Wednesday, August 25, 2010
Scotty Moore content to live quietly in a world that won't let his musical co-conspirator rest in peace
The deet-deet-de-deet of the guitar break from “That’s All Right” played in my head long after the speakers turned silent.
So I reached for the telephone. Actually I call it “The Flap Phone.”
It was time to call Scotty Moore, the underappreciated man who fashioned that sound -- the sonic mold of what rock ‘n’ roll guitar is supposed to sound like -- as well as the perfected head-bobbing, smiling role of the lead guitarist.
Recording in a cramped studio with a “very different” cat named Elvis, standup slap bass-master Bill Black and with fiery Sam Phillips in the control room, Winfield Scott Moore, now 78, combined the licks he perfected as the boss of a country swing outfit with the sounds of the Mississippi Delta, Beale Street and gospel tabernacles.
The recording session on July 5, 1954 is sometimes credited as the birth of rock ‘n’ roll.
While that may easily be disputed by other artists who had already recorded in a similar style, it can’t be overlooked that something different had been cooked up in the studio that night. As the late Bill Black said when the stew was ready to serve to wild man DJ and raconteur Dewey Phillips: “Damn. Get that on the radio and they'll run us out of town."
Of course, they weren’t run out of town. Soon that town belonged to them. Elvis and his Blue Moon Boys cut across racial boundaries entertained all who would listen, cruising the two-lane blacktops to world conquest. Well, eventually, anyway. At first the roads led to high school gyms in Tennessee, Mississippi, Louisiana, Texas and Arkansas, where the girls swooned and some surrendered.
And the beat went on … to the Louisiana Hayride, where some said the kid with the wild lick of hair and his colorful sidemen were, well too much. Others couldn’t get enough.
Then there came the Sullivan seat-wetting, and the singing to the dog with Sinatra (an embarrassment in hindsight, but given it was at the request of Ol’ Blue Eyes, it really may have been an offer even Elvis couldn’t refuse. No one would want to wake up to Bassett hound’s head in their bed.)
Scotty Moore was really the driving force, in so many ways, behind that threesome’s early success. Yeah, everyone still misses Elvis. But the early, pre-Colonel Tom records were credited to “Elvis, Scotty and Bill.”
Later on, D.J. Fontana was stolen away from the Hayride and joined up for the big ride, but at first it was that tight little threesome, having fun, stealing hearts, changing the world.
What influence did Scotty Moore have on the world, on rock ‘n’ roll music?
"When I heard ‘Heartbreak Hotel,’ I knew what I wanted to do in life. It was as plain as day. All I wanted to do in the world was to be able to play and sound like that. Everyone else wanted to be Elvis, I wanted to be Scotty,” said Keith Richards, a fairly well-known rock guitarist and rock innovator by most accounts.
He of course achieved his dream. And Richards and Ronnie Wood (Faces and then Stones guitarist after Brian died and Mick Taylor drug himself loose) not only learned from Scotty, they drank with him. Scotty’s lessons were so desired that when he was in England, the men – back when they were all heavy drinkers – would trade guitar licks and whiskey bottles.
Getting way ahead of myself here as I think about Scotty and that “deet-deet” plays in my head. Think I’ll put it back on the stereo as long as I don’t have to make a stop for “Love Me Tender.” Great song, sure. Not my style on a day when I want to rock and listen to Scotty Moore. A high-ticket collectors’ box is coming out soon with all of the Elvis stuff remastered. This will include the early Blue Moon Boys stuff. Too rich for my meager soul, but I’ve got the 45s and a turntable. So that’s all right.
Of course I’ve written about Scotty before, both on the internet for fun and before that for various publications.
Today, though, I’m just writing about a guy I’m privileged to call a friend. One of the joys of living in Nashville is that I can pick up the phone and call Scotty Moore, Tom T. Hall, Earl Scruggs, Mac Wiseman and Bill Anderson.
I’m writing about Scotty today because he’s one of the last true vestiges of the music that changed my life when I was an elementary school kid who dyed his hair black and Bryllcreemed it into a ducktail for Halloween when I was in third or fourth grade. A little dab’ll do ya, indeed.
By the way, if anyone out there is seeking a writer for a story about this great man, born in West Tennessee cotton country – which has produced musicians from Carl Perkins to Tina Turner to Isaac Hayes and beyond – I’d be glad to do it.
But that’s not why I picked up the telephone, just as I do every so often. I just wanted to say hello.
“I’ve just been hanging out here, trying to keep cool,” says Scotty, when asked how he’s been faring this summer.
He didn’t feel up to normal trips to Memphis or New Orleans. The air-conditioned confines of his home suit him just fine. He’s been waiting for this weather to finally break. Perhaps in a day or two, he’ll venture outside.
I’d been thinking a lot lately about the guy who lives on a hill in rugged Northern Davidson County.
First of all, he has had constant health scares. In fact, he can hardly play the guitar anymore.
“I got the arthritis so bad that when I do try to play, it hurts,” he says, his voice a touch sad, but resolved. He knows he can’t play guitar any more, just like he knows his old pal Elvis has been dead 33 years and knows that a lot of people these days don’t really care or know his history.
I try to call Scotty fairly regularly. Just like I used to call Vassar Clements, Bobby Thompson, Josh Graves, Eddy Arnold, Bobby Hebb, Captain Midnight and Chet Atkins. They were my friends. Sure I told their stories for the newspapers. But it became much more important to me to chat, at least on occasion, with these guys, after those stories had been published.
I miss them all.
I also regularly checked in on Johnny Cash. In fact, as I’ve said before, I was supposed to see him for an interview as soon as he got back from the West Coast. That trip was never taken. He went to the hospital and died instead.
So I covered his funeral, just as I did that of his wife and life partner, June Carter Cash.
Speaking of the Cash family, Rosanne’s new book ‘Composed’ is a definite “worth-reading” entry. I didn’t find it particularly focused, but it is random by design. And the ruminations on her dad, stepmom, mother and even her divorce from Rodney Crowell are worth reading. And there’s a funny section about John R. burning down the California desert.
But this isn’t a book review. It’s just a note about friends I keep track of not because I’m anything special, but because they are.
My regular phone calls to Scotty began long ago, when he was being inducted into the “sideman” category of the Rock And Roll Hall of Fame.
The local newspaper here in Nashville didn’t seem too excited to send a reporter… “Who is Scotty Moore?” asked a “hip” editor who knew all about Shaggy and Sneezy and Dopey and Grumpy and Bashful or whoever the current pop-rap-crapper was. FYI, the only Bashful I knew well at all was neither a dwarf nor a rapper. He was Bashful Brother Oswald. I’m not going to explain who he was. If you don’t know, I suppose you too think I may be old and in the way. I probably am.
So I was asked: ‘’Who is Scotty Moore?”
No there was no reporter dispatched to New York City (get a rope) to cover his induction. But I wasn’t about to let it go unnoted, so each morning, while he was up there, I’d call and get his insight into the big celebration. For the record, he didn’t really enjoy it. And he thought he and Bill and D.J. should have gone in with Elvis, just as he thinks Garry Tallent and Clarence Clemmons and Little Steven should have gone in with Bruce.
I inserted Scotty’s observations in the local celebrity gossip column – the one with the “zoinks” and “mazel tovs” and boob jokes as compiled by my friend, Brad Schmitt, with whom I often sang our famous newsroom rendition of “Your What Hurts?” Another story, but tell me, exactly what is it that hurts on you?
When the festivities ended in New York, I continued to call Scotty every month or two, just to see how he was doing.
A few years ago I wrote a long story about Scotty for the newspaper. Again, I was criticized because I was “wasting too much space” on an old man who isn’t part of the target demographic – the young, white women who apparently can’t get enough pictures of the Swan Ball and trendy shopping tips. Did anyone notice the other day that the lunch wagons, long a staple of Little Mexico and other ethnic areas of Nashville, finally became worthy of news hole when they were found to be a trend in East Nashville? Almost choked on my charred pollo
Back to Scotty Moore. I am thankful that my work at the newspaper allowed me to tell his story.
For this is a man who changed the world. He won’t admit it.
In fact, in this most recent conversation, I asked Scotty if it was time for us to get together again, maybe even write a long magazine story or a book even.
After all, what he knows and saw is unique.
“Nah, Tim,” he said, with a laugh. “C’mon up anytime you want. But I really don’t want to be interviewed any more. And I don’t want to tell the story in another book.
“What’s left for me to say after that last story you wrote? I guess I could begin making stuff up.”
We laughed and went on to talk about the weather, about the guitars he can’t play without pain, about the home studio where he used to gather with Billy Cox, Carl Perkins, Mitch Mitchell and others.
“No one wants that music anymore,” he says. So he’s stopped producing it.
Oh he’s not bitter. I guess maybe I am.
How could a world of quickly made, assembly line, electronically tuned and polished music be unaware of the importance of the gentle soul whose analog equipment and guitars sit unused, on top of a hill?
Of course, the answer is right in the question. There would be no room in the digital world for the imperfections and improvisations that made the music sprung from that cramped room in Memphis so special.
While Scotty is lazing away his retirement in relative contentment, his pelvic-thrusting friend simply isn’t allowed to die.
We have just passed the 33rd anniversary of Elvis’ death.
Scotty used to go to Memphis to participate in what has become known as “Death Week” activities. Back then, he’d play music in the Overton Park Bandshell, just like he did with Elvis. What has evolved into a necrophiliacs’ carnival began as a tribute to a great artist and a great friend of Scotty’s.
When it changed, well, Scotty decided not to head west on I-40.
“Nah, I don’t go any more,’ he says. “It’s like a circus. Everyone just wants to make money off him.”
“Him” is his old friend, the "Momma-loving" truck driver who liked to dress funny, curl his lip and drive pink Cadillacs.
“Yeah I miss him and Bill,” says Scotty. “I mean I don’t sit around and think about it all the time. I like to watch TV. But when you spend so much time together, there’s a lot of stuff you know that no one else does.
“We had some good times.”