If Chet Atkins’ Nashville Sound was the sound of money, the Scotty Moore sound was the sound of no money. Despite playing guitar for Elvis Presley, Scotty Moore only made around $30,000 from his partnership with the King, while Elvis went on to become a multimillionaire. Moore, however, created an inheritance far more valuable than gold—he set the mold for all future lead guitarists in rock and pop music.
Moore was born on December 27, 1931, near Gadsden, Tennessee. Like his hero Chet Atkins, he played guitar at a young age. He joined the Navy illegally at age sixteen in 1948 and served until 1952. While he was in the Navy, he played Fender guitars because they were easy to play while sitting down in an aircraft carrier. Once he left the Navy, though, he traded in his Fender for a gold Gibson ES-295.
Moore didn’t have any plans to revolutionize music—he wanted to be a jazz guitarist and played in a country group called the Starlite Wranglers, along with bassist Bill Black. The Starlite Wranglers cut an LP with Sam Phillips on Sun Records, and Phillips and Moore became working acquaintances. One day, Phillips asked Moore and Black to audition a young singer with a strange name. Although Moore wasn’t initially impressed by the young Elvis Presley, he agreed to play in a recording session with him.
The session, consisting mostly of country and pop ballads, was underwhelming. Moore and Black were packing up their instruments to leave when Elvis started jumping around and singing “That’s Alright, Mama,” an up-tempo blues song by Arthur Crudup. Moore and Black joined in, and Sam Phillips opened the control room door and said “What are you guys doing? That sounds pretty good. Why don’t you keep doing it?” The mix of up-tempo blues and country, with just a hint of jazz, became later known as rock-and-roll.
Sure, there were other guitarists and singers performing music in the rock-and-roll style at the time, like Chuck Berry and Bo Diddley. Elvis and Scotty Moore may not have invented rock-and-roll, but the mix of Elvis’s charisma and Moore’s eclectic playing resonated with America in a way that previous records had not. “That’s Alright, Mama” and subsequent recordings solidified the genre into a national craze.
Unfortunately, despite his role in the creation of rock music, Scotty Moore didn’t achieve the fame and fortune of Elvis. Moore was several years older than Elvis, and Elvis regarded him more as an older brother than a peer. As Elvis became more popular, Scotty and the rest of the band began to be pushed to the sidelines. The situation was best expressed by the role Moore played in Elvis’s movies—he was a walk-on who played in the background during the songs, while Elvis was the star of the show.
Moore expanded his career during the late ’50’s and early ’60’s by working as a producer. He continued to play on Elvis’s recordings after Elvis returned from the Army and changed his style—Moore actually liked Elvis’s more pop-oriented material. However, in 1964 Moore was fired from his position at Epic Records by Sam Phillips for recording an album of Elvis songs called The Guitar That Changed the World. Although he briefly re-united with Elvis for the 1968 “Comeback” special, Moore never again worked for Elvis, and for a long time did not even play the guitar professionally. He played and recorded music occasionally starting in the 1990’s, but never reached the popularity he had during his time with Elvis. Nevertheless, he was never bitter about Elvis’s success. Moore died on June 28, 2016.
Scotty Moore had one of the toughest jobs in music—playing alongside Elvis Presley. Nevertheless, Moore’s red-hot licks not only managed to avoid being overshadowed by Elvis but actually pushed Elvis’s performances to fifth gear. Moore played fingerstyle like Chet Atkins, but his fingerstyle parts are highly minimalist, especially on Elvis’s Sun Records recordings. Touches of jazz and country show up in his playing, but he had a frantic energy that belonged purely to rock-and-roll, as seen in the freight-train rhythms of “Hound Dog” and the solo on “Heartbreak Hotel.” Sam Phillips pioneered a new reverb technique he dubbed slapback, and Moore’s use of reverb created the “twangy” sound of early rock and roll. He also has the honor of inventing the power chord, in the intro to “Jailhouse Rock,” which was meant to imitate the sound of prisoners breaking rocks.
Finally, Moore and Elvis created the archetype of the singer-lead guitarist duo. Other early rock-and-roll stars were both singers and instrumentalists (Chuck Berry, Little Richard, Bo Diddley, Buddy Holly). Scotty Moore and Elvis Presley’s arrangement freed up the charismatic singer to wow the crowd with his moves while the guitarist focused on his licks—a set-up used by the Rolling Stones, The Who, The Ramones, and countless other bands.
In Part Three we’ll travel down to Texas to explore the life and tragic death of the Lone Star State’s greatest blues guitarist—Stevie Ray Vaughan.
WATCH SCOTTY MOORE PLAY “THAT’S ALRIGHT, MAMA” WITH ERIC CLAPTON