Thursday, 30 June 2016

Scotty Moore: The Quiet Revolutionary

by Emma Bell

There from the beginning: Scotty Moore (left) with Elvis and Bill Black
One by one they are going: those unknowing musicians who bought quiet revolutions to the western world with the advent of rock and roll.

Scotty Moore, a sweet, serious session musician who began playing at the age of eight (self taught) and who, by luck and circumstance found himself a player at Sun Studios under the watchful eyes of owner producer Sam Phillips, was one such man.

He had made some records himself which showed off his bluegrass country style of playing; he had some regular bookings in clubs around Memphis. However, he was more ambitious than that. 

Feeling that the world was passing him by, he found a kindred spirit in Phillips: both had a conviction that change was on its way. As Peter Guralnick notes in his excellent biography of Presley, Scotty recalled: "The two of us would just sit there over coffee and say to each other, 'What is it? What should we do? How can we do it?"

Sam had recorded Presley in the summer of 1954, but hadn't been impressed with the sound that emerged. During one such conversation with Scotty months later, he pulled Elvis's name from his file and told Scotty and bassist Bill Black to meet up with the kid and "feel him out".

Scotty recalled with amusement that  the initial meeting at his house for a jam was unsuccessful, given that Elvis was stammering and could barely sing for nerves: "Elvis was as green as a gourd".

Despite this inauspicious start, the trio met again the following night for a session at Sun Studios. Scotty and Bill were gentle, trying to tease the 'something' out of Elvis that they all felt was there, but without success. They ran through standards until everyone was exhausted and out of ideas.

As his fina
l gambit Elvis began singing "That's Alright Mama" by Arthur 'Big Boy' Crudup. Bill and Scotty picked up their instruments and joined in. Scotty recalled the moment here: 

The freshness and exuberance of that performance and the cathartic, joyful release from Elvis galvanised the trio and their producer and they began recording a string of hits that would have a profound influence on all of them:

They began a series of backbreaking tours which showcased all of their talents: yes, Elvis was honing his style, but Scotty's method of playing on his Gibson Super 400 (which nodded to Chet Atkins as a major influence) was also finding authority; the final slap of Bill Black's bass gave the sound an extra edge. The video below is an extrordinary record of a moment of life on the road:

What made the songs revolutionary was the instrumental breaks provided by Scotty which harmonised with and then broke from what Elvis was singing. Consider Mystery Train: Scotty plays the rhythm and the melody of the train creating one of the most thrilling records of that era. 

They backed Elvis up in New York on his television performances for Ed Sullivan, Milton Berle, The Dorsey Brothers Stage Show as footage from those shows reveal, they all just seemed to be laughing at the hoop-la and outrage their boy was generating:

For a generation of young observers who would become guitarists, it was Scotty who was the thrilling man - not Elvis: Jimmy Page and Keith Richards have been among those acknowledging Scotty's profound influence on them:

But things weren't all smooth sailing: some performances were staged without Scotty and Bill on stage which caused division in the trio. As success reached dizzying height, Bill and Scotty knew their days with Elvis were numbered: Elvis' new manager, The Colonel, began to run the show, and, even by the end of 1956, they were barely playing with Elvis any more, trying to get by on their $100 a week retainer. In September 1957 Bill and Scotty resigned from the band, dismayed at the lack of say they had in their band and their singer.

Scotty carried on playing, and in 1968 rejoined Elvis for his legendary Christmas NBC Special. The the old magic was there for all to see. Die-hard fans sometimes play the game of 'If only Elvis had stayed with Scotty and Bill' - but that of course is reductive: they all needed each other at a magical moment in time and you can't keep that moment in aspic forever. But this show was goodHere, we see Scotty playing on 'That's Alright Mama': 

Scotty was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2000 in a category that honored "those musicians who have spent their careers out of the spotlight, performing as backup musicians for major artists on recording sessions and in concert." He was generous in the time he spent talking about his early days with Elvis, despite later having played and recorded with other legends such as Keith Richards himself, Ringo Starr, Carl Perkins, Jeff Beck and Levon Helm (you can read my tribute to Levon hereamong others.

Scotty's elegant, fluid and pitch perfect playing more than stands up today. He was a gentle and kind man, a true innovator and enormously modest about his contribution to popular culture. Thank you, Scotty Moore.

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