By Bill Ramsey
In the nervous days that led up to what would become Elvis Presley’s 1968 Comeback Special — a televised affair Colonel Parker envisioned first as a Christmas card to fans — the King of Rock ’n’ Roll was confronted with a proposition that mortified him: “Walk down the street with me,” said Steve Binder, the man who would produce the special. In Hollywood. Elvis did. And not one person recognized him. It was a revelation.
His reaction was to return to his roots. He gathered his old band on a sound stage in Burbank to create what was, in effect, the first, greatest “unplugged” video of all time. The theme of the show, said Binder, was to follow the guitar man from humble beginnings to stardom, but it was the jam session set piece that reignited Elvis. Assembled behind him were drummer D.J. Fontana and guitarist Scotty Moore. Bassist Bill Black had died in 1965, but the core was intact. Fourteen years earlier, the group made history at Sun Records in Memphis. Now he was back.
Moore was the essential element. No other guitarist ever propelled Elvis — save the whirlwind that is James Burton — to such heights.
Scotty Moore died on June 28 at 84 at his home in Nashville with an epochal career behind him. His chords were the sound that one first heard when the first Elvis platter hit the turntable. This was the guitar that shook the world.
Born Winfield Scott Moore III on Dec. 27, 1931, on a farm in Humboldt, Tennessee, Moore began playing guitar at the age of 8, learning from family and friends. After a stint in the Navy, he formed the Starlite Wranglers with bassist Bill Black and began working with Sam Phillips at Sun Records. There he met Presley, whose first audition apparently left Moore unimpressed.
“He had a nice voice,” Moore recalled, but not much else. Fortunately, Phillips thought otherwise, and thus began Moore’s 14-year career as Presley’s guitarist, his first manager and a lifelong friendship — not to mention ushering in an era that would forever change the face of American popular music.
“I met him on Sunday,” Moore said in an interview after his 1992 autobiography was published, “and we went in the studio Monday night. That was when ‘That’s All Right’ was cut. But that was an audition, it wasn’t meant as a session.”
That audition caught fire, though, and the guitar would never be the same. “Moore’s concise, aggressive runs mixed country picking and blues phrasing into a new instrumental language,” Rolling Stone wrote in 2011. The rest, as they say, is history.
Listen to the first strains of “That’s All Right,” to the dink-dink-dink of “Heartbreak Hotel” and “Hound Dog” — and really listen to the solos. On “Hound Dog,” the first sets up another, as Greil Marcus wrote, “to show you what the extraordinary really is. Scotty Moore takes the fluid notes of the first break, and then smashes them, cuts them up, then leaps over the empty spaces. He says, ‘You thought that was the truth, but I was only kidding. I’m not kidding any more.’”
No one ever underestimated the power of Moore’s guitar behind Elvis, least of all Elvis. But when Elvis was drafted in 1958, the recording machine stopped. It would be another 10 years before the two were reunited.
In the meantime, Moore recorded with Black, but his main concentration in the 1960s was producing records and audio engineering for Sam Phillips at his new Nashville studio before doing freelance engineering around Nashville. He went on to record and engineer, owning and operating recording studios in Memphis and Nashville before returning to live performing in the 1980s and ’90s. Reuniting often with drummer Fontana, Moore was routinely in demand for a series of famed sessions with the likes of Keith Richards, Bruce Springsteen and Eric Clapton.
In 1997, Moore teamed with Fontana to record the tribute album, All the King’s Men, which featured several guest artists including the Bill Black Combo, Richards, Ron Wood, Jeff Beck, Levon Helm, Jim Weider, Rick Neilson and others. In 2000, Moore — arguably the most famous sideman in rock ’n’ roll history — was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame at the 15th annual induction dinner.
“When I heard ‘Heartbreak Hotel,’ I knew what I wanted to do in life,” Richards once said. “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.”
On Oct. 17, 2015, the night Moore was inducted into the Memphis Music Hall of Fame but couldn’t attend, it was Richards who accepted the award on his hero’s behalf.
“I started out on an acoustic guitar,” the Rolling Stone told the star-studded crowd that night at Memphis’ Cannon Center. “Then I heard Scotty Moore, and I went electric.”
He wasn’t the only one, either.