“I didn’t get rich, but it was better than picking cotton…”
We can debate who invented rock and roll, but there is no question that it was Elvis Presley who turned it into an earth shaking phenomenon. He also did something equally revolutionary at the same time: He made the guitar the most popular instrument in the world. After Elvis, sales of pianos and accordions would never be the same.
Elvis’s role in the ascension of the guitar is somewhat overlooked now and not without reason. While it was an essential part of his act and image, it was for the most part a prop in his hands. The man responsible for the electric guitar sound that drove the kids wild was Scotty Moore. When Moore released his first solo album in 1964 with the title “The Guitar That Changed the World,” it was not overstating the case.
“When I heard it,” Keith Richards said of Moore’s guitar playing on “Heartbreak Hotel,” “I knew that was what I wanted to do in life…Everyone else wanted to be Elvis. I wanted to be Scotty.”
Moore recorded more than 300 songs with Elvis, but after performing on the King’s 1968 “Comeback Special,” he never heard from him again. Soon after, Moore put his guitar away and opened a recording studio. At the urging of Carl Perkins, Moore started picking again in 1992 after a 24 year layoff. In 1994, he teamed up with Lee Rocker of the Stray Cats on the bassist’s “Big Blue” CD and they worked together on and off through 2002. I spoke with Moore, then 70 years old, in advance of a May 19, 2002 date with Rocker at the House of Blues in Cambridge (at the chain’s original, since-shuttered Harvard Square location). He was very much a polite and good-humored Southern gentleman, betraying no rancor toward those who treated him shabbily and no bitterness over his lack of fame and fortune.
May 9, 2002
By phone from his Nashville area home
Have you ever played in Boston before?
I don’t think so. I really don’t. I don’t think we played there in the early days [laughs]. I know I haven’t lately. I’d have to do some research, but I don’t think we’ve played up there.
Have you ever been to Boston?
I’ve been there, yeah. It’s been years though.
How often do you play with Lee Rocker?
We’ve done more this year than we’ve done before. I’ve known him since he did that “Big Blue” album. I met him through the guitar player he had at the time, Mike Eldred. I went down to Memphis and cut a couple of sides with him and we just hit it off. We’ve been doing a few things since. This year we’ve already done a Midwest tour and now we’re doing a second one. If this one is as good as the Midwest tour, shoot, we might go for number three [laughs].
Above: Mike Eldred, Scotty Moore, Lee Rocker
Did you need much convincing from Lee to go out and play live?
Not really. I went out and did a couple of dates out on the west coast with him. I did a hootenanny there with him. Just various things, most on the west coast. Now we’re talking about maybe going overseas together.
I have to say l was a bit surprised when I learned that out of all the guys in the world who would love to play with you, you were working with Lee Rocker.
Well, he’s a fantastic bass player, number one. And every day he’s singing better. Of course with the Stray Cats Brian [Setzer] did most of the singing. But Lee’s coming into his own, he really is. We do a few of the things that he recorded, and he does two or three flat-ass old country tunes, some Hank Williams, some blues, and of course we do a few Elvis things. It’s just a good mixture. Everything works well together. It’s good.
And how many other musicians are in the band?
There’s a drummer and two other guitar players and it works real good with them.
Did the fact that Lee plays string bass have particular appeal to you?
Not really. He plays electric, too, but he plays upright out on the road for show. It’s a pain in the butt to carry around, of course [laughs]. When we started [with Elvis], Bill Black of course was playing upright. They hadn’t even invented the Fender. You’d get so tired of that double bass punchin’ ya, every time you’d right up you’d bump your head on it in the car. Then later on we got a rack and put it on top. I’ll tell you a real quick story. Me and [original Presley drummer] D.J. [Fontana] did a thing about a year ago with Paul McCartney in New York for that Sun tribute TV special and CD. Somebody asked him, “Is it true that you’ve got Bill’s bass?” He said, “Yeah, I do. I was afraid to bring it over and put it in cargo because it might get hurt.” I said, “Hurt that thing? Let me tell you a story. Bill had a regular canvas cover for it. Then he went to a tent and awning company and got a big heavy waterproof tarp. I mean this thing was big and heavy. We’d lay it on top of the car to carry his bass on the ride. Well, we were going through Arkansas headed toward Texas. Bill was driving. Elvis had just bought an old Lincoln. Some farmer run out in front of us in a pickup truck and Bill just slammed right in the side of it and Elvis and I both, we jumped out and run over and started checking the guy out, seeing if he was okay and everything. Well, unbeknownst to us, the bass had broke the straps and flew off. It flew out past the headlights. And while we were checking the guy in the truck to see if he was okay, all of a sudden we heard this doomp doomp doomp doomp coming out of the dark. It was Bill. He’d gone down there to check the bass out [laughs]. It was okay. It didn’t have a scratch on it. It made a perfect three point landing.”
You worked with Sam Phillips when you recorded at Sun. Many people credit him as one of the inventors of rock and roll. Do you think he gets maybe too much credit and maybe you don’t get enough for being, as your  solo album was called, “The Guitar That Changed the World!”?
That [title] wasn’t my idea. That was Billy Sherrill, who was running Epic Records here in Nashville. But he won. He had the bucks [laughs]. I thought that was a little pretentious at the time.
And Sam Phillips?
Well, Sam had the ear at the time. I’ve said many, many times, Sam didn’t know what he was looking for, but thank God he knew when he heard it. It was something different. That was the thing. The first record, the first side of the first record we did was on the audition. We didn’t go in to cut a record. He just wanted Bill and I to go in with Elvis to furnish a little noise in the background. And lo and behold we cut the first side [“That’s All Right,” in July, 1954]. The thing about that, when I got into engineering myself several years later and I realized what Sam – and I don’t know if he even realized it at the time – but he used Elvis’s voice – I guess because there were only three of us, three instruments – but he used Elvis’s voice like an instrument also. He pushed it down closer to the music. Back in the late ‘40s, ‘50s, in country and pop the singer was way way out in front of the band. I think that helped the sound a lot that way.
At that point were you consciously striving for an original guitar style?
I didn’t realize it was original. What I was trying to do was play something that fit that particular song or the way he was singing. I never gave a thought to “Am I playing something that hasn’t been played before?” Just all of the guitar players I listened to over the years, I stuck bits and pieces in my databank and that’s just the way it came out. I still try to play the same way. Of course I don’t do that much recording anymore, but just a bunch of notes don’t impress me at all.
It’s now almost 50 years after making those early recordings with Elvis and those guitar parts you played have been listened to millions of times and studied note for note by guitar players around the world. Do you find that astounding?
Well, it pleases me. But I scratch my head at the same time [laughs].
Your influence was not just on guitarists but on music history.
That’s one thing I’m really proud of, how the music has held up all these years. Doesn’t seem to be faltering any that I can tell. Especially since I’ve been doing these things with Lee, you would think the crowd that was coming in, well, there are a lot of youngsters, but they’re familiar with the Elvis stuff also.
The “Hound Dog” guitar riff
In recent years we’ve seen everything that Elvis ever did released on CD, just any and every scrap that can be found. What do you think about that?
Probably loaded down with outtakes, hiccups, whatever. It absolutely galls me to no end. I guarantee you if the man was alive there’d be hell to pay. Outtakes – once you get the master on a song, whether you have to splice two cuts together or whatever, the rest of it is supposed to go in the wastebasket. The only reason that some stuff got saved is in case the master gets screwed up you can go back and put it together again. I’m talking about before digital, of course. None of the musicians get paid for any of the outtakes. And they’re considered masters when they’re put out. Y’know, they list a hundred songs. But they’re just repackaging old stuff.
In your autobiography [“That’s Alright, Elvis,” published in 1997] you give the details of how little money you made working with Elvis [Moore, by his estimate, made a total of $30,000].
Well, I didn’t get rich, but it was better than picking cotton, trust me [laughs]. I’ve tried to explain, in 1954, we were making good money compared to the man on the street. But as he got bigger the bands salaries didn’t get bigger. And more was expected out of us. Elvis stayed in seclusion all the time and we were hit with all the newspaper interview stuff, radio, just about everything. And then there’s all these people who expect you to take ’em to dinner. Who could afford that side of it?
Was Elvis negligent? Or was he just overly naive when it came to your pay?
Well, he was [naive]. He had no idea of the value of a dollar. He didn’t know how to handle money. Being as young as he was and coming from a poor background – well so did the rest of us – but he was really poor. Then he got money and it seemed like there was no end to the money coming in. He just spent it like there was no end to it. He didn’t understand our situation. Once he got to rolling, we had [Col. Tom] Parker and all these people tipping his ear. Just stop and think. If you had seven or eight guys around you 24 hours a day telling you how great you are, it’s gonna affect you sooner or later. It’s gonna get to you. They just keep harping on it. You get brainwashed. I knew all that so I never felt bad personally about it.
Would you say were you more sorry for him than angry?
Yeah, I wasn’t angry. I was angry with the management side of it, because they could have made things better for everybody and wouldn’t.
Did you give up guitar and get into engineering more out of a desire to be an engineer or did it have more to do with your disgust at the way you were treated as a musician?
A little bit. I’d gotten into the engineering while he [Elvis] was in the army. Then I moved to Nashville and opened a studio here and kept that going after he got out of the army. He wasn’t doing any personals, he was just doing the movie soundtrack recording sessions. So I had my hands full with the studio, so I sold that and opened a tape duplicating company and also a commercial printing company. I went 24 years, didn’t hit a note.
Do you have any regrets about that?
[Laughs] Yeah, I do now. I started back playing in ‘92 , so I’ve been playing 10 years. I keep saying that’s okay, I’m owed 14 more years [laughs].
Did you get back into guitar because you fell into bankruptcy for a time?
Oh, that bankruptcy was like so many. It was a smokescreen to keep them from going after the house. It’s all been cleared out. I had to sell off a few things, rearrange things. It’s all part of doing business. I’m playing for money now, but I just want to do it. I could just sit here and stare out the window, but I don’t feel like doing it yet [laughs].
A few years ago  you and D.J. put out a pretty great album, “All the King’s Men” [with Keith Richards, Levon Helm, Ron Wood, Jeff Beck, Cheap Trick and others]. Any chance you’ll make “All the King’s Men Again.”?
We talked a little bit about it. There was some interest in the U.K. of us doing “All the Queen’s Men” and doing a record with all English artists. Nothing’s got started on it yet, but the idea is there.
“Deuce and a Quarter,” with Scotty, D.J., Keith Richards, Levon Helm and others
You know I just found out a couple of hours ago that Otis Blackwell [writer of Presley hits including “Don’t Be Cruel” and “All Shook Up”] died.
I’m sorry to hear that. He was a helluva writer. He wasn’t at the sessions, but we did get to meet him. They wouldn’t allow any of the writers in. Leiber and Stoller, I think, were the only ones who managed to get into the studio when we were working. Colonel Parker was worried that someone might try to slip Elvis a song on the side.
Not only did you record some of the biggest hits ever, but people are still playing these tunes and they’re beloved around the world.
Yeah, it amazes me, it really does. And for the most part it’s the before-the-army stuff. The stuff from back in the ‘50s is what people want to hear. They love watching the jumpsuits and everything, but the music in the ‘70s don’t seem to have the staying power that the other stuff did.
Would you agree that Elvis’s pre-army stuff is the best music he did?
Oh yeah. This year is gonna be the 25th anniversary [of Elvis’s death) and God, it looks like it’s gonna be something unreal in Memphis with people from all over the world.
And do you think you will keep working with Lee?
I hope so. Long as he’ll have me and I can get my fingers moving a bit, I’ll be out there because I love it. The road never gets any better, that’s the only bad part. Just rough living out of a suitcase.
Note the names on the above label