Sunday, 30 November 2014

Scotty Moore, the modest genius whose guitar still echoes around the globe

I had recently bought my first Elvis Presley LP – Golden Records – when our downstairs’ neighbours at our second rented Wimbledon home agreed to lend me the EP Good Rockin' Tonight, which, apart from the title track, included “Blue Moon of Kentucky”, “Milk Cow Blues” and “Just Because”. I’m ashamed to admit that I never gave it back – in fact, I still have it, although the sleeve went AWOL many decades’ ago. This must have been 1962 or ’63. It fascinated me from the off – I knew that the music was somehow different from the tracks on my Elvis album (which consisted of songs recorded after Elvis had left Sun Records for RCA in early 1956) and very different from his more recent stuff (e.g. “It’s Now or Never”, “His Latest Flame”, “Good Luck Charm” etc.). It was lighter, more febrile, more playful and, despite the absence of drums, even more insanely rhythmic.

Of course I didn't realise that there were no drums on those EP tracks, or that there were only three instruments involved (I wasn’t alone – when the original Sun singles came out, even industry professionals assumed there were listening to a five or six-piece band, and promoters would feel cheated when only three musicians turned up to perform at live gigs). It probably wasn’t until the late ‘60s – by which time I was aware of his other Sun masterpieces – that I’d started to figure out what made those early Elvis recordings so  different. But, despite listening to them till I was blue in the face, it wasn’t until I bought my Fender Telecaster in 1993 and sat down to play it with Elvis Presley: Hal Leonard Guitar Recorded Versions with Notes & Tab open on the table in front of me that guitarist Scotty Moore’s genius became fully apparent, because, for the first time, I had to analyse what the three instruments – Elvis’s rhythm guitar, Bill Black’s double bass, and Moore’s Gibson electric guitar – were each contributing to the overall sound.

Scotty Moore with unknown singer
One of the reasons those records still represent some sort of pinnacle in popular music, I reckon, Is because there are no drums. Of course, there’s tons of rhythm in there – all three instruments (four, if you count Elvis's voice) play their part, from the skittishly rhythmic singing and basic rhythm guitar playing, to Bill Black’s immense bass, with its “slap bass” effect (that’s the sound of the plucked strings slapping back against the fretboard – Bill Haley’s Comets used it to good effect as well), and Moore’s electric guitar weaving the whole thing together. There’s a virtual fifth instrument in there – the Sun Studios’ slapback recording effect, explained on a website I just visited as follows: “More or less two tape machines recording and playing back the same thing at the same time. The second tape machine plays back the recording slightly later than the first, creating the tape echo.” Simples! So, as I said, there’s a whole lot of rhythm going on here, but no centre, no snare drum telling our bodies how to react – so we, the listeners, are called on to become part of the band by supplying that defining beat ourselves (well, it’s a theory).

As for Scotty Moore’s contribution, he’s like a one-man orchestra, providing a counterpoint to Elvis’s vocal lines, offering up twiddly little fills, playing some of the most memorable solos in all pop music, or propelling the whole thing along with an irresistible, driving rhythm. Hell, that Moore boy did everything.

Funnily enough, he wasn’t (to my ears at least) a particularly accomplished guitarist, technique-wise – not a patch on the nimble-fingered likes of Grady Martin, Chet Atkins or James Burton (who was so brilliant, he learned how to perfectly recreate Moore’s echo-drenched guitar parts without any technical assistance – as he’d never been near a recording studio, he just assumed Moore was playing every note twice).

But what Moore lacked in technique, he made up for with musical feel (perhaps helped by coming from a musical family) and genius. He practiced and experimented for four years while serving with the US Navy, then formed a country and western band when he got his discharge. He didn’t much like country music, and tended to try to speed everything up. Influenced by jazz, rhythm and blues, Chet Atkins and Les Paul, he worked up a whole collection of single and double-note licks and fills incorporating bent notes and finger-slides – but couldn’t figure out what he was supposed to do with them all. As a band-leader trying to get a record deal, he ending up pestering Sam Phillips at exactly the same time as Elvis. Desperate to get something going, and having heard about the persistent young truck driver with the outlandish clothes and the sideburns, he eventually persuaded Phillips to let his band back the kid in an audition. Phillips agreed, but didn’t want the whole group in the studio – just Scotty and his bass player.

Around midnight, just as they were about to give up after a fruitless attempt to come up with something vaguely worth recording (they’d concentrated on standard ballads and Phillips wanted something different), Elvis grabbed his guitar and began hollering out a demented hillbilly take on Arthur Crudup’s R&B number, “That’s All Right, Mama”. Bill joined in, then Scotty. Interested, Sam Phillips stuck his head out of the control room and told them to do it again. And that’s how it all began.

Here’s an early take of the song. Elvis and Bill have pretty much nailed it. Scotty has sort of got it – especially the solo - but he’s evidently not sure exactly how he’s supposed to blend his bag of tricks with Elvis’s vocals:

Somewhere during a rehearsal that had turned into a genuine recording session, it all clicked – Moore understood exactly what he needed to do to make the whole thing work:

If I’ve correctly interpreted this article about a project to recapture the exact sound of Elvis’s Sun recordings, the only instrument missing from “That’s All Right, Mama” was Sam Phillips’s studio tape echo effect – he just didn’t switch it on. The version we’ve been listening to for decades had echo added to it by RCA once they’d bought out Elvis’s contract – and their echo effect was entirely different to Sun’s (trying to recreate the Sun sound in their flashy Nashville studio nearly drove them nuts). But Sam Phillips certainly had tape echo running by February 1955, when the boys recorded the quintessential rocker “Baby Let’s Play House” – perhaps the most influential record in rock history, with its knowing mixture of sassiness, menace, lasciviousness, humour, vocal pyrotechnics, and Scotty’s searing second solo:

Not bad. But the greatest track Elvis, Scotty and Bill produced during their time at Sun – and therefore, in my humble opinion, the greatest pop record ever released – was “Mystery Train”, recorded in November, 1955. By that time Moore had bought (well, he was actually leasing - Elvis was already making good money, but Scotty and Bill were barely surviving) one of the earliest EchoSonic amps produced by Ray Butts. Because the echo effect was actually embedded in the amplifier, this allowed Moore to recreate the sound of his recorded guitar parts live on stage. When he used the amp in the studio, the echo dial was turned up to 11, because his guitar part was already rich in echo before Sam Phillips added his tape-echo effect to the whole track. As Scotty's guitar starts up “Mystery Train”, the rhythmic bounce created by all that echo is my favourite effect in all of recorded pop music. I love it so much that I bought an electric guitar just to play that intro (oh, okay, and the solo) – only to realise after a fruitless hour or so that something was missing. As I wasn’t quite up James Burton’s standards, I bought a Boss digital delay pedal, and tried the bouncy E-A opening riff again. It was so perfect I couldn’t stop laughing. Or playing it. (Why my wife didn’t sue for divorce right then and there, before I started using headphones, I’ll never know.) Here is the original version of my favourite pop song:

I’m currently reading James Dickerson’s That's Alright, Elvis:The Untold Story of Elvis's First Guitarist and Manager, Scotty Moore (available here). I’ll return to it eventually – especially the part about how badly Bill and Scotty were treated - but this post is about the music, which has never been bettered. Scotty Moore is still with us, aged 82. He has always preferred to stay in the background, and has never wanted to be a star: instead, as all his rock star admirers would gladly confirm, the Tennessee farm boy became a musical legend.

From the bottom of my heart, thank you for the music, Scotty Moore.


  1. If you grew-up with Scotty SG, you may also remember the Texan clarinetist Jimmy Giuffre, one of the great experimenters in jazz. He created a kind-of 'chamber-jazz' in the mid 1950's by dropping the drummer, and utilising the trio of clarinet, guitar and bass, and being rewarded, in 1957, with a minor hit (almost unheard-of in jazz) when he released 'The Train and The River'. I just played it again after many years, and it could have been minted yesterday.

    1. I'm not a huge jazz fan, mahlerman - but I enjoyed "The Train and the River": interesting sound and well cool! It's available on YouTube:

  2. What a super post. Scotty really was the master of rock n roll played on a jazz guitar. Chuck Berry also played rock on a jazz guitar , a Gibson of that ilk having been the instrument on which he was taught.

    When I worked for NEL we published an Elvis biography authored by, I think, Dee Presley.

    No match for the later Albert Goldmann effort which ended - "Elvis got everything he ever wanted but probably deserved better."

    As you like guitar music, Scott, here's a neat piece of picking :

  3. Thank you, Colin - and thanks for the Russ Barenberg/Jerry Douglas link. Lovely stuff. I've got a Jerry Douglas CD somewhere, but hadn't heard Barenberg before.

    Scotty Moore said he never felt at home with Fenders, though he tried them out - I suspect that's because he'd spent years learning on acoustics. Back then, before the invention of effects pedals, he would probably have found a Telecaster unsatisfactory for producing that jazz/Western Swing sound he used at Sun, and, later, the Gibson produced a really rich tone on the sort of big, biting, slightly mad solos he created on songs like Hound Dog and Too Much. For a crude, rudimentary player such as myself, the Telecaster is perfect - though, if we ever move to a bigger house and I get the music room I've always dreamed of, I've earmarked a classic rockabilly Gretsch for my delight.

    I don't remember the Presley book, but NEL produced two superb music books by the NME writer Roy Carr while I was there - The Rolling Stones: An Illustrated Record and ditto for The Beatles - LP-sized chronological discographies. Do you remember them? I read my copies so often, they eventually fell to bits - mind you, a lot of NEL books tended to fall apart after a while!.

  4. Yes, Scott, I remember the Rolling Stones book but can't recall the Beatles one.

    In one later book about the Rolling Stones I think I read that when Mick Taylor left the band, the proposal by Mick Jagger to recruit George Thorogood as replacement was vetoed (under the pals act) by Keith Richards whose choice of Ronnie Wood prevailed. Or is my memory playing tricks on me.

  5. There are several different versions. They offered the job to Jeff Beck who found the loose structures of the band out of kilter with his perfectionism and thought he would be tempted into a way of life he didn't want. Mick apparently wanted Ry Cooder, who had played some excellent guitar on Memo to Turner (from some film or other) but Keef couldn't stand him. I suspect he vetoed any one who was a better guitarist than himself, which limited the choice of replacement a bit. Ron and Keef are fairly similar in style and I think something went missing when he joined. George Thorogood would have been an interesting experiment but his style doesn't leave much room for a second guitarist, which was no doubt on Mr Rock n' Roll's mind during those few brief moments when he was not totally off his gourd.

    While I am at it Mr Finlay, I thought that it was a lawnmower that George Jones drove to the local bar when his family impounded the car.

  6. I stand corrected. It was indeed a lawnmower. Thank you for the correction.

    1. You're both right I think - the lawnmower incident happened, but it certainly wasn't the only time Jones was arrested for DUI - as this video shows: