Every December all of us at Gibson Brands and Epiphone take a moment to remember the birthday of Mr. Scotty Moore, the affable gentleman from Memphis whose radical guitar solo on Elvis Presley's "Heartbreak Hotel"--his first worldwide hit--set the fuse to Rock N' Roll and influenced two generations of musicians with many more to come.
Along with Chuck Berry, Scotty Moore is recognized as the most influential guitarist of the 20th century. As Elvis Presley's lead guitarist and bandleader from 1954 until Presley entered the Army in 1958, Moore's eclectic and inspired fusion of blues, r&b, country, and pop, revolutionized the industry and helped make Presley one of the most influential figures of his time. On hits like "Hound Dog" and “Too Much,” Moore's solos were mixed as loud as Presley's vocals, setting a precedent for that influenced his contemporaries like Duane Eddy as well as all guitar heroes to come like Jimi Hendrix, Eddy Van Halen, and Jack White. Presley's five singles for Sam Phillips' Sun Records in Memphis--including “Baby Let’s Play House,” and “That’s All Right”-- remain both Moore's and Presley's most enigmatic recordings, and they are revered today as seminal pieces of American music along with the works of Hank Williams, Muddy Waters, and Robert Johnson.
Pick on any of Scotty’s mid-‘50s solos and you’ll recognize the echo of Lowell Fulson, Chet Atkins, Merle Travis, Les Paul, George Barnes, and probably a few unheralded cats from Memphis as well. You’ll also learn a lot about the fretboard and how to back up a vocalist. Elvis' success--and Moore's influence--on a generation of fans and musicians was unprecedented. Moore, along with bandmates D. J. Fontana on drums and bassist Bill Black, formed what is essentially the first rock n' roll band, and inspired the two guitar, bass, and drums line up of virtually every rock band that followed from Buddy Holly's Crickets to The Beatles and The Rolling Stones.
In 1956 alone, every Elvis single--all of them featuring Moore on guitar--topped the Billboard Pop, R&B, and Country charts--spearheading a sea change in the music industry as it quickly moved away from artists like Frank Sinatra, Tony Bennett, and Peggy Lee, to cater to a teenage market newly integrated by rock n' roll far ahead of cultural mores. For the first time, black and white artists like Fats Domino, Jerry Lee Lewis, and Little Richard--mostly under 25 and all self-taught--shared the 'pop' charts, often debuting with million-selling records.
Presley and Moore regularly sited black artists as their main influence and rock n' roll fans almost overnight became every marketer's most coveted audience, a trend which continues to this day. Presley's premier appearance on the Ed Sullivan Show--with backing from Moore, Fontana, and Black--was reportedly seen by over 80% of Americans who owned a television set, a feat that would only be surpassed eight years later by The Beatles' television debut on the same program in February, 1964.
In less than a year, Moore went from working in little studio in Memphis to the bright lights of New York and Hollywood and never once faltered. Moore, like his fellow Memphis colleagues Carl Perkins and Paul Burlison, took his craft seriously, often appearing as the cool counterpoint to Elvis' fearless performance style, which delighted his fans but was met with searing criticism by an older generation of performers, djs, and cultural critics.
Winfield Scott Moore III was born on December 27, 1931 in Gadsden, Tennessee, the youngest of four boys. At 8 years old, he began playing guitar and continued into his teenage years. He joined the U.S. Navy at age 16, serving on two destroyers, the Kent and the Valley Forge. After being discharged in 1952, he moved to Memphis, forming the Starlite Wranglers with neighbor and bassist Bill Black, and occasionally hanging out at Sam Phillips' recording studio, Memphis Recording Service, and the home of Phillips' new label, Sun Records, which primarily released blues and country singles. Phillips suggested Scotty and Bill have a rehearsal with a 19-year old truck driver for Crown Electric who had made two take-home acetates at the studio and was constantly looking for a band to sing with.
"Well, you know, Elvis came in, he was wearing a pink suit, white shoes and a ducktail," Moore recalled to author Peter Guralnick. "I thought my wife was going to go out the back door."
Moore told Phillips the kid was a good singer and perhaps they should stop by the studio to hear how he sounded on tape. A few nights later, the trio stumbled upon a rousing version of Arthur Crudup's, "That's All Right," which combined a slap bass style similar to the gospel group, Radio 4, Moore's Chet Atkins inspired melody lines, and a driving rhythm & blues feel from Elvis in both his vocal phrasing and his rhythm guitar. It was the beginning of rock n' roll.
"He just came out with 'That’s All Right, Mama,' and I just knew we had something different," Sam Phillips told the Radio Times in 1973. "I remember that night well because we’d spent hours in the studio and Bill Black had been ready to go home to start repairing refrigerators because that was what he did for a living, and had to take his bass out of his case again. We didn’t take no more than three cuts of that song, and we used the second one on the record."
Moore became Elvis' first manager as "That's All Right"'s success brought the trio opportunities to travel throughout Texas, Arkansas, and Louisiana. The trio continued to cut singles at Sun Records--"Good Rockin' Tonight," "Mystery Train," and "Baby, Let's Play House"-- each featuring Moore's intuitive blend of popular music. When Elvis' Sun Records contract was sold to RCA, Moore along with Black and D.J. Fontana, became the proverbial eye in the hurricane of Elvis' unprecedented success on radio, television, and eventually film.
Moore continued to work in the music business after leaving Elvis for most of the 1960s as a publisher and studio owner in Nashville. He even briefly served as a mastering engineer at Sam Phillips' second studio in Memphis where Moore cut the first acetate of Booker T & MG's classic, "Green Onions." But he will always be most remembered for his work with Elvis.
"When I heard "Heartbreak Hotel," I knew what I wanted to do in life," Keith Richards recalled to Rolling Stone. "It was as plain as day. All I wanted to do in the world was to be able to play and sound like that. Everyone else wanted to be Elvis, I wanted to be Scotty."