The King’s man: Scotty Moore has his day in the Sun

By Mark Guarino

Scotty Moore is in the history books as rock’s first lead guitarist, a crown he’s modestly worn since he and bassist Bill Black first backed up an awkward young singer named Elvis Presley in 1954 and stayed with him off and on until 1968. Although he is known as the man who auditioned Presley in his own living room before bringing him into Sun Studios for sessions the next day, Moore’s playing style is his true legacy. His energetic riffs, rich tones and sharp solos on those essential sessions set the vocabulary for every guitarist to plug in after him. As the title of own 1964 solo album proclaimed, Moore played the “guitar that changed the world.”   

He also was famously muscled out of the picture by Colonel Parker, Presley’s strongarming manager, in an attempt to shield Presley from his early associates. To make things worse, Moore received zero remuneration from RCA when the company began issuing every Presley outtake it could find that Moore played on in its vault.    

After his days with the King in the studio and through his movie period, Moore retreated to Nashville where he ran a recording studio and put down his guitar for almost 25 years. In 1997 he hooked up with Sun drummer D.J. Fontana (also a part of the group) for “All the King’s Men,” an Elvis tribute album with Jeff Beck, Keith Richards, Cheap Trick and others. He was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2000. This winter, he and Fontana were seen in a PBS documentary on Sun’s legacy, performing “That’s All Right” — the first Presley single — with Paul McCartney.   

Thanks to the coaxing of former Stray Cats bassist Lee Rocker, a new generation now has a chance to see Moore perform on stage once again. The 70-year-old played sporadic dates with Rocker over the past decade but this time they’re on a full-fledged tour which they plan to record for a future live album. “He’s probably the most influential guitar player of the last 50 years,” Rocker said last week. “The general public always looks to the singer, so I’m so glad he’s in the hall of fame.”   

Moore talked from his home in Nashville about his life with and without Elvis. 

Q: Is this the first tour you’ve done in a long time?

A: I do in all, usually two or three shows at a time. This will be a little hectic since we’re going to do seven shows in nine days. I’ll find out then if there’s any stamina left. One thing I’m proud of is how music has held up for a long period of time.

Q: Where did you first learn how to play?

A: My three brothers and my dad all played string instruments. But there’s a 14-year difference between me and the next brother up the line. By the time I was 19 years old, everyone had gotten married or gone off into the service and my dad was too old and didn’t want to mess with it any more. I guess I felt I missed out on something (laughs). I was determined.

Q: Did you know then that music was what you wanted to do or did you think it would just be a hobby?

A: I went into Navy in ‘48 and learned a little bit, just played it by ear. When I was in the service I listened to jazz and made up my mind I’m going to play and was going to have a band. I wasn’t interested in trying to sing. I just wanted a band. That was my goal.

Q: Your playing on those early Sun sessions was later hailed for melding country and blues influences together for the first time. What were your influences?

A: Any record that had a guitar on it, I liked it. Back then the disc jockeys — I don’t expect they called them disc jockeys — they played records but wouldn’t say who the artists were. I wouldn’t know until years later who the musicians where. I stored all this stuff in my little data bank. When I started with (Elvis), I tried to play something that fit the song and that’s what came out.

Q: Were you aware you were making history? 

A: I don’t know. I read a lot of stuff but I didn’t know what they were saying (laughs). Space has a lot to say, it’s not a matter of playing notes. In fact, I don’t think I can play you a scale without making a mistake the first time through it today. I wasn’t interested in how many notes or how fast you can play. I just loved the sound of the guitar. Sometimes I found a new chord, I’d stumble on it and go “oh boy and play that for a few minutes.” I just liked the sound and then try to find things to use that with.

Q: Later in the ’60s, guitarists did everything they could to fill up space. What was your impression with how rock guitar progressed?

A: When I first heard (psychedelic music) I thought “my God what is going on?” I think it was inevitable when you’re young. These young guys, they try to play everything in four bars. There are some great players that come out of all that and they all mellowed out over the years.

Q: Did you have any favorites?

A: Jeff Beck was one of them. There are so many I met over the years. Jazz is still my favorite listening music, the old guys like Johnny Smith, Wes Montgomery, where they played the melody for awhile before they got nuts with it.

Q: Before you met Elvis, what kind of career did you expect you’d have?   

A: I honestly didn’t know other that I knew I could play clubs. When I got of the Navy in ’52, I played for six months around weekends with different people. Nobody had a band. Somebody would go out and book a gig and go see who was free and they’d go hire different musicians. They had the darndest concoctions like harmonica and a trumpet. But as long as you played the top ten stuff and especially if you played stuff that people could dance to, that was fine. But I still wanted to get a group of guys to stay together and play together all the time. The Starlite Wranglers I called them. I had a Hank Williams-type singer back in those days. I aimed for country western because that seemed to be the easiest route at the time to get some bookings. The next thing I got a radio show for us, booked a couple of clubs. The next thing was to get a record and that’s how I met (Sun owner Sam Phillips) and all the other stuff started happening.    

Q: Did you start seeing the white audiences showing interest in R&B as well?   

A: They loved the songs. That was the sad part of it. None of the black bands were playing white venues. But (the audience) loved the music and heard it on the radio. White guys like us, we would play it and they would love it.   

Q: When Phillips asked you to audition Elvis, what did you expect would come out of it?   

A: I did like a pre-audition with him at my house the day before we went to the studio. He impressed me for knowing so many songs. He seemed like he knew every song in the world, all different kinds. He couldn’t play the guitar but he had a great sense of rhythm in his voice. I noticed that. But my little experience with (the Starlite Wranglers) was, we didn’t have any original material and had to get a couple of originals songs before we could get a record out. So I learned my lesson. I told Sam, “he’s young, has a good voice, but he doesn’t have any original material.” Sam said, “well, you and Bill (Black) come in and I’ll call him and we’ll just see what he sounds like on tape.” It wasn’t a session, it was an unofficial audition. But it ended up that the first side came up out of that audition.   

Q: How did that happen?   

A: We put down several different songs and recorded it and Sam would play them back. Some were ballads, some of them were medium tempo. Heck, we were just about ready to call it quits for that night and go on home and Elvis started singing this song (Arthur “Big Boy” Crudup’s “That’s All Right”). It was his nervous energy. I never heard the song, Bill hadn’t either. But it was recorded by one of Sam’s R&B artists. To this day I don’t know if Elvis was trying to impress Sam by singing the song.    

Q: You played with Elvis until 1968. Did you feel the music he recorded until his death in 1977 lost the quality of those original Sun sessions?   

A: I don’t know if quality would be the right word. It became more pat. He didn’t take chances like he did in the early days with songs. After he got the bigger band, he had to have arrangements. Whereas the smaller group, four or five of us, we could do anything. We were free to come up with our own stuff and that’s what I missed later on. I didn’t hear it in his voice. He was pushing, straining. He couldn’t fight against the (bigger) band. My favorite stuff was in New York on “Elvis 56” (RCA). He was, well we were all in top form at that point.   

A: A lot has been written about Colonel Parker. And how he worked to separate Elvis from his original friends and associates.  

Q: No question about it.    

A: And you were Elvis’ first manager before he stepped in. Did Parker’s influence make you leave the group?   

A: Not really. That was really an underlying thing. When he came into the picture, that was the first thing he was trying to do. To get Bill and D.J. out of the picture. He didn’t want anyone around that he thought might influence him in any way.    

Q: Were you aware that was the case or did you blame Elvis?   

A: I thought (it was Parker) right from the start. Elvis was like younger brother. A lot of things Parker was doing was good, then a lot of things he was doing weren’t good. Elvis would come to me and talk about it. He’d say “the Colonel wants me do so and so” and I’d say “stand up to him and tell him you don’t want to do it and try to work it out.” And he’d say, “no, we have a deal. I’ll stick to my side.” It was that kind of thing. I think he felt dejected, I guess. He went along with the program.    

Q: As if he wasn’t in control of his own life.   

A: He died a teenager. He never grew up. He didn’t know the value of money. He came from a dirt poor family. His daddy on the other hand, once he started making money, his daddy started being the opposite. He was too tight with the money. Then of course Elvis would buck him and spend twice as much. What would you have done in that situation when you have all the money in the world? That’s why I say you have to put yourself in his shoes and see how you’d be when you have twenty guys around you telling yourself how great you are 24 hours a day. It starts off innocently enough. It did with Elvis. He had his high school buddies and stuff. He was a little bit younger than me, four years, and I had already been married, been in the Navy, been to China. I understood he wanted to be with somebody from his neighborhood. He just got bigger and bigger and bigger and then people he didn’t even know started showing up. He just didn’t have the heart to do anything about it.   

Q: What ultimately made you quit in 1968?   

A: We did the “1968 comeback” (TV) special. I had a studio in Nashville and was engineering and it was like the peak time for Nashville before they got 4,000 studios. All the musicians could work three or four session a day. The Jordanaires alone had 40 sessions on the books. Management called and said Elvis is going to Las Vegas for two weeks. What they offered for a week, everybody was making more for a day here. It just became a bottom line.    

Q: So why did you stop playing guitar to work on the other side of the glass?   

A: I thought that was the end of that situation as far as I was concerned. He already hired another band. And then I found out how much he was paying (Moore’s replacement) and thought, “you dirty rat.” The heck with it, I had more here to do in the studio. Later on, I started a commercial printing business and a tape duplicating company. I did that for 24 years.   

Q: I know you weren’t compensated for sessions RCA later released.   

A: The outtakes. We were paid for the sessions, at whatever scale was at the time, we all got paid for that. I guarantee you if (Elvis) was alive something would be done about it. I appealed with the union but the union caved in to BMG/RCA.    

Q: What prompted you pick up the guitar after all those years?   

A: I guess I give most credit to Carl Perkins and some to Chet Atkins. Chet gave me a guitar in 1988. I wasn’t playing then. He had been by my office and there was a microphone on my desk I was using as a paperweight. He asked, “does that mic work there” and I said, “I don’t know, the cord has been cut off.” He said, “I’d like to have one those in my home studio.” When he got ready to leave, I handed it to him and said, “here, put a chord on it and if it works, feel free to use it.” A few months he came by with prototype of the Gibson Country Gentleman he designed. I started playing it around in the office. I ran into Carl and we talked about how we never recorded together. We finally did in January, 1992, we cut a CD. Then that August he got me to go to Memphis with him. He was doing Elvis Week. I walked onstage and did a few Elvis songs with him.   

Q: Did you have to go back and relearn all your parts?   

A: I don’t try to redo every song, it’s impossible. But I’m really enjoying it. I keep telling people that I’ve got 24 years to catch up on, so move over, get away (laughs)! And I don’t have much time to do it in either!

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