Friday, July 1, 2016

My Back Pages: A Look at Guitar Player Magazine Back Issues #4--R.I.P. Scotty Moore

2016 continues to bring bad news on the rock and roll front. Halfway through the year, and we have had to endure the loss of more than a few legendary musical figures, and this week a true pioneer of rock music passed away.

If anyone could truly be said to have been "present at the creation" of rock and roll, it was Scotty Moore, a Memphis based guitarist who was one of Sam Phillips' go to musicians at Sun Studios, and who the producer asked to help put together the first sessions for young Elvis Presley. Scotty went on to form (with Bill Black and DJ Fontana) Elvis' first band, the band that cut the legendary Sun sessions, made the groundbreaking television appearances and worked with Elvis until he entered the Army.  This video from the Milton Berle show (live on a Navy ship, apparently), shows the power that the band got from a very small amp, a tiny drum kit, and a doghouse bass:

Scotty Moore was inducted to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2000, and he put out some music of his own over the years (though it is very hard to find these days), but spent most of his career as a producer and engineer. When I think of him, I think of a really terrific July 1997 cover story Guitar Player magazine ran on him. I pulled the issue out of my collection (I have every Guitar Player from 1986-2010) and found several bits that you might find interesting.
In the article, Scotty described the fateful meeting in 1954: 
"I remember thinking, 'what in the hell kind of name is that--Elvis.' He was real nice though. Kinda shy and he sang pretty good."
"I had a band, the Starlight Wranglers, and we had a steady gig on the weekends at a place called the Bon Air. I knew we had to have a radio show or a record out to book better playing jobs, so we'd done one record with Sam. I think it sold about 12 copies. He'd been telling me about this kid and I wanted to see what he was all about."
"When Sam set up the audition, which ended up being Elvis' first Sun session, he said he just wanted to hear the voice with a little background in there for rhythm...With no drums it sounded so empty, and I was trying to fill things up a little. That's why I went to the thumb and fingers style, trying to keep a heavier rhythm and just stabbing in fill notes. I'd been listening to Merle Travis and Chet Atkins for a couple of years after I got out of the Navy in '52. I would try to figure out how in the hell they were doing all that."
In the article, Scotty Moore said that after Elvis' comeback special on TV in 1968 he never heard from Elvis again, and devoted his time to running his recording studio. He noted that after that concert he gave up playing for a long time:
"I just laid my guitar down, cold turkey. I didn't play for 24 years--not a note, except for just a few overdubs for some friends. Didn't even own a guitar for a long time. I sold my Super 400, everything except my amp. If somebody would ask me if I missed playing, I'd say 'Hell no! I'm playing a whole band here with the console.' Besides, I really didn't want to deal with all the bullshit that had grown up around the other part of the business anymore, and I wanted to stay home. I'd done all the traveling I wanted to do for awhile."

The article also includes a short review of James Dickerson's That's Alright Elvis-The Untold Story of Elvis' First Guitarist and Manager, Scotty Moore by Jas Obrecht. Obrecht includes a quote from the book describing how things changed when Elvis hired Col. Tom Parker to be his new manager:
"We knew from day one the Colonel didn't want [Bill Black and Moore] around," Moore says. By the summer of '55 Scotty and Bill had gone from being members of a trio sharing a 50/25/25 split to salaried sidemen earning $200 a week while working, $100 during down time. "People were laughing at us," Moore says. "Even the guys selling souvenir books were making more money than we were."
It's common to read about how the founders of rock and roll, especially African-Americans, were taken advantage of by the music industry, but Scotty Moore was also a victim of an exploitative system. He was just as responsible as Elvis himself for inspiring a generation of future guitar heroes to pick up the instrument. Obrecht's review, however, sums up the tangible benefits that Moore derived from his creative genius:
From the $50,000 Elvis pulled in from the Ed Sullivan Show, Scotty reports that he pocketed $235. They received no record royalties, concessions income, free cars or big bonuses. They had to buy their own wardrobe for Jailhouse Rock....His total take for 14 years with Elvis: $30,123.72.
You can learn more about Scotty Moore on his website. He will be missed, but it's safe to say that there will be good rockin' in heaven tonight.

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