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Remembering Scotty Moore, Elvis Presley's First Guitarist And Manager


This is FRESH AIR. We're going to remember Elvis Presley's first guitarist and first manager, Scotty Moore. He died Tuesday at the age of 84. Moore played with Elvis from 1954 through 1964, then reunited with him for Elvis's 1968 comeback special. He gave up the guitar for about 25 years before returning to music.

As Peter Guralnick, the author of the definitive biography of Elvis writes, (reading) guitar players of every generation since rock began have studied and memorized Scotty's licks, even when Scotty himself couldn't duplicate them. We're going to hear the interview I recorded with Scotty Moore in 1997 after the publication of his memoir about his years with Elvis called "That's Alright, Elvis."

The title is a reference to Elvis's first single, "That's All Right," which was recorded in 1954 for Sam Phillips' label Sun Records and featured Scotty Moore on guitar.


ELVIS PRESLEY: (Singing) Well, that's all right, Mama. That's all right for you. That's all right, Mama, just anyway you do. That's all right. That's all right. That's all right now, Mama, anyway you do. Well, Mama, she done told me, Papa done told me too, Son, that gal you're fooling with, she ain't no good for you. But that's all right. That's all right. That's all right now, Mama, anyway you do.

I'm leaving town, baby, I'm leaving town for sure. Well, then you won't be bothered with me hanging around your door. But that's all right. That's all right. That's all right now, Mama, anyway you do.


GROSS: When you recorded this, Scotty Moore, did you have any sense that this was something new and exciting that was happening, this was the beginning of something important?

SCOTTY MOORE: All of us knew when we listened to it that it was different. But we didn't know what direction 'cause it was a R&B song and with an instrumentation coming through it into more of a country flavor. So it was a mixture. And...

GROSS: And what you're playing there is really very jazz influenced.

MOORE: Well, yes and no. I'm trying to - I had just been turned on to Chet Atkins with his thumb finger playing a few months back. And I'd been trying to figure out how he did that. It sounded like two guitars. And I was beginning to understand it, but I couldn't do it. But then I started doing the rhythm thing on this to just try to fill it up.

And as the three, four takes went on, I kept trying to stab the little notes in as I was doing the rhythm.

GROSS: Those little high notes that you're talking about?

MOORE: Yeah.

GROSS: Yeah, I mean, you know, those high notes that you play in the fills are so unexpected in a rhythm and blues song, I think.

MOORE: Yeah, they would have been, right.

GROSS: They're kind of delicate for that.

MOORE: Sneaky.


GROSS: Sneaky, I like that. That's interesting too that here's, you know, this, like, really early rock 'n' roll record - there's no drummer on it.

MOORE: No...

GROSS: I mean, you know, drums are, like, the back beat of rock 'n' roll and everything. And you're starting off without a drummer.

MOORE: Well, Sam used to build slap, and then he would add the tape delay on top of that, which gave it a - the rhythmic thing also. But he always said, oh, he hated drums. He hated drums. And when I got a little more in tune...

GROSS: Sam Phillips was saying he hated drums?

MOORE: Yeah, but after I got a little more into the engineering savvy, it was a small - the room's not much bigger than this. And he couldn't control them. That's why he didn't like them.


GROSS: Now, what were your thoughts about Elvis' guitar playing?

MOORE: He was a wonderful rhythm player as far as, you know, as an acoustic, open type rhythm. He had great rhythm and had great rhythm in his voice. If you listen, he did a lot of things with his voice that just came natural to him. I think he got that through the gospel influence, you know, the well, well, wells and that type of thing, especially the bass singers would do in gospel music.

GROSS: Now, tell me the truth, after you started recording with Elvis, did you think, this guy's a great singer? Or were you thinking, this guy's OK?

MOORE: Oh, well, we became more aware after just three records that he liked a challenge. But he was very particular about songs. He had to get into them, feel them good. Now, true, most of the stuff on Sun was - it wasn't original material. There were some that were remakes of R&B and some - couple of country things like "Milkcow Blues" and things like that.

But when we went to RCA, things changed. He was absolutely picking his own material then. And we'd go into the session and have a stack two feet high of acetates. And the first couple hours, he would spend going through those. And he might listen to eight bars and zap across the room. Then he'd listen about half way and he'd put that in another stack to come back and listen to again.

GROSS: This is - what? - demos that had been made for him?

MOORE: Demos, right. And that's the way he did it.

GROSS: Now, you ended up booking and managing Elvis in the early days of his recording career when he first got started at Sun Records. Did you actually have to do any of that booking yourself early on?

MOORE: Yes, I did quite a bit the first, I'd say, six months or so, yeah.

GROSS: So tell me what it was like early on before people really knew who Elvis Presley were when you were trying to establish dates.

MOORE: It was rough. I mean, you know, we're talking about making, for the group, you know, $25 a night, you know, maybe driving 50 miles.

GROSS: How would you describe what Elvis and the band were doing to someone if you were trying to book yourselves into a place, a place where they hadn't heard you yet?

MOORE: Oh, well, it was almost impossible if they hadn't heard the record on the radio. I mean, how do you describe it? Here's this kid going to come out in pink pants and white stripe and white buck shoes and...

GROSS: (Laughter).

MOORE: And a New York duck haircut (laughter) in Mississippi. No, we tried to find places that they at least - you had heard him on the radio or something. And then even then, when they saw him, it was kind of shock value, you know?

GROSS: What was the first time like when you saw him that way?

MOORE: It didn't bother me, but the Sunday (unintelligible) came over to the house...

GROSS: This was before you recorded?

MOORE: Yeah, and my wife was there. And she kind of gave me the (unintelligible) sign. I thought she was going out the back door when she saw him.

GROSS: Well, how was he dressed?

MOORE: He had on a white-lace, see-through shirt and it was either black or pink slacks with a white stripe down the side. And it was just unusual for the norm. But he always loved those flashy clothes and stuff like that.

GROSS: When did you start realizing that Elvis was really catching on in a very emotional way with his fans?

MOORE: I would say that after we did the first couple of TV shows with Tommy and Jimmy Dorsey after we went to RCA. Before that, most of our shows and stuff had been all in the southeast. And there had been some, granted, that - starting to see the hysteria and so forth. But it really didn't come home to us until we did those shows, that national exposure.

Then it just seemed like the floodgates opened up, you know?

GROSS: Now, how did you feel about this? On the one hand, it was, like, really good news for the group that the singer was so popular. On the other hand, he was getting so much of the attention. Did you feel envious of the attention that he was getting?

MOORE: Oh, no, no. That never even crossed our minds. No, that, we hoped, would mean bigger paychecks, bigger paydays, you know, for everybody.

GROSS: Did it?



MOORE: That did grew a little bit but not very much. That's kindly what I'm saying with the title of the book. The pay raises, the perks and stuff as he got bigger and bigger and bigger didn't come along for the band. And I'm just saying, that's OK. It's not - we were being paid a fair wage as far as the man on the street with an everyday job.

GROSS: Right.

MOORE: You know, 200 bucks a week back then wasn't bad at all. But then you take - as he got bigger and we had to get in these bigger hotels and people expect you to take them to dinner. And we bought our own clothes and paid our own hotel bills out of what we were making. And we were saying, you know, hey, some of this should come from some other source, you know.

That was the thing. We weren't really arguing about that we didn't have enough to pay the bills at home. But it was all this other stuff that was really expected of you that you couldn't afford.

GROSS: We're listening to my 1997 interview with Scotty Moore, Elvis Presley's first guitarist. Moore died Tuesday. We'll hear more of the interview after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. We're remembering Scotty Moore, Elvis Presley's first guitarist and first manager. Moore died Tuesday at the age of 84. Let's get back to my 1997 interview with him.


GROSS: What would you say is your most-copied guitar solo from the Elvis records?

MOORE: Probably "Heartbreak Hotel" maybe. I don't know. I mean, I've never been asked that before. Can we do a survey?

GROSS: (Laughter).

MOORE: Write in, folks, and tell me (laughter). I don't know.

GROSS: Well, why don't we go for "Heartbreak Hotel?"


GROSS: Tell me your memories of this session.

MOORE: Well, of course, that was the first one on RCA. And they were trying to get basically the same sound that Sam was getting - had gotten with us in Memphis. And they had this big, long hallway out in the front that had the tile floor. So they put a big speaker at one end of it and a mic at the other end with a sing - do not enter.

And they used that - that's where it ended up with that deep, real room echo instead of the tape delay echo that Sam had used. Now, there is - it's hard to hear - there is a little tape delay on it. But either their tape machine didn't match his - and so it's just very slight. And then he ended up with just the acoustic echo.

Room echo at that point was sound effects they used in the movies. They weren't using them for recording. And then here comes this, and it's so drastic. But it worked for the song. When he says, you know, at the end of lonely street, it's so distant. One thing that Sam did that I don't believe he realized when he was doing it, and I didn't until years later that I got into engineering, he pulled Elvis's voice back close to the music.

You know, all the Sinatra and all those things where the voice is so far out in front. And he wanted us to use Elvis's voice as another instrument.

GROSS: Into the mix.

MOORE: Into the mix but didn't bury him like a lot of the rock things, you know, later.

GROSS: Right.

MOORE: But you could still - closer.

GROSS: Well, all right. Let's hear it, 1956, "Heartbreak Hotel."


PRESLEY: (Singing) Well, since my baby left me, well, I've found a new place to dwell. Well, it's down at the end of Lonely Street at Heartbreak Hotel. I get so lonely, baby. Well, I'm so lonely. I'll get so lonely, I could die. Although it's always crowded, you still can find some room for broken-hearted lovers to cry there in their gloom.

They'll be so - they'll be so lonely, baby, they'll get so lonely. They'll be so lonely, they could die. Now, the bellhop's tears keep flowing, and the desk clerk's dressed in black. Well, they've been so long on Lonely Street, they'll never, they'll never get back. And they'll get so lonely, baby, well, they're so lonely.

They're so lonely, they could die. Well, now, if your baby leaves you, and you've got a tale to tell, well, just take a walk down Lonely Street to Heartbreak Hotel where you will be, you will be so lonely, baby. Where you will be lonely. You'll be so lonely, you could die.

GROSS: That's "Heartbreak Hotel," my guest Scotty Moore on guitar. And he's written an autobiography, which, of course, includes his years playing guitar with Elvis Presley. It's called "That's Alright, Elvis."

Did you see Elvis undergo a personality transformation as he became more and more famous, you know - a recording star, a movie star, a heartthrob, an icon?

MOORE: You know, the years I spent with him, he seemed to take it in stride. Yeah, I saw all the things changing around him, you know, with the movies and such. And he became more secluded as he gathered his entourage around him because he didn't feel like he could go out and didn't want to cause a scene, you know, just going to, you know, like, a famous restaurant or something.

But as far as personality changes and stuff, I didn't become aware of any until after I left him. And then he started in the '70s. And I don't know the inside. And I've heard, of course, and read a lot of stuff. But it still amazes me because a few months before he died, I saw some footage when he was so bloated. He just - you know, I said there's something desperately wrong because he was very vain. And there's no way that he'd go out in front of people like that.

GROSS: Did you feel like he...

MOORE: I don't think he could see hisself (ph) in the mirror at that point.

GROSS: Did you feel like you didn't recognize the person he had become?

MOORE: No, I didn't.

GROSS: Did you communicate with him at all during that period?

MOORE: No. And it was not because of any conflicts or anything. It's just that with this entourage around - and there was two, three of those guys that were really good guys. But still, he could call me a lot easier than I could get through to him. You know what I'm saying. You make the call. You don't know if he ever gets it or not. And so I just left it for him.

GROSS: Do you feel bad that Elvis died during a period when you weren't really in touch, so you didn't have a chance to maybe talk about things with him that you might have liked to talk about before he passed?

MOORE: Well, yes, in one way. But in another way, I always - he was so vain, I could never see him growing old gracefully.

GROSS: That's interesting. But, like you were saying, if he was so - like, he was so vain, and yet he managed to allow himself to balloon the way he did.

MOORE: That just astonishes me.

GROSS: Yeah.

MOORE: I don't know. I will never understand that.

GROSS: But you can't imagine an aging Elvis?

MOORE: No. I mean, if he hadn't got into that...

GROSS: Right

MOORE: ...Situation, no. I never could. In fact, the guys - we used to talk about it, you know, said - what's he going to do when he gets about 60, you know?


MOORE: What if he goes bald? - you know, just all kinds of stuff like that.


GROSS: Well, Scotty Moore, I'm really glad you're playing again and a pleasure to have the chance to talk with you.

MOORE: Terry, it's been a pleasure and enjoyable.

MOORE: Scotty Moore, recorded in 1997. He died Tuesday at the age of 84.

After we take a short break, Ken Tucker will review a new album by a young singer-songwriter that debuted at number one on the Billboard country music chart. This is FRESH AIR. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.