Rock guitarist who in the mid-50s helped create Elvis Presley’s revolutionary sound
Thursday 30 June 2016
If the mythology of the rock’n’roll star began with Elvis Presley, then Scotty Moore, who has died in Nashville aged 84, could claim to have invented the role of the rock guitarist. Moore was one of the creators of the revolutionary sound that launched Presley’s career in the mid-1950s, and the discs that they cut together in the early years of Presley’s career stand today almost as the Ten Commandments of rock’n’roll. As Keith Richards of the Rolling Stones put it: “All I wanted to do in the world was to be able to play and sound like that. Everyone else wanted to be Elvis, I wanted to be Scotty.”
Moore’s great adventure with Elvis began on 5 July 1954, when Sam Phillips, boss of Sun Records, assembled Moore and the bassist Bill Black to join the 19-year-old Elvis for what was supposed to be an audition. However, their spontaneous performance of Arthur Crudup’s That’s All Right, with Presley’s voice riding confidently over Black’s thumping bass and Moore’s lithe guitar licks (enhanced by an echoing “tape slap” effect), was so fresh and powerful that Phillips released it as a single.
It was a local hit in Memphis, and the start of a rocket-powered ride. By the end of 1955, Moore, Black and Presley had been joined by the drummer DJ Fontana (their band becoming known as the Blue Moon Boys), had become a sensational live attraction, and had released a batch of singles including Good Rockin’ Tonight, Baby Let’s Play House and Mystery Train. Moore cited Mystery Train as one of his favourites, and its crisp, propulsive guitar work is some of his best. He preferred to play Gibson hollow-body guitars, and described his playing as “just a combination of several different styles rolled into one. I was a big fan of Merle Travis, of Chet Atkins with his thumb and finger styles, and a lot of the blues players.”
After Elvis signed to the RCA label in late 1955, the pace of touring and recording accelerated frantically, as they created a stream of classic hits including Heartbreak Hotel (featuring an eerie solo from Moore), Hound Dog, Don’t Be Cruel, Too Much and Jailhouse Rock. The group also appeared with Elvis on TV shows and in the movies Loving You (1957), Jailhouse Rock (1957), King Creole (1958) and GI Blues (1960), made after Elvis returned from the army.
Moore was born on a farm near Gadsden, Tennessee, son of Mattie (nee Hefley) and Winfield Scott Moore. With three older guitar-playing brothers and a father who played the banjo and fiddle, he started playing the guitar when he was eight. In 1948 he joined the US navy, and served in China and Korea before he was discharged in January 1952. His oldest brother ran a dry-cleaning business in Memphis, and he gave Scotty a job in the hat department. Aiming to make a living in music, Moore formed a country music group, Doug Poindexter and the Starlite Wranglers, which made a recording of Moore’s song My Kind of Carrying On for Phillips’s Sun Records.
After Phillips put Moore together with Presley, Moore also became Elvis’s manager in 1954, but he was edged out by Colonel Tom Parker. When Presley signed to RCA, both he and Parker enjoyed huge financial benefits, while the band were paid a wage. Moore said that in 1956 he earned $8,000, while Elvis became a millionaire. During the making of the film Loving You, the musicians threatened to quit when they discovered they were being paid less than the minimum scale for actors. Afterwards, they were paid per performance rather than receiving a salary.
When Presley was drafted into the US army in 1958, Moore worked at the Memphis label Fernwood Records, and played on and produced Thomas Wayne’s single Tragedy, which reached No 5 on the Billboard Hot 100. With the Scotty Moore Trio, he cut the instrumental Have Guitar, Will Travel. He resumed work with Presley after his return from the military, playing on the album Elvis Is Back! (1960) and appearing regularly on his albums until How Great Thou Art (1967).
However, the now middle-of-the-road Presley was increasingly preoccupied with making movies, and Moore boosted his income by working as a production manager for Phillips in Memphis. In 1964 he made the solo album The Guitar That Changed the World, comprising instrumental versions of Elvis’s hits, but it sold poorly. He parted company with Phillips and moved to Nashville, where he founded the studio Music City Recorders and started Belle Meade Records. His final work with Presley was on a 1968 comeback NBC television special.
Thenceforth he concentrated on engineering and production. He engineered Ringo Starr’s album Beaucoups of Blues (1970), as well as singles by Joe Simon. In 1979 he played the guitar on Ral Donner’s album I’ve Been Away for Awhile Now, a musical tribute to Presley after his death. He played on the Carl Perkins album 706 ReUnion: A Sentimental Journey (1992); and on the Elvis tribute album All The King’s Men (1997) alongside Fontana, Richards, Jeff Beck, Ronnie Wood and Levon Helm. His memoir That’s Alright, Elvis, co-written with James Dickerson, was published in 1998.
In 2000 he was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and, last October, into the Memphis Music Hall of Fame, with Richards accepting the award on his behalf.
Moore’s longtime parter, Gail Pollock, died in 2015. He is survived by five children, Donald, Linda, Andrea, Vikki and Tasha.
• Scotty Moore (Winfield Scott Moore III), guitarist, producer and songwriter, born 27 December 1931; died 28 June 2016