On a steamy July day in 1954, guitarist Scotty Moore began improvising a spirited version of the traditional blues song “That’s All Right” during a recording break at Sun Studios. An unknown teenager named Elvis Presley followed his lead, legendary producer Sam Phillips perked up his ears, and music history was irrevocably changed forever. By assertively combining country and blues guitar styles into something altogether novel, Scotty Moore had created a new musical vocabulary and provided the definition of what it meant to play guitar in a rock ‘n’ roll band.
Born Winfield Scott Moore III in rural Gadsden, Tennessee, Scotty Moore began playing the guitar at the age of eight with support from his family and neighbors. In 1954, Moore moved to Memphis and began his career as a professional musician with his “back woods country hillbilly” band The Starlite Wranglers. While disappointing sales ultimately ended The Starlite Wranglers’ brief recording career at Sun Studios, Sam Phillips chose to keep Moore and bassist Bill Black on the payroll. Believing that they were the perfect support for Presley’s vocals, Phillips decided to pair Moore and Black with the young crooner and hope for the best. During that fateful July 5th afternoon, the makeshift group proved just how correct Phillips’ intuition had been.
Although Elvis had already been established as the star of the show, the young group viewed themselves as being truly egalitarian. “In the beginning, we were a band. We thought as one, created as one, performed as one,” Moore wrote. In fact, when “That’s All Right” was released as a single, the song was credited to the team of “Elvis Presley, Scotty, and Bill.” Riding the success of their first hit, the group began traveling under the name Elvis and the Blue Moon Boys with Scotty Moore serving as both the bandleader and Elvis’ first manager.
In October of 1954, the band made their first appearance on the Louisiana Hayride and quickly signed a one-year contract to become official members of the popular radio program. Along with newly-added drummer D.J. Fontana, the Blue Moon Boys were soon performing around the Southeast and garnering a huge regional buzz. According to Moore, this early tour was vital in sharpening the band’s skills and in teaching them how to deal with the increasingly frenzied crowds.
As Elvis’ popularity rose to a fever pitch, Scotty focused on the best way to support the burgeoning superstar. “My idea of using the guitar to provide counterpoint to the vocalist was a radical concept in popular recording at the time,” Moore says in his memoir Scotty and Elvis: Aboard the Mystery Train. “It was like we were doing a ballroom dance with each other. I tried to match him step for step, always playing counterpoint.” Moore also began experimenting with a heavy amplification, which gave these early tunes a distinctive richness.Used by permission, Elvis Presley Enterprises
In 1955, the group returned to Sun and recorded the single “Mystery Train,” which would become their first number one hit. However, as Elvis’ popularity steadily grew, so did tensions within the band. Moore and Black found their roles within the Blue Moon Boys being quickly diminished and each was now a salaried employee rather than an equal partner. Despite his concerns, Moore decided to remain with his good friend Elvis when the singer’s contract was sold to RCA in 1956.Photo credit @ScottyMooreWebsite
Within weeks of arriving at RCA, the label dropped the band’s name from all of its materials and Elvis’ management began taking steps to disassociate the star from his former partners. Flustered but undeterred, Moore accepted his role as the quiet and steady driving force in the group and became the quintessential sideman. He was soon back in the studio playing on tracks like “I Was the One” and the hit “Heartbreak Hotel,” which was soon soaring to the top of the charts. As a string of high-profile television appearances quickly established Presley as a national force and a money-making enterprise, Moore was largely left out of the financial windfall that followed. “In those days, being a rock musician was not all what it was cracked up to be,” he claimed.
Despite financial hardships and an increasingly dysfunctional working environment, Moore continued to provide dazzling guitar licks to some of Elvis’ greatest hits, including “Hound Dog,” “Love Me Tender,” and “All Shook Up.” Moore’s ability to play on material that ran the gamut from rockabilly to ballads made him invaluable to Presley’s diverse early sound. Unfortunately, Moore’s genius was largely taken for granted and his feelings of isolation grew.Background photo credit Gibson Guitars
With frustrations mounting, Scotty Moore and Bill Black came to the difficult decision to leave the band in 1957. “He [Elvis] promised us that the more he made the more we would make. But it hasn’t worked out that way,” Moore told a newspaper soon after his dteparture. In need of work, Moore began working at Fernwood Records and soon produced a hit record called "Tragedy" for Thomas Wayne Perkins.
After returning from his tour in the Army, Elvis contacted Scotty Moore in 1960 and asked him to return as his guitarist. Despite Moore’s optimism, his return to Elvis’ band would prove to be short-lived. No longer believing that a reunion with Elvis was possible, Moore sold his share in the struggling Fernwood Records and reunited with Sam Phillips, who hired him as the production manager at Sam Phillips Recording Service.
In 1964, Moore released his instrumental album called The Guitar That Changed the World. “I was ecstatic over the album,” Moore wrote. “For the first time in my career, I had a project that was my very own.” Alas, Sam Phillips did not share Moore’s excitement and decided to fire him after learning about the album. Feeling that he had exhausted his options in Memphis, Moore set his sights towards Nashville.
In addition to working as an engineer and session musician, Moore unexpectedly began working with Presley again during his Nashville sessions at RCA. He also set up his own recording studio called Music City Recorders, which he would run until 1975. In 1968, Moore and drummer D.J. Fontana rejoined Presley for his televised “Comeback Special” on NBC. Critics and fans hailed the show as a smashing success and a return- to-form for Presley, but sadly it would also mark the last time that Elvis and Moore would perform together. Due to wage disputes with Elvis’ management, the man who had created the rock ‘n’ roll guitar would not play publicly again for twenty-four years.
After decades away, Moore returned to Memphis in the early 1990s and began performing and recording with many of the contemporary guitar legends who had idolized Moore as youngsters. This impressive list includes Jeff Beck, Ronnie Wood, and the Rolling Stones’ Keith Richard, who is vocal about Moore’s impact on himself and countless other guitarists: “He was laying the licks down for my generation. He gave us the grounding … he was the beacon. You heard a lot of other cats later, but Scotty is the one who turned you on.”
Scotty Moore passed away in June 2016 at the age of 84.