‘Elvis Presley, what kind of damn name is that?’
An interview with legendary guitarist Scotty Moore
By E.C. Gladstone
Scotty Moore should need no introduction. Unfortunately, his name is hardly well known, though his music is among the most popular around the world. How? Because Moore, one of the “three wise men” of rock and roll, if you will, was the guitarist on the earliest, and best, Elvis Presley records, including those originally credited to “Elvis Scotty & Bill” or “the Blue Moon Boys”: “That’s Alright. Mama,” “Blue Moon,” “Mystery Train,” “Good Rockin’ Tonight” “Blue Suede Shoes” “Don’t Be Cruel,” “Hound Dog,” “Jailhouse Rock”…yes, all of these, and a lot more.
In fact, it wouldn’t be hard to argue that without a Scotty Moore, there wouldn’t be an Elvis Presley. Back in 1954, Moore (already a Korean war Navy vet) was playing semi-professionally for the Starlite Wranglers, who recorded for Sun at the Memphis Recording Service, when the subject of “an interesting boy singer” came up in conversation with Sam Phillips and his secretary Marion Keisker. Even lesser known is the fact that Moore was also Presley’s first manager, as detailed in his recently published memoir That’s Alright, Elvis. But we’ll let Scotty tell the story…
At 75, with notable successes as a label owner and producer also to his credit (not to mention sigcant work with Jerry Lee Lewis, Carl Perkins and others) Moore is still active, playing around the world and enjoying his rare “living legend” status (not only is he in the Rock N Roll Hall of Fame, but almost every other guitarist there owes him a huge debt). Rhino.com caught up to him at the 5th Annual Ponderosa Stomp Festival in downtown Memphis, TN, right where the whole thing started.
Scotty, let’s start with the obvious. Elvis, Scotty and Bill were put together by Sam Phillips, right?
“There’s a couple of different sides to that, that I wasn’t privy to. I didn’t know that he [Elvis] had been there [Memphis Recording Service.] before, the stuff with Marion, all this came out later. But when I did the first [Starlight Wranglers] record I became good friends with Sam. That record probably sold 8 copies, but we became good friends. And the job I had, I’d go by Sun in the afternoon, and if he wasn’t recording anybody, we’d go next door to Miss Taylor’s restaurant, drink coffee and just chit-chat about the business in general.
So you always had an interest in the business side of things as well (Moore later had success as a label owner, producer, and studio manager)?
“Oh yeah. Right. And actually Marion Keisler, she was having coffee with us one day and she turned to Sam and said ‘What about that boy that was in here ‘couple weeks ago? Did you ever call him?’ Because she had actually cut the demo acetate on Elvis. She was struck by it. And he said, ‘No I never did.’ But I hadn’t heard the [boy’s] name. This went on about 2 weeks, every time I’d go by, I’d say ‘Ever talk to that boy you was talking about ?’ No. And then about two weeks, ‘What about the boy?’ Still hadn’t heard his name. And he said to Marion, ‘Go get that guy’s telephone number,’ and he turned to me and said, ‘listen to him and tell me what you think.’ I looked at the paper and said ‘Elvis Presley, what kind of damn name is that?’ [laughs]
“That’s the first time I’d heard his name. This would’ve been the 3rd of July. The 4th was on Sunday, and we actually cut on the 5th. So I went home and called him, and his mother said ‘he’s not here but when he gets in I’ll have him call.you.’ Which he did, and I asked him to come over to my house. He came over to my house on Sunday, and it seemed like he knew every song in the world. I’d name things, do me a country song, do me a pop song, whatever you’d want to name. Bill Black [Starlite Wranglers bassist] lived just a few doors down from me at the time. And he came down and listened. And after Elvis left, Bill came back down and I said ‘What’d you think about him?’ And he said ‘Well, he’s got real good meter.’ That’s what really impressed both of us.
By ‘meter’ you mean… a sense of rhythm?
“Sense of rhythm. He’d sing a song, he’d quit playing and sing it and come back in and it was perfect, every time. So Bill said, he’s got good timing, and I said, yeah he does. That’s what our impression was. That’s about all that was said. And I called Sam and told him, ‘knows all the songs, got good timing.’ And he said ‘I’ll call him and see if he’ll come in tomorrow night, Monday. Can you and Bill come in?’
“Now, tape recording was very new at that time. You had disc machines and stuff. He said ‘I want to hear what he sounds like on tape, and I just want a little music behind him to see what he sounds like.’ So Bill and I went on Monday night, worked 2-3 hours, same old deal, say ‘you know so-and-so [song],’ and I guess it was around 9:30, it was getting time to get home ‘cause Bill and I had to go to work the next day. I was working as a hatter at my brother’s cleaning plant, University Park Cleaners. Blocking hats, cleaning ‘em. I think I had already pulled my guitar case over and was starting to put my guitar in it, and Elvis stood up and started slapping his guitar and singing “That’s All Right.”
“Now I don’t know to this day—of course, Sam had released this song before on [Arthur] Crudup [editor’s note: actually, Crudup recorded the song in the ‘40s for RCA] and Elvis knew the song. Now whether he was trying to impress Sam, it was never mentioned. I hadn’t heard it, Bill had never heard it. Sam stuck his head out the door, the door was cracked open, he said ‘What’s that you guys are doin’?’ We said, ‘just goofing around,’ and he said, ‘well everybody get back on mic, let me hear a little bit more. With about three or four takes, that was the first record.
Other than that, what’s your favorite memory of Elvis?
“Oh, I don’t think I could break it down to just one. See, when he was onstage, it was really a joke to him, too. It really was.
You know, I’ve noticed when you look at the old films from ’56, he’s cracking up.
“He’s cracking up! I’d have to go back to…the first thing we played before a live audience was at the Overton Park Band Shell [in Memphis]. There was always ‘extra guests’ [on the shows] and Bob Neal put us on there. And there was several little girls sitting in the front row. We only did two songs, maybe three. If you’ve ever played guitar, try playing rhythm, raising up on the balls of both your feet, in the big britches that they had back in those days, and see what happens. It tore those girls up. They thought he was doing it on purpose [the hip wiggling]. But he was a great learner, anything you’d do, he’d pick up on
Both of those stories, about ‘That’s All Right,’ and the hip wiggling, really point to the fact that Elvis was a very ad-lib type of musician and performer.
“Yeah. He didn’t talk a lot on stage, either. But he’d do little things. I think he thought if all of those little girls laughed, well he’d do it again. Never planned anything.
[A fan interrupts the interview to confirm what a website had said was their first professional gig]
“There was a nightclub in Memphis, out on Summer Avenue–the Holiday Inn was there–where the highway turns, called the Bonaire club.
[The website says something different]
“Well, he wasn’t there… It wasn’t the first professional thing, it was a club, but it wasn’t the first live audience. We took [the gig] to see how the crowd was going to react to him. See I had the other thing, Starlight Wranglers, and the reason we quit that is because, see it was just me and Bill that backed up Elvis on the record. And we went out there and played one night, I think it was only two or three times we played there, and Bill said ‘wait a minute, this ain’t working out, all the rest of the guys [in the Wranglers] get a break, and I’m playing through the breaks.’ That’s why we quit that.
Your book says right in the subtitle that you were not only Elvis’ first guitarist, but also manager, something not a lot of people know. How did that come about?
“How that came about, [after] we did the first record, Bill, myself and Elvis were down the studio one day, and Elvis mentioned to Sam ‘All these people are calling me asking questions and I don’t know what to say, I don’t know how to handle it.’ And it was actually Sam’s idea, he said, Scotty, why don’t you sign a contract with Elvis, so he won’t be lying, a legit contract, so that when people ask him something, he can tell them ‘Talk to my manager.’ And I did, I had a one page contract drawn up for one year, and that’s how all that came about. And then Bob Neal, who was a disc jockey here in Memphis, and had been booking him in some clubs around here [Memphis], he became the second manager before Parker.
So the burning question I’ve always wanted to ask you: which was a harder boss to work for, the US Navy or Col. Tom Parker?
“Well, Parker didn’t like me and and I didn’t like him, from day one. ‘Cause I could see straight through what he was. He was just an old carny man, knew the business, knew how to deal with people to get what he wanted. He did a lot of good things for Elvis, and he did a lot of bad things too, as we know.
Now, the ELVIS TV special in 1968 [a/k/a ’68 Comeback], that was the last time you worked with him I believe. Because you had gone off and done a bunch of other things, record labels and engineering…
“Yeah, especially when he started his movie thing. He didn’t do anything but movies for a long time. And he was very nervous when he did that TV special. That’s why they wanted to get all the old guys, DJ and myself, back out there. And he had a couple of other guys who had been traveling with him also sitting there. That was just strictly for him. But after he did that first song, it come back real quick, and next thing, he stood up. See, we were supposed to be sitting down, nobody had guitar straps or anything. And he stood up, put his foot on the chair—you remember ? The next thing, he looked over, and I think it probably dawned on him, ‘Hell, that guitar’s plugged into the amplifier, you can hear him.’ That’s when he took my guitar! [laughs] If you look at it close, you’ll see the look I made on him too!
You’re looking like ‘Uh, okay?”
Was that a fun moment?
“Yeah, it really was, ‘cause it was good for him. He’d been tired of the movies for a long time, but there again, Parker would sign the contracts on him. It just got to be junk, let’s face it.
Just one more question, as a guitarist, who are your favorite guitar players?
“Gosh, I got so many I don’t know…
Who influenced you coming up?
“Well, actually, when I started playing, see, the records, everybody that was playing guitar on ‘em was fine, but I didn’t know who they were. Les Paul and Chet Atkins were the only two that I can really remember where you’d see their names. On a lot of other records with guitar players on them, you didn’t know who they were. So I just picked up bits and pieces from different ones and tried to incorporate it, I guess.
And I bet you never knew that there were two or three of Les Paul [with overdubbing] on his records!
“No [laughs], I didn’t know. Hank Garland was another one who I loved later on. And the story that’s told on him is that when he heard some of Les’ records with all that overdubbing, he’d go in and figure out how to do it all at once! He was something else.
I heard you mention earlier today that you just had an injury?
“My shoulder. I had an operation on it about two weeks ago. I won’t be playing tonight. I’ve got about 3 or 4 more weeks of rehab to do, then I think I’ll be okay.
Originally posted on Rhino.com 2005