Friday, 8 July 2016

Farewell, Scotty Moore: the last member of the Elvis, Scotty and Bill trio has gone to glory - and left a great deal behind

I was so obsessed with politics last week that the news that one of my great musical heroes had died only reached me four days after it was announced. While making a cup of tea, I became aware that Radio 4 were playing Elvis records, interspersed with the dulcet tones of a gentlemanly Southerner: it could only be Scotty Moore. It took me a minute to realise he was being spoken of in the past tense. Yes, the man whose wonderfully playful, propulsive, echo-drenched guitar-playing graced dozens of Elvis's greatest recordings - from "That's Alright, Mama" to "Jailhouse Rock" - was dead, at the age of 84. A good innings. Yes, he was "only" the guitar player - but he was vital to Elvis's success, and every guitarist alive today owes at least some part of his style to the genius of Scotty Moore.

It's quite possible that, without Elvis, Scotty would have been nothing more than a footnote in some obscure history of Memphis music (probably linked to an asterisk in a paragraph about Sam Phillips, the owner of a tiny recording studio which recorded a lot of good black R&B artists and a few white country singers before going bankrupt in 1956 or '57). But, by the same token , who knows if the pimply kid with the sideburns, the vulgar clothes and the greasy quiff would ever have made it without Scotty and bassist Bill Black supplying the slightly deranged instrumental transformation of the young singer's jeu d'esprit rendering of the R&B number "That's All Right, Mama" into a whole new musical genre - Rockabilly - by adding country, bluegrass, a dash of Western Swing and a smattering of jazzy guitar chords into the mix, and speeding the whole thing up to the point where it made everybody - especially white teenagers - want to dance.

I celebrated  Moore's immense contribution to Elvis's Sun recordings (still my all-time favourite pop records) in this 2014 post - but Scotty's influence on the sound Elvis swiftly developed after joining RCA in early '56 (after which the singer essentially became his own producer) was almost as significant.  RCA's recording studios - far fancier than Sun's primitive facilities - allowed a bigger, fuller, brasher more raucous sound. While much of the magic was lost, the general increase in volume and the introduction of drums emphasised The Big Beat that drove young record- buyers crazy, and helped turn Elvis into the biggest popular entertainment star on the planet. Elvis abandoned Rockabilly - the genre he, Scotty and Bill had invented by accident - and reinvented the already-popular genre of Rock 'n' Roll, a predominantly black musical form which had already attracted white artists like Bill Haley.  Apart from the introduction of drums, a piano and (yikes!) backing singers, the main difference between Elvis's early RCA and Sun styles is Scotty's guitar, which is louder, harsher, more stabby, less jazzy and far less creamy than it had sounded in Sam Phillip's tiny Memphis sweat-box. The difference is probably most obvious on "Hound Dog",  recorded in July '56, where Scotty Moore's brilliant guitar solos are about as vicious as anything recorded until then - they have to be to cut through the surrounding racket created by drums, handclaps and backing vocals and whatever the hell else is going on back there:

That's a first-rate guitar solo - by far the best thing on the recording, in fact. Five months earlier, Moore played another outsanding solo on Elvis's version of the Fats Domino number, "Lawdy Miss Clawdy": it's more controlled than the one on "Hound Dog", but that's because the overall recording is less thunkingly obvious (in fact, it's one of Elvis's best-ever records, untainted by the questionable taste that the King occasionally fell prey to after becoming his own producer):

Talking of questionable taste, let's move on to the aptly-titled "Too Much",  recorded in September, 1956.  It's noisy, lumpy, plodding and almost painfully repetitive: the released version was the 12th take, and it sounds like it. The one thing that makes it bearable, that adds some drama - and the only bit you actually look forward to when it comes on - is a blistering chromatic guitar solo which is permanently on the edge of falling apart (Moore sounds like he's making it up as he goes along). The solo - which is slightly mad and quite unexpected - sounds like a rude comment on the sheer dullness of the rest of the song: as with "Hound Dog" it's more than the record deserves, and it's what saves it:

Scotty and Bill Black both drifted away from Elvis thanks to Colonel Tom Parker's parsimonious treatment: while Elvis and the Colonel were raking in millions, the singer's old buddies were paid $200 when they were accompanying Elvis on sessions, and $100 when they were "resting". Elvis didn't have the guts to stand up for them, and, after a while, they couldn't actually afford to work for him any longer. Bill Black formed the Bill Black Combo in 1959, which recorded eight Top 40 hits between then and 1962, including "Smokie Part Two" and "White Silver Sands", and was voted No. 1 instrumental group by Billboard Magazine in 1961. The bassist died of a brain tumour in 1965, at the age of 39.

Scotty Moore worked in the music business after the split with Elvis, but, unlike Black, he needed the King to fuel his creativity, and drifted back into Presley's orbit, playing on many of his post-army recordings in the early '60s, while acting as studio manager for Sam Phillips at Sun (who fired him when Moore released the rather substandard album, The Guitar that Changed the World, in 1964). Moore teamed up with Presley for the '68 Comeback Special - but that was the last time the two met, and Moore spent years out of the music business, doing proper work, before drifting back into it at the behest of rock star worshippers (who were, of course, legion - and why not?: they all owed him something that could never be repaid).

No matter how great his contribution to Elvis's early RCA recordings - and how influential his performances were on the development of rock guitar styles - Moore's true glory resides in the grooves of Elvis's Sun recordings. He described his style as "filling in holes" - in which case, he was the best damn musical hole-filler of them all. I'll leave you with the Great Man in his pomp, forging a whole new "Chet Atkins on speed" style of rocking country/bluegrass/Western Swing/blues/R&B/jazz guitar on "Good Rockin' Tonight":


  1. A very informative post with some great tracks.
    Scotty Moore-enormously influential as he was on the early Sun recordings-we're still talking about 'The King.'
    I'm pretty sure the "pimply kid" would have made it.

  2. Farewell, Scotty Moore ...

    ... and hail Scotty Gronmark?

    1. I just worry, southern man, that, without Scotty and Bill and Sam Phillips, Elvis might have achieved fame by singing easy-listening ballads while wearing a tuxedo.

      Unfortunately, Mr. Moss, the pinnacle of my achievements as a guitar-player was being able to sound exactly like Scotty Moore while recreating his guitar parts from "Mystery Train". I managed that almost 20 years ago, and have barely advanced since then, despite several years of lessons! Ah well. I'm watching the latest series of Sky's much-improved Guitar Star at the moment, and every one of the competitors makes me green with envy - especially an ageing cockney geezer called Steve Morrison who is sensationally good. Recommended.