Thursday, June 30, 2016
Scotty Moore, Hard-Driving Guitarist Who Backed Elvis Presley, Dies at 84
Guitarist Scotty Moore, left, helped define Elvis Presley's early sound. Moore died June 28.
Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images
Scotty Moore, a guitarist whose terse, bluesy licks on Elvis Presley’s early hits virtually created the rockabilly guitar style and established the guitar as a lead instrument in rock ’n’ roll, died on Tuesday at his home outside Nashville. He was 84.
His death was confirmed by James L. Dickerson, Mr. Moore’s biographer and friend.
In 1954, Mr. Moore was performing with a country group, Doug Poindexter and the Starlite Wranglers, and recording at Sun Records in Memphis when Sam Phillips, the label’s owner, asked him to audition a young singer his secretary kept mentioning.
On July 4, Presley showed up at Mr. Moore’s house. Bill Black, the bass player for the Starlite Wranglers, arrived soon after, and the three men began running through a random selection of songs. Mr. Moore was not overly impressed but told Phillips that the young fellow had a nice voice and might be worth a try.
The next evening, at the Sun studio, the trio recorded an up-tempo version of “That’s All Right,” a blues song by Arthur Crudup, known as Big Boy, which Sun released with a rockabilly version of “Blue Moon of Kentucky” on the flip side.
The record caught fire locally, and Presley was on his way, electrifying audiences with a new sound defined in large part by Mr. Moore, whose slashing chords, inserted like musical punctuation, and hard-driving solos inspired future rock guitarists around the world, including Keith Richards, George Harrison, Jeff Beck, Mark Knopfler and Chris Isaak.
“All I wanted to do in the world was to be able to play and sound like that,” Mr. Richards told Mr. Dickerson, who helped Mr. Moore write the 1997 memoir “That’s Alright, Elvis.” He added: “Everyone else wanted to be Elvis. I wanted to be Scotty.”
Mr. Moore and Mr. Black, joined by the drummer D. J. Fontana in 1955, recorded more than 300 songs with Presley for Sun and RCA, including “Heartbreak Hotel,” “Don’t Be Cruel” and “Hound Dog.” Billed as the Blue Moon Boys, they also backed Presley on tour and appeared in several of his films.
“Moore’s concise, aggressive runs mixed country picking and blues phrasing into a new instrumental language,” Rolling Stone wrote in 2011, ranking Mr. Moore No. 29 on its list of the 100 greatest guitarists of all time. “The playing was so forceful that it’s easy to forget there was no drummer.
“If Moore had done nothing but the 18 Sun recordings — including ‘Mystery Train’ and ‘Good Rockin’ Tonight’ — his place in history would be assured. But he continued to play with Elvis, contributing the scorching solos to ‘Heartbreak Hotel’ and ‘Hound Dog.’”
Scotty Moore at the Ponderosa Stomp music festival in New Orleans in 2003. Judi Bottoni / AP
Winfield Scott Moore III was born on Dec. 27, 1931, on a farm near Gadsden, Tenn. He started playing the guitar at 8, and over the years he developed a style that incorporated country, blues and jazz. Mr. Moore was particularly fond of the jazz guitarists Tal Farlow and George Barnes.
"All I can tell you is I just stole from every guitar player I heard over the years,” he told the makers of the television documentary “Elvis Presley” in 2001. “Put it in my databank. And when I played, that’s just what come out."
At 16, he enlisted in the Navy, lying about his age, and served in the Pacific. After leaving the service, he went to work as a hatter at his brother’s dry-cleaning business and organized the Starlite Wranglers, who recorded one of his songs at Sun, “My Kind of Carryin’ On,” when he and Presley crossed paths.
Presley developed a strong musical rapport with his three sidemen and was personally close to Mr. Moore, who played the role of a protective older brother. “I tried to play around the singer,” Mr. Moore told Mr. Dickerson. “If Elvis was singing a song a certain way, there was no point in me trying to top him on what he just did. The idea was to play something that went the other way — a counterpoint.”
When Presley went into the Army in 1958, Mr. Moore became a partner in Fernwood Records, which released a Top 10 hit in 1959, Thomas Wayne’s teenage tear-jerker “Tragedy.”
For a time, he supervised operations at Phillips’s studios in Memphis and Nashville, but he was fired by Phillips in 1964 after he recorded “The Guitar That Changed the World,” an album on the Epic label made up of instrumental versions of Presley hits. He later had a career as a freelance studio engineer, working with Dolly Parton, Tracy Nelson, Ringo Starr and other artists.
Like his fellow sidemen, Mr. Moore, who served as Presley’s manager until 1955, never enjoyed the financial rewards of the Presley phenomenon. The Blue Moon Boys were paid a weekly salary of $200 when they toured, $100 a week when they were idle.
All told, Mr. Moore earned a little over $30,000 from his partnership with Presley, which came to an end after the 1968 special on NBC that reintroduced Presley to a new generation of listeners and revived his career.
Mr. Moore, left out of the equation when Presley embarked on the Las Vegas phase of his career, put away his guitar and barely touched it for nearly 25 years. In the early 1990s, after a tape-recording business he established in 1976 went bankrupt, he began recording and touring again, initially with Carl Perkins and later with performers who had been influenced by his playing.
Mr. Moore, who lived in Nashville, was married and divorced three times. He is survived by a son, Donald; four daughters, Linda, Andrea, Vikki Hein and Tasha; and several grandchildren. “Scotty and Elvis: Aboard the Mystery Train,” a revised and updated version of his 1997 memoir, was published by the University Press of Mississippi in 2013.
Throughout his life, Mr. Moore gave a modest account of the momentous Sun sessions with Presley. “We didn’t know we were trying to create something new,” he told The New York Times in 1997. “We were trying to do something with a little different angle from what was on the market.”