Interview with Scotty Moore | Scotty Moore Way Ahead Of The Gang
Source: Music City Recorders
November 15, 2020
You played guitar on Presley's very first recordings and stayed with him until 1969 when you worked with him on the NBC TV Special, but what happened before your run with Elvis? Where were you born and what was your childhood like?
I was born in Gadston, which is about 80 miles North of Memphis. My early life was of course country as I was raised in the country. Later when I got into the service I started getting interested in pop, R&B and so forth. I had three brothers who played and my dad played but by the time I got old enough to understand what they were doing they'd left home, got married and my dad got old enough to quit.
Do you play any other instruments besides guitar and when did you actually get your first guitar?
No I don't play any other instruments, just guitar. I got my first guitar when I was about 8 years old. One of my brothers gave it to me and between my dad and a couple of friends who played I started learning to play.
Was there anyone in particular who influenced your style of guitar-playing?
Not really, I liked all guitar-players that were around at that time; Chet Atkins... there were so many and I picked up a little bit of everyone. A lot of the R&B guitar-players who I don't even know their names other than B.B. King and people like that.
Scotty Moore and Elvis Presley on stage.
When Elvis came to SUN for recording Sam Phillips used you and Bill Black for backing him up. Obviously, Sam knew you long before he met Elvis. How did you meet Sam Phillips?
I met Sam Phillips when I came out of the service in 1952. I went to work for my brother in Memphis and I had had a group together while I was in the service and so while working to make a living I was still trying to get together a group, to play clubs. I met Sam when I was trying to get the group on record because I realized that I had to try it from that end to get the bookings go good. Sam was looking for talent, he was a very small operation at that time and we became friends. So we started looking for new talent together. From '52 until '54 I probably saw Sam about every day. We tried two or three different artists who I cannot think of the names right now and I had a group called "The Starlight Wranglers" in Memphis and the singer was Doug Poindexter, we cut a record on Sun by him and with 5 or 6 members in the band it sold about that many records. But we were still trying and that's when Elvis came along of course.
What was the line-up of The Starlight Wranglers?
Well let me see, we had Millard Yow on steel, Tommy Sealy on violins Bill Black on bass, Poindexter singing and me picking the guitar.
Bill Black on bass? Was this also Bill's first group?
Well Bill was a little older than I was and he had played in other put-together groups so to speak in and around Memphis. But this was the first group that got together trying to do something.
How do you recall your first meeting with Elvis Presley?
First actual meeting. Well to go back a little, during this period where Sam and I would meet every day, drinking coffee and kicking around ideas where music was going and what we should look for, in our conversations he mentioned that a young fellow had been in some time prior to cut a record for his mother. And he said he had impressed him very much and they had kept his name on file and said would you get him in and audition. So for a period of four or three weeks, every day that I saw Sam I asked him had he contacted him and he said no he hadn't. Finally he gave me Elvis' name and his telephone number and said why don't you call him, have him come up to your house and just have him sing a few things for you and see what you think and then we set up an audition here in the studio. So I said fine, so that night - I think it was on a Saturday I believe - I called Elvis, told him who I was, who I was working with and could he come over the next day which was Sunday. He said he could.
So Elvis came over ... uh he had all the pink shirt, pink pants with the typical ducktail hairstyle at the time, white shoes, which well he was a little ahead of his time for the way he was dressed which didn't bother me one way or the other 'cause I was interested in what he sounded like singing. We sat around for a couple of hours and he sang several different songs. At that time Bill Black lived just a few doors down from me on the same street and he came over and listened for a while and Elvis left and I asked Bill, well what do you think? He said, well he sings good, he didn't really knock me out you know. I said well that's my opinion, I said if we got the right song and record it the right way. So I called Sam and told him basically the same thing; the boy sings fine and in my opinion, it would only be a matter of finding the right song and as to what direction, how he was recorded.
What kind of music was Elvis Presley singing at that time?
He sang some Marty Robbins songs, some Hank Snow songs, some Roy Hamilton some of the current R&B hits at the time... a little bit of everything really. So Sam then did call him and set a time for us to go into the studio the following night. It was just me and Bill and all intended to be to fill up a background just to give us an idea of how he would sound like on tape. Well the rest ofcourse is history. The audition turned into the actual first session and out of that came "That's all right mama". We went in and went through several different songs and nothing was really happening because you know it was an audition and then we were taking a break, sitting around drinking coffee. Elvis started clowning around, he picked up his guitar and started dancing around and started singing "That's all right mama", and Bill picked up his bass, started slapping it, just more or less clowning and I joined in and that's it ... really it's just one of those things.
Who was most responsible for the Presley Sun Sound?
I cannot really say 'cause we were all .... well it just happened. After we realized we had something, we knew it was different but we didn't know if it was going to run out of town or what. Then the songs following we had a base, a point to go from.
Did you play on any other sessions with SUN? Like f.i. "Slow down" by Jack Earls has a backing with a guitar break almost identical to the Elvis sides?
No I didn't play on a lot of other recording sessions. A couple of things maybe but primarily the things with Elvis was all we were doing. I don't think I played on "Slow down". Jack Earl s? I remember the name but I don't know who played with him.
How important was Bill Black with his slapping bass in the rockabilly sound?
Very, he was very important because the things we were doing was mostly rhythm. It wasn't a thing where he had to hit the correct bass note, it was just a blending, an overall sound you know.
How do you recall Bill Black, both as a musician and as a person?
He was a good musician and a fine person, a very close friend for many, many years.
How do you recall the Elvis craze with the screaming girls, the so-called obscene movements and the outraged parents?
I think it was really amusing to all of us. You know we were moving so fast, we really didn't stop and think about anything like that. We were there to entertain and obviously we were entertaining them and that was our job you know.
In March 1958 Elvis went into the army and with the exception of a recording session in June of the same year there was no work for the guitar of Scotty Moore. Bill Black had his own combo already with that untouchable sound but what did you do?
I got into engineering and recording. With a guy named Ron Wallis I started Fernwood Records and the first thing we recorded was "Tragedy" by Thomas Wayne. From there - two years - I actually went working for Sam as the head of production and engineering which would be about 1960, and I worked for Sam four years before I moved out here to Nashville.
Any names you can remember you produced records on during this period at SUN?
I was involved with a lot but at the time with Sam it was a kind of community project, there was not just one man doing everything. So I worked with people like Jerry Lee Lewis, Charlie Rich, Barbara Pittman... oh gosh there just was so many, at that period, that he was recording. Sometimes I might play guitar, sometimes I might be engineering, sometimes Sam might be engineering just depending on who what and the time you know.
This producing and engineering part with Sun started in 1960. So in the early days with Sun Records you did not do any producing at all?
Right, not at all, we strictly worked with Elvis.
The last project on which Elvis Presley used the guitar of Scotty Moore was his 1968 NBC TV Special. In 1969 Elvis went to Vegas but without the usual crew of Scotty Moore, D.J. Fontana and The Jordanaires. Why did Scotty not go to Vegas with Elvis?
The reason why I didn't go to Vegas, The Jordanaires didn't go to Vegas and D.J. didn't go, was because we had to go for six weeks at a time (then) and there just was no way that any of us could leave here for that period of time. We had our clients here you know, we had a business and you might as well close up and start all over.
Did Elvis ask you to come?
Oh yes, D.J., The Jordanaires and myself, but it just was impossible.
What do you think of the Presley sound like it is today?
Well I don't like it very much. I don't like it in comparison to what we used to do but it's my personal opinion.
Do you think that he still can do it the way he did it in the fifties?
Yeah sure, though I think it'll be a little harder for him now because we've all aged somewhat, but he still works out pretty good on stage and I don't see why he couldn't do it in front of a mike too in the studio.
Do you think Elvis is happy with the kind of music he is recording nowadays?
I really cannot answer that because I haven't met him in three years. Last talked with him when we did the Singer special but at that time I got the impression that he still wanted to do basically the old style.
I think this was pretty obvious in the part where you're jamming around with the Jimmy Reed song "Baby what you want me to do", right?
Yes right, I still think that's where he's at really. That's his music, that's where his roots are.
After the four years with Sam Phillips as an engineer and producer you moved to Nashville and started your own studio; Music City Recorders. which became a very successful studio. One of the albums made in your studio was the Ringo Starr album "Beaucoups of Blues". A very good country album on which Ringo was backed up by all the big Nashville musicians and it sounds like it !! What was it like to work with such a strange combination as a Beatle and all the top Nashville side-men?
It was very enjoyable. Of course it was the first time I'd met Ringo or any of The Beatles. I like to go on record saying that when their first records were released over here and people were saying well peep up today and gone tomorrow, I said "Well you'd better stop and listen again, you know because it's definitely good music". It might be a bunch of noise to some folks but if you really listened deep to it they had their own feeling, but to me they had the same type of feeling that we had when we started. There was a certain spontaneous quality about it.
Do you feel you've been able to keep up with the changes in the business?
Pretty much. It's interesting to see how things run in cycles though. They may call it nostalgia but I think it just goes back to ... people wanna go back to the base. If you know it over the years, the pop-market when it starts getting tight they start recording country songs because country songs are basically more simple, then they have a definite message. Fifty-four when Elvis came along the time was right. Business as a whole was in a big, big slump. People were wanting something new. People don't know what they want until they hear it and that's what makes the business so interesting I think.
What do you think about the general attitude today where records are made in a studio with a lot of technical help which makes it impossible for an artist to perform the songs in the same form on stage?
Personally I don't care for it, I don't care for it at all. I think it's deceiving the public because if they go to see an artist that has so to speak a gimmick, and as you say there is no way he can do it on stage unless he uses a pre-recorded tape or something, then this is still deceiving the public. Artists don't make big money from selling records, they make money true but their big income is from their personals. I just don't like the electronic tricks myself.
The first record you ever made was on Sun with The Starlight Wranglers (SUN 202). Did you make any other singles after that before you did the album "The Guitar That Changed the World" for Epic?
Yes I did one single while with Fernwood. It was called "Rest" and on the b-side, I had a tune called "Have guitar will travel" named after the TV series.
What about a single we saw in an auction list not too long ago, called "Fisher woman" by The Scotty Moore Combo?
"Fisher woman" ... no I've never heard of it.
Then you made the album for Epic?
Yes, and that one of course was strictly of Elvis-tunes. We had basically the same personnel on the recordings as we did with him. So really what it sounds like is like we took his voice out. We had Boots Randolph on saxophone, The Jordanaires, D.J. Fontana and Buddy Harman on drums, Bob Moore on bass and myself and Jerry Kennedy on guitar, and the only one on there who hadn't worked with Elvis on his sessions was Bill Pursell who played piano. Just for reason that Floyd Cramer was out of town and we couldn't get him to play when we started cutting.
Do you still pick guitar on sessions?
Very, very seldom. I haven't actually played in several years. I did put together an album about a year and a half, two years ago which I'm holding back, just waiting for the right, I hope, the right time to put it out.
Is it an instrumental one?
Yes and no. It'll have a lot of vocal things on it by a boy named Willie Rainsford, we call him "Blue" Willy and what I'm intending to show with this is - with the exception of a couple of tunes - where we got our influence from in some of the early Presley things. We'll go back and do one of Lowell Fulson's old songs, a couple of Junior Parker's things and I tried actually to keep basically the same sound they were done in. Some additions but I think it should be interesting to anybody who has been into all of it.
What does it sound like ?
What does it sound like? Oh boy... I don't think I'd better answer that.
Got a name for it yet?
Yes but I cannot tell you now, I'd better not.
How about some song titles?
Let's see ... "Reconsider Baby", "Careless Love", which I did in a combination of Josh White and a little R&B heaviness in it with a guest artist, Tracy Nelson of Mother Earth doing the vocal. I cannot think of any other titles, my mind goes blank. Oh we did "Raunchy" strictly instrumental, and we actually got a western-swing in some of the things. It's pretty interesting how that came out 'cause some of the things had horns on in the original versions and we've taken a guitar to do the horn parts and by doing so it comes out with a western-swing flavor.
How long is it going to stay in the can?
Hopefully not too long. I'm still working on one or two things now and you'll be one of the first ones to get one I promise.
What do you specifically like about being in the music business?
Oh the intrigue I guess, the uncertain things. We don't know if we'll be here tomorrow or not you know. I'm sure that everybody in the business has to be a gambler at heart in that sense.
Have you made a contribution to the business and achieved what you wanted?
I hope I've made some kind of contribution. Just meeting new people day in and day out has been very rewarding personally to me. It's never been a big goal to become wealthy from the business. I think everybody, if they can make a living off what they enjoy most, they are way, way ahead of the gang.
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