that brought the lead guitarist to a dominant role in a rock ‘n’ roll band.Although some lead guitarists/vocalists, such as Chuck Berry and blues legend BB King, had gained popularity by the 1950s, Presley rarely played his own lead while performing, instead providing rhythm guitar and leaving the lead duties to Moore. As a guitarist, Moore was a noticeable presence in Presley’s performances, despite his introverted demeanor. He became an inspiration to many subsequent popular guitarists, including George Harrison, Jeff Beck, and Keith Richards of the Rolling Stones. While Moore was working on his memoir with co-author James L. Dickerson, Richards told Dickerson, “Everyone else wanted to be Elvis—I wanted to be Scotty.”Richards has stated many times (Rolling Stone magazine, Life autobiography) that he could never figure out how to play the “stop time” break and figure that Moore plays on “I’m Left, You’re Right, She’s Gone”, and that he hopes it will remain a mystery.
As extensive as Moore’s résumé with Presley was and as well-known as his solos are, he actually contributed more to Presley’s career than is often realized. He was crucial to Presley’s early live shows and did much to help advance Elvis’ career in business capacities.For his pioneering contribution, Moore has been recognized by the Rockabilly Hall of Fame. In 2000, he was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, while Rolling Stone Magazine placed him no. 29 on the list of the 100 Greatest Guitarists of R&R.
He died on June 28, 2016 at the age of 84.