The words have been cited often as the birth of rockabilly, the moment the big beat was born. At the end of an early take of “Blue Moon of Kentucky,” on a sweltering July day in Memphis, 1954, producer Sam Phillips offered his opinion of the sound he was hearing in his studio.
“That’s different,” he said excitedly. “That’s a pop song now.”
Working with bassist Bill Black and a young Elvis Presley at Phillips’ Memphis Recording Service, guitarist Scotty Moore played a major role in fashioning the singer’s first recordings for tiny Sun Records, hyped-up remakes of the old blues number “That’s All Right” and the Bill Monroe bluegrass composition “Blue Moon of Kentucky.”
Using his gold Gibson ES 295, Moore helped usher in a new era of music. Bopping the blues on “Hound Dog,” “Heartbreak Hotel,” “Jailhouse Rock” and numerous other major rock ’n’ roll and country hits, Elvis’ right-hand man probably has played on more million-selling singles than any other six-stringer in history. “Everyone else wanted to be Elvis,” Rolling Stones guitarist Keith Richards once said. “I wanted to be Scotty.”
Yet Scotty Moore — the guy who set the standard for rock ’n’ roll guitar players — is a reluctant hero, a person who never has craved the limelight. When the guitarist formed the Blue Moon Boys with Presley and Black in 1954, Moore, who also served as Presley’s first manager, was content to stand in the shadow of the trio’s conspicuous singer.
Even today, as the 68-year-old Moore joins the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame as a part of its brand new “Sidemen” category, the ever-humble musician quickly diverts attention from himself to applaud other unsung heroes of the studio and stage.
“I’m very glad they started the new category for sidemen,” Moore says during a recent phone conservation from his home outside of Nashville. “Hopefully a lot of deserving players will get in there in years to come. It’s too bad they don’t put 25 in at a time.”
In reality, Moore is one of five sidemen who will be brought into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame tonight (March 6) during the 15th annual induction ceremony at the Waldorf Astoria Hotel in New York City. The ceremony will be telecast on VH-1 at 9 p.m. ET on March 8.
R&B saxophonist King Curtis (who played with the Coasters and Aretha Franklin), bassist James Jamerson (who helped create the Motown sound), drummer Earl Palmer (a veteran of both Little Richard’s and Fats Domino’s bands) and drummer Hal Blaine (a storied Los Angeles session musician) join Moore as the first “Sidemen” inductees.
Oh yeah — James Taylor, Bonnie Raitt, the Lovin’ Spoonful, the Moonglows and Earth, Wind & Fire also were selected to go into the Hall of Fame this year. Eric Clapton becomes the first musician to be inducted three times, as he was honored previously in 1992 as a member of the Yardbirds and again the following year for his work in Cream.
Jazz and blues legends Nat “King” Cole and Billie Holiday will be inducted as “Early Influences,” while Arista CEO Clive Davis will be inducted as a “Non-Performer.”
Moore never has visited the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame’s museum in Cleveland, and, until now, has never attended one of its glitzy induction ceremonies. He didn’t know the Hall of Fame was starting a “Sidemen” division until after his election in the new category.
The “Sidemen” field recognizes those performers for backing other, more prominent artists. While Moore appreciates the honor, he doesn’t consider himself to be a sideman as much as a full-fledged bandmember.
“We were a group to begin with — Elvis, Bill and myself, the Blue Moon Boys,” he reasons. “Looking at it that way, we should have all went in as a group.”
(Presley, a member of the Hall of Fame’s inaugural class, went in in 1986, nearly a decade after his death. Bassist Black, who died of a brain tumor in 1965, and drummer D.J. Fontana, who joined the group in 1955, have yet to be elected for membership into the prestigious rock institution.)
“All I wanted was a group that would stay together,” Moore continues. “Even before Elvis, I put together a country & western group, the Starlite Wranglers, when I came out of the Navy. Bill played bass in the band. We were together before we hooked up with Elvis. I was very happy doing that.”
Moore hopes the musicians who follow him in the Hall of Fame’s new category are true sidemen who have worked in studios with hundreds of different artists. “See, I never did that,” he explains. “I never really considered myself as a sideman. I mean I’ve done a few sessions over the years with other singers, but I can count them on both hands. I wasn’t a ’studio musician,’ per se. I didn’t go in and play #20 solo on page 10.”
When it came to supplying licks, Moore relied more on feeling.
“I’ve always tried to play something that fits the song,” he explains, “and it sometimes takes more time that way; that’s one reason I didn’t try to do regular session work. Sessions are too often run on limited funds and tight time constraints.”
Since he was more interested in being Presley’s “bandmate” than his “backup” musician, it would be reasonable to expect that Moore was bothered by all the attention Presley received. He says that was never the case.
“There was no jealousy from any of us,” Moore contends.
Money, however, was another matter.
“Originally, Elvis, Bill and myself were on a three-way split. Expenses for motels, gas and so on would come off the top. Then we split the rest three ways — 50 percent for Elvis and 25 percent each for Bill and I. [As Presley’s manager], I could have made it an even split, but, with what little knowledge I did have of the music business, I knew the guy in front, the guy that the gals were going for, should be paid more for being the star. That went along fine. When we hired D.J., we gave him a salary of $100 a week; he was one of the expenses that came off the top.”
Enter “Colonel” Tom Parker, who replaced Bob Neal, Moore’s successor as Presley’s manager. Parker — whom the guitarist refused to call “Colonel” — put Moore and Black on a weekly salary, like Fontana.
Parker separated Presley from his original band by offering lousy employment terms. The musicians were all but forced to work elsewhere.
Over the 14 years, off-and-on, that Moore worked with Presley, the guitarist took home a grand total of $30,123.72. When Presley was paid $50,000 for three Ed Sullivan Show appearances in 1956 and 1957, Moore claimed $235.
“We were making 200 bucks a week when we were working and 100 bucks a week when we were not working,” Moore recalls. “Back in the ’50s, that was better than the average guy on the street. But we’d get out to Hollywood, and we’d want to take disc jockeys to dinner and so on, and we couldn’t afford it. We’d just hang out by ourselves. We were all married and had homes to support.”
Dismissed when Presley entered the Army in 1958, Moore began to concentrate on engineering and producing. He started a record label, Fernwood, and scored a Top 10 hit with “Tragedy” by Thomas Wayne.
When “The King of Rock ’n’ Roll” entered civilian life again, movies became a priority for Presley, and the live dates dried up. Still, Moore would answer the occasional call for soundtrack and studio work.
In 1964, Moore recorded his only solo album, The Guitar That Changed The World! Epic Records producer Billy Sherrill, who later was behind huge hits for Tammy Wynette, George Jones and Charlie Rich, produced and named Moore’s project. The album, now available as a Razor & Tie CD reissue, features Moore’s instrumental interpretations of songs associated with Presley. Soon after making the album, Moore moved to Nashville.
Moore worked again with Presley on the famous 1968 “Comeback” TV special. Despite promises for further work, he never saw Presley after that.
An invitation to join Presley in Las Vegas in 1969 proved financially impractical. The job instead went to James Burton, and Moore hung up his guitar for two decades. He opened printing and tape duplication businesses in Nashville, ran them for years and then sold them.
In various ways, Keith Richards, Carl Perkins, Ronnie McDowell and Chet Atkins all had a hand in coaxing Moore back into action in the late 1980s.
In 1997, Moore, an amazing musician who has spent most of his career behind the scenes, stepped out of the shadow with an autobiography and album. That’s Alright, Elvis: The Untold Story of Elvis’s First Guitarist and Manager was written with Nashville-based freelance writer James Dickerson and published by Schirmer Books.
“My daughter [Vicki] is the one who got me to do the book,” Moore says. “There is so much misunderstood Elvis junk out there. At first, I didn’t want to get in the middle of it all. She kept on and on, and she happened to be friends with James Dickerson. I finally told her, ’If you will just shut up about it, I’ll do it,'” he says with a laugh.
The same year he set the record straight with his book, Moore joined Fontana on a pop-rock album, All the King’s Men. A collection of new songs rather than Presley remakes, the album was primarily produced and mixed by Moore.
The set features him and Fontana in collaboration with artists who regard the two as key influences, including Richards, Ron Wood, Jeff Beck, Tracy Nelson, The Jordanaires, Joe Ely, Mavericks frontman Raul Malo, Steve Earle and members of The Band. The making of the album was filmed for a documentary that has yet to be released. Moore and Fontana are discussing the possibility of a follow-up album.
Moore admits his association with Presley and the limelight it brought can sometimes be tiresome, but he handles it with grace.
“The thing I’ve always been proud of is how well the music has held up,” Moore says. “Regardless of anything else — whatever bumps might have been along the way — that’s the thing I’m really proud of.”