the Guitarist Behind The King
(Courtesy The Dallas Observer, March 1, 2000 by Michael Roberts )
The complaint most frequently levied against Cleveland's Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum is a conceptual one. Putting up a tourist-friendly, mainstream memorial to what began as anti-establishment music, critics of the Hall say, is the best possible way to snuff out any sense of danger the form might still possess (emphasis on might). After all, museums are for dead things, not living ones.
When he's presented with this argument, Scotty Moore, who will be inducted into the Hall of Fame in the brand-new "sidemen" category during a March 6 ceremony at New York City's Waldorf Astoria Hotel, emits a good-natured chuckle. "I hadn't really thought about it as a museum, but I guess that's right," he says, in a soft tone marked by a pleasant twang. "I'll try not to move when people pass by me."
This self-deprecating remark is characteristic of the man. As the string-strangler behind most of Elvis Presley's best work, Moore, who's in his late 60s, helped shape the sounds of the last half-century. But in conversation, he refuses to overdramatize himself or his contributions to the music for which he's being feted. Despite the Hall of Fame spotlight currently shining on him and the other inaugural sideman honorees (saxophonist King Curtis and bassist James Jamerson, both deceased, plus drummers Earl Palmer and Hal Blaine), he prefers sticking to the shadows, just as he did when he was on stage with Presley, figuratively putting himself in the background of his own story out of force of habit.
That's not all bad, of course: Moore's modesty is a welcome alternative to the worshipful pap regularly churned out by the Rock and Roll Myth Machine. And modest he is. He makes it clear that the title of The Guitar That Changed the World!, his 1964 solo album, most certainly wasn't his idea, and he seems dumbfounded to learn that Presley was recently named the 57th most significant figure of the last millennium in a program aired on the Arts & Entertainment network. "There's no question he touched a lot of people," Moore concedes. "But a thousand years is a loooong time."
On top of that, he had to be cajoled into participating in That's Alright, Elvis: The Untold Story of Elvis's First Guitarist and Manager, Scotty Moore, a tome he co-wrote with Jim Dickerson that was published in 1998. According to him, "There were just so many books out there that I couldn't see getting into the fray, so to speak. And I thought that everything had been told. But I have a daughter in Memphis who knew Jim, and she was constantly saying, 'Why don't you do something? Why don't you do something?' over several years. So finally I just said, 'If you'll hush, I'll do it. Now, leave me alone.'"
Moore's account of the July 1954 night when he, Elvis, and bassist Bill Black recorded the Arthur Crudup blues "That's All Right (Mama)" for producer Sam Phillips at Sun Studios in Memphis is similarly low-key. Many rock historians regard this session to be the genre's single most important event, a seismic experience that permanently altered the pop-music landscape even as its mixing of black and white influences prefigured the civil rights movement. But Moore sees the evening in much simpler terms.
"I did an interview with this fella in Amsterdam," he notes, "and he said, 'What did you think of the big bang?' And I said, 'What? What big bang?' And he said, 'You know. The big bang -- when Elvis cut 'That's All Right.'" After a hearty laugh, he clarifies things: "That wasn't the big bang. That was an audition."
Elvis passed, as it turns out. But Moore, a native of Gadsden, Tennessee, who got to know Phillips through the Starlite Wranglers, a band he'd helped form after his discharge from the Navy a couple of years earlier, still has a hard time making the moment seem magical. "We did what we were supposed to do, the three of us," he says. "We played a lot of rhythm, and I was trying to throw in some side notes in there, to make it kind of fuller. So I guess we knew it was a little different than the other things we'd been doing. But we didn't have any idea that it was going to be anything special.
"It was radio that made the difference," he goes on. "This disc jockey [Dewey Phillips, no relation to Sam] started playing the thing, and he just played it over and over and over and over. It was almost like he got the people in the audience kind of brainwashed by it. But even then, it wasn't like anything happened overnight. We had to pay our dues for about a year and a half. It wasn't until we did our first TV show, with the Dorsey Brothers, that we realized, you know, we'd better hang on."
Prior to the rocket taking off, Moore had managed Presley and his band, collectively known as the Blue Moon Boys. These duties were later taken on by Bob Neal and, more famously, Colonel Tom Parker, leaving Moore time to concentrate on playing. Along with drummer D.J. Fontana, the first addition to the lineup, and bassist Black, who died of a brain tumor in 1965, he backed Presley on the hits that established his legacy: "Heartbreak Hotel," "Baby, Let's Play House," "Blue Suede Shoes," "Jailhouse Rock" and so on. But while Moore's clean, energetic riffing and power-glide solos have plenty to do with the tunes' success, he never forgot that he was there to support the singer, not overwhelm him.
"I tried to keep it simple -- and simplicity, you know, that's something you have to work at. I listen to some of the things now and I think, I could have played a lot more stuff there. But I'm glad I didn't. Like on 'Don't Be Cruel': I played the little intro on that and played a chord on the very end, and that's all I played during the whole song. But it didn't need anything else. That little rhythm thing Elvis was doing on his guitar and D.J. and the Jordanaires [a vocal quartet often used by Presley] doing that little doo-wop thing...Well, it just fell right in a groove, and I figured, maybe we'd better leave well enough alone.
"Sometimes it took quite a while to get it right," he continues, "and the studio people would fuss at us. They'd go, 'Buncha damn amateurs.' But we were constantly trying to find things that we thought would fit the song and not get in the way of the vocal. Besides, it didn't take me long to play every note I knew" -- another laugh -- "so I just wanted to put them to good use."
Presley's 1958 induction into the Army didn't end Moore's interactions with the King; he worked on numerous '60s tracks and was a key participant in Elvis' 1968 television special, which saved a career nearly done in by lousy, interchangeable movies and the mainly crummy soundtracks that went along with them. But Moore was involved in other projects as well. He founded his own label, Fernwood Records, which spawned one decent-sized hit (Thomas Wayne's "Tragedy"), and worked for Sam Phillips as engineer and head of production at Sun. (He was involved in the creation of some intriguing and underappreciated work by Charlie Rich, for instance.) And then there was the Epic Records release The Guitar That Changed the World!, an effort that teamed Moore with Presley cohorts Fontana and the Jordanaires, plus studio regulars such as saxophonist Boots Randolph, under the supervision of Nashville super-producer Billy Sherrill.
"It was supposed to be one of a series," Moore remembers. "Billy sold CBS [Epic's owner] on the idea that we could do a lot of the Elvis stuff -- volume one, volume two -- and put them in chronological order. And CBS said, 'That's a good idea.' But when it got down to doing the session, they said, 'Maybe you ought to just do some of the bigger hits today, and we'll kind of test it.' And when they did, that was the end of that project.
"I know they must have sold quite a few of them, because D.J. and I play Europe every once in a while, and nearly every show, somebody comes up with a copy and wants us to sign it. But the funny thing is, Sony owns Epic and CBS and all that now, and every so often, I still get statements in the mail from them telling me I still owe about $2,500 in production costs on that." Lightheartedly, he adds, "When it's about money, they never forget."
Of course, Moore has his gripes about remuneration too. He doesn't mind that he makes no money from the continued sales of Presley's familiar songs; he was paid for playing on them, and that's that, as far as he's concerned. But he feels differently about the issuing of previously unheard takes on platters such as Sunrise, put out by RCA, Presley's longtime label, in 1999. Thanks to a complicated set of accounting gyrations, RCA has been able to shrink what it owes Moore to practically nothing. For Sunrise, he says, he's received a single check for $42.25. Nonetheless, he has no plans to initiate any lawsuits over such practices. "Things'd get too nasty. It'd be too big a fight. But there'd be some fur flying if Elvis was still alive."
News flash: He's not. (He died in a Graceland bathroom in 1977.) Moore, who last played with Elvis around the time of the '68 TV special, watched Presley's demise from a distance, saddened by his deteriorating physical condition and unimpressed by much of the music. "I think the stuff in the '70s was a little overproduced," he says, "and I don't know if it was as good as his first things. You know, when D.J. and I play, we never get a request for anything pretty much out of the '50s. But when Elvis would do those songs later, he'd just throw them away in medleys -- do them really fast, like, 'I hate to have to do this.' And that would always bug me."
Not that Moore was one of those with Elvis connections who dogpiled on Presley's corpse before it had cooled. He pretty much kept to himself while others cashed in, focusing on two businesses: a tape-duplication facility and a printing shop. But he did pitch in as a consultant to Elvis, a short-lived early-'90s television series that depicted Presley during his nascent stage. Scotty was portrayed by actor Jesse Dabson, with whom he's still friendly: "He's been doing these Southern Bell commercials the last two, three years," he says with paternal pride. But while most reviewers back then were pleasantly surprised by the program's aura of verisimilitude, Moore knew better.
"All the writers would call me up on the phone," he says, "but when I would get a rough script, invariably whatever they called to talk to me about wouldn't have nothin' to do with it. I wouldn't even recognize it. They'd always get just enough truth in there to make it believable, and I understood they had to stretch. But it should have been an hour long instead of thirty minutes, and I think deep down they wanted it to be like The Dukes of Hazzard. They'd want Elvis and Bill and me to stop and get gas at a service station, and the place would get robbed, and we'd be involved in some kind of chase or something -- and I hate to tell you, but that never happened. And they always wanted to make Bill look like the heavy in the whole thing. Now, Bill did have a short fuse, but they'd have him taking his bass and walking back to the next town, quitting or several other things like that. And that was just ridiculous."
The failure of Elvis didn't bother Moore much, but when his businesses went south, he was left with time on his hands. He filled it in 1997 with his first recording project in ages: All the King's Men, credited to him and Fontana. The disc, issued by Sweetfish Records, included guest appearances by a wide array of artists eager to pay homage to two such important figures, including the Mavericks, the Bodeans, Cheap Trick, Tracy Nelson, Joe Louis Walker, Joe Ely, and Steve Earle. But the biggest names on hand were a pair of Rolling Stones: Ron Wood, who paired with Jeff Beck on "Unsung Heroes," and Keith Richards, the star of "Deuce and a Quarter." The CD was so well-received that Moore and Fontana are contemplating a follow-up to feature performers who expressed interest in participating on the first platter but couldn't because of scheduling difficulties.
"Bonnie Raitt was going to do it, and Chris Isaak," he says. "And there was a funny little story about Mick Jagger. We were at Ron Wood's studio in Ireland with Jeff Beck, and the phone rings, and it's Mick. He asks, 'What are you doing?' And when Ron says 'We're recording with Scotty and D.J.,' he gets us on the phone and goes, 'Well, why didn't you ask me?' And we were like, 'We already got two of you. We didn't want to push it.' Then, when I saw him later, I asked, 'If we do another one, are you up for it?' And he told us, 'I want to be the first one you call.'"
Meanwhile, the Hall of Fame beckons. Moore admits to mixed emotions over his admission. "The problem to me is, Bill Black, myself, and Elvis were a group, the Blue Moon Boys. We should have all gone in as a group. But I know there's a lot of politics in that kind of thing, and with this new category, I'm happy that it's opening up for so many other deserving guys down the road.
"The time's probably right," he says with a snicker. "I'm gettin' up there. I suppose I'm just about ready for a museum now."
This is a picture taken at Memphis volunteer radio when the All The King's Men CD was released. Scotty and DJ came in and were on the air with JD Cooper in the CD Release promotion.
"There are three unsung heroes," sings Ron Wood in the emotional closing cut on All The King's Men a just-released tribute to Elvis' original band - The Blue Moon boys, featuring surviving members Scotty Moore (lead guitarist and Elvis's first manager) and D.J. Fontana (who joined the trio on drums about a year after their start). On this particular tune, Scotty, D.J. and bassist Bill Black, who has gone on to his greater reward, are remembered fondly. Ron can hardly believe he is in the same room with these true legends, described by Keith Richards (who is featured on the equally brilliant opening cut, "Deuce And A Quarter," in a rollicking duet with inimitable Levon Helm) as "The greatest rock and roll band in the world." "And you know," adds Mr. Wood in his glowing tribute on the enhanced CD (Sweetfish 0002-2). "They didn't really play loud." - Fall 1997 - Vol. XXIII No. 1 - SUN STORM FINE ART, by Victor Forbes
Featured Guest Artists on this exciting Scotty and D.J. CD
ALL THE KING'S MEN
(dedicated to Bill Black)01 - Keith Richards & The Band - "DEUCE AND A QUARTER"
02 - The Mavericks - "I TOLD YOU SO"
03 - The BoDeans - "LOCKED UP IN THE STATE OF ILLINOIS"
04 - Bill Black Combo - "GOIN' BACK TO MEMPHIS"
05 - Joe Elywith Lee Rocker - "I'M GONNA STRANGLE YOU SHORTY"
06 - Cheap Trick - "BAD LITTLE GIRL"
07 - Ronnie McDowell with The Jordanaires - "SOULMATES"
08 - Steve Earl with Lee Rocker - "HOT ENOUGH FOR YA"
09 - Joe Louis Walker - "STRANGE LOVE"
10 - Tracy Nelson - "IS ALL OF THIS FOR ME?"
11 - Ron Wood and Jeff Beck - "UNSUNG HEROES"
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Q & A WITH SCOTTY MOOREBy James Sullivan
Guitarist Scotty Moore and bassist Bill Black were Memphis pickup musicians in 1954 when they were paired with a zoot-suited young singer at Sun Studios. Their sessions with the teenage Elvis Presley - "That's All Right," "Mystery Train" - ushered in a new era of popular music. Taking the name the Blue Moon Boys and adding drummer D.J. Fontana, Moore and Black accompanied Elvis as he ascended to the pinnacle of pop stardom. But their relationship with Presley's manager, Colonel Tom Parker, was contentious, and the Boys eventually split up. Moore accepted an invitation to accompany Elvis on his 1968 "comeback" (Black died in 1965), but when he wasn't asked to join the King for a subsequent Las Vegas engagement, he stashed his guitar in mothballs. After working in relative obscurity as a free-lance studio engineer for years, the amiable, unassuming 65-year-old recently came out of retirement to promote two projects- the book "That's Alright, Elvis" (Schirmer, $25) and the CD "All The King's Men," featuring an allstar cast of Moore's admirers, including Keith Richards, the Mavericks and Joe Louis Walker. Also new is the four-CD set "Elvis Presley Platinum: A Life In Music, 1954-1977," which features plenty of previously unreleased Blue Moon Boys takes.Q: What were your reasons for picking up your guitar again?
A: Well, I had a couple of businesses, an industrial print shop and a tape duplicating company. The economy took the printing company around '92, and I sold the tape company and more or less retired. You sit around and watch TV all day, soap operas. So I talked to Carl (Perkins). We'd never done anything together, though we'd known each other since the '50's. (When he recovered from throat cancer) he said, "Let's go down to Sun Studios." We went down there for about three days. A couple of months later I took a remote truck down to his house and we did several more cuts....I was so bad out of practice, it was work for me!
Q: Had you guys always figured that you'd return to performing?
A: Not necessarily, no. I figured I was through with it.
Q: Had you always figured you'd do a book?
A: No, I had sworn I would never do anything like that. My daughter, who's is a close friend of (co-author) Jim Dickerson, is the one who pushed me. I said, "If I do it, will you shut up?" (laughs)
Q: The book is unusual. It's not an autobiography, and its not really an as-told-to book.
A: That's what I told (Dickerson) - I said, "I'm not going to say 'I this' and 'I that.' That turns me off." Most of the career it was a "we" proposition anyway, the guys in the group.
Q: You say in the earliest Sun sessions, all three of you were less than average musicians.
A: Oh, yeah, I mean, we were just amateurs. I was playing around town in different groups, but I didn't consider myself a professional as yet.
Q: Was there a specific point where you felt as a guitar player. "Wow, I might be on to something here"?
A: We actually knew on the first record that we were on to something different. But we didn't have a name for it.
Q: You stumbled onto it?
A: Even when I was playing around town with other groups, I was constantly pushing the envelope as far as my abilities (would allow) ...When we went in the studio with the three of us, we sounded so empty. When Elvis started doing "That's All right," I'd been trying to figure out how Chet (Atkins) and Merle Travis were doing their finger picking stuff. I just slipped into that for more of a rhythm pattern. And it worked.
Q: Would you say that you felt that your role was to offset Elvis' vocals, to play a counterpoint?
A: That's correct. Bill, D.J., all of us were of the same mindset. In the old days, it was give the singer some, don't get in the way, try to keep it simple and hopefully do something that fits each particular song.
Q: How were the "King's Men" sessions?
A: Well, Keith (Richards) and Ron Wood I'd met when they did their "Steel Wheels" tour (in 1989). They flew me into St. Louis to see a show. Of course, I'd heard the (Rolling) Stones, but by being out of the business, I wasn't really tuned in. I went up there and became a fan. I've seen some of these rockers get our there, stop and smoke a cigarette, drink a beer. Them boys went out there and worked two hours and 40 minutes, nonstop. God, we probably never did a show over an hour.
Q: Richards has said that you were the inspiration for him to pick up the guitar as a kid.
A: Yeah. He tells a story about listening to Radio Luxembourg or something, "Heartbreak Hotel," and he was running around his room with his little transistor radio, because it kept fading in and out (laughs).
Q: On the CD, some cuts sound like vintage Blue Moon Boys and others like they might be brand new. Did that happen naturally, because of the variety of performers on the sessions?
A: You nailed it. The only thing we didn't want was for it to sound like Elvis music. There are a couple of cuts on there he would've loved to have had. But we didn't push for that. All the sessions we cut like we used to cut'em: Anybody got an idea, spit it out.
Copyright 1997 By Sweetfish Records
It's 1962. I'm a very young man riding in the car with my father at the wheel of the family's white convertible Ford Galaxy. It's hot outside. It's Miami in the summertime. Dads got the AM radio playing - you know the latest: Pat Boone; Frank: Dean Martin - and we're calmly rolling along in style when all hell breaks loose in the dashboard. Good God! What is that sound? What's that rhythm? It's Elvis! Even though I'm only seven I can tell something is going on, and it ain't like nothing else. Fortunately for me dad is digging it too (Hell, looking back he was only thirty). He says offhandedly, "That guy's all right".
That's how I was introduced to Rock 'n' roll and it only took a couple more meetings before I absolutely knew where my life would be headed. But this story is not about me, it's about influences and history. This story is about quite possibly the most influential drummer in the history of Rock 'n' Roll Music.
As Rock 'n' Roll has evolved, it has gone through an amazing metamorphosis. It has risen to great heights but has often spun off sub plots that sank to indescribable lows. In the late seventies it became just another business altogether, spawning snake oil salesmen who made millions selling nothing but hot air and good looks. But when it started out, Rock 'n' Roll had design. It had architects. They were talented and dedicated. They were genuine.
When you hear D.J. Fontana playing his drums you are hearing a kid from Shreveport, LA tell you what he thinks music should sound like. Rock 'n' Roll had a clean slate. There were no drum parts written for him on those Elvis records. He dictated the groove and made you feel it. There is no one on this earth that can make music move the way he did. He set the standard. Listen close to hits like "Heartbreak Hotel", "Jail House Rock," "Teddy Bear," "Hound Dog," Love Me Tender," "Blue Suede Shoes," and you hear the blueprint of the foundation for all Rock 'n' Roll being formed. When that is understood, one can truly appreciate D.J.'s influence on drummers like Ringo and Charlie Watts, and feel his effect on the next forty years of music.
I recently had the pleasure of working with D.J. and the time I spent with him was invaluable in understanding the true nature of rock music and it's origins. Because he helped lay the foundation and was there from day one, D.J. is insightful. He knows why most musicians (mainly lead singers) are crazy. He has seen it all.
I studied his style as a man and musician and started noticing the many traits that all the great drummers share. He stays relaxed, disciplined and focused as he works and can disarm any tense situation with unmatched under the breath commentary ....no shit, the man is the master of the well-placed barb. Nothing and no one escapes him. Even though D.J.'s no kid he has the energy of a young thoroughbred. It's obvious to me that he played his share of bump and grind strip clubs from the way he sits and swings behind the kit. He knows he's got nothing to prove, he still loves the drums and loves to play. Some guys just make it look easy (it's not by a long shot).
He has a direct, get-to-the-point approach to his drumming. Within three takes he has his scene dialed in. After that you become the target of the commentary. Here's a sample producer/drummer conversation. I say, "D.J. can you give me another take?" He says, "Hell Stan, I can, but I don't want to." And he was right, the track was just fine. What else do you need to know. Love it.
His road stories cannot be beat by anyone anywhere anytime. Let's face it, he was there at ground zero. I was on a speaking panel with him once (I have since learned my lesson) and as we, the panelists were telling of our "grand moments" in rock, spewing on about eighties excesses, D.J. quietly waited his turn. Then he very humbly spoke of the day that Scotty Moore, Bill Black, Elvis and himself were after months of playing dives, finally breaking big. As this particular gig was wrapping up, they were in the middle of a field when a couple of thousand kids (moistly girls) started going ape shit tearing Elvis apart (remember big-time rock security had not yet been pondered). As they begin to realize that they might not get out with their lives, (here's the part I love) D.J. is hit with his grand moment "I realized that this Rock 'n' Roll music we was playin' was catchin' on." Just a little. The master of understatement.
Armed with accuracy, power, swing, dynamics, great time and - the biggest compliment of all - simplicity, D.J. rocked the greatest singer and the greatest songs.... ever. He did it year after year, record after classic record. In a world of one trick ponies and lucky "Rock Stars," D.J. is the real deal.
So much has been written about rock music and Elvis. All I really know is when I try to imagine music today without the contributions of D.J. Fontana, Scotty Moore and Bill Black my brain goes numb. Think about it. If you're a musician, they are the founding fathers on the face of Mount Rushmore and when I trace my roots up the long family tree of drummers, I can't tell you how proud I am to be a musical bastard son of the great D.J. Fontana.Thank you D.J.
- Stan Lynch
Copyright 1997 By Sweetfish Records
When I first met Scotty moore in 1976, I wasn't sure that he could even be lured into a conversation, let alone out of retirement. As proud as he was of his historic contributions and accomplishments, he had little interest in dwelling on them. He had his own friends, his own enthusiasms, his own business, his own life. Why should he live in the past? Subsequently we did talk - about his years with Elvis, and about his own extensive musical background. And twenty years later, more or less, Scotty has once again hit the road.
I think it was Keith Richards who did it. Keith invited Scotty to a Rolling Stones concert in St. Louis in 1989, and it seemed like Scotty was as taken with the atmosphere as he was with the music. A couple of years later he got involved in a project with Carl Perkins which was intended to convey a little bit of that atmosphere: making music for the fun of it - which, after all, as Scotty said, was the point of it all to begin with. From that point on the bug seemed to gradually get to him; Scotty and D.J. started going out with Ronnie McDowell in various configurations for various events, they made trips to Europe and all around the country. And now with this album I think Scotty is serving notice that he is officially back.
But in his own way. Scotty once released an album on the Epic label called The Guitar That Changed the World - but that was kind of missing the point. Not that Scotty, and Carl Perkins, and Chuck Berry, among others, did not change the world with their music. But Scotty's rhythmic emphasis from the first served primarily to support, not to call attention to itself ("It was a total rhythm thing," said Sun Records founder Sam Phillips of Scotty's propulsive playing), and his personality has never been one to make boasts he could not carry out.
Born Winfield Scott Moore III in 1931 in Gadsden, Tennessee, he took up music at the age of eight, because, he says his father and his three older brothers were playing together in a country band and he was mad at being left out. After a three-year stint in the Navy, where he acquired his real musical education ("I listened to all kinds of music, and I really got interested in jazz"), he moved to Memphis and went to work as a hatter in the dry cleaning plant owned by two of his older brothers. This left him free to pursue his music from early afternoon on, and he soon formed a band called the Starlite Wranglers, who worked regularly around the memphis area. The next step was to make a record, and he did this in the spring of 1954 at the Memphis Recording Service at 706 Union Avenue, better known as the home of Sun Records.
Sun released one record by the Wranglers, but "by doing the record I became pretty good friend with Sam Phillips. Sam knew there was a cross-over coming. He foresaw it, and practically every day after work I would drift by the studio, and we would sit there over coffee at Miss Taylor's Cafe and say to each other, 'What is it? How can we do it?" One day Phillips happened to mention this young singer who had been hanging around the studio, a 19-year-old kid who showed promise. Scotty kept pestering Sam for the singer's name, until at last Phillips looked it up and Scotty called him, announcing that he worked for Sun Records and inviting the boy over to his house for a try-out. "Well, you know, Elvis came in, he was wearing a pink suit and white shoes and ducktail, and I thought my wife was going to go out the back door."
They ran down blues and rhythm and blues, pop and country - Marty Robbins, Billy Eckstine, the Ink Spots, Eddy Arnold, Hank Snow. When Elvis left, Scotty called Sam and said he thought the boy had potential. The next night he went into the studio with Elvis and his bass-playing partner from the Starlite Wranglers, Bill Black (who would one day form the Bill Black Combo). The initial result was "That's All Right" and "Blue Moon of Kentucky."
It was Elvis and Scotty and Bill from the start. Not only was Scotty the leader, he was Elvis Presley's first manager (before Memphis DJ Bob Neal, well before Colonel Parker), mentor, and one of his closest friends. The group stayed intact (with the addition of drummer D.J. Fontana) until Elvis went into the army in 1958, and Scotty continued to play on sessions through the 60's, in addition to starting his own label (Fernwood - which had an immediate national hit with Thomas Wayne's "Tragedy"), running a studio for Sam Phillips in Nashville, and eventually becoming a widely respected producer in his own right. He was an integral part of the classic '68 "comeback special", which was said to have gotten Elvis' career back on track, and it was clearly Scotty's musical presence and steadying influence that contributed to the natural feel and excitement level of the program.
Guitar players of every generation since rock began have studied and memorized Scotty's licks, even when Scotty himself couldn't duplicate them afterwards ("It was all feel," Scotty says of Elvis' early RCA sessions. "On 'Too Much' we just got lost, but somehow or another we finally recovered!"). As well known as Scotty is, though, there are many sides of him that remain to be discovered - in no small part because Scotty has never been much of a public person. For all of his history and accomplishments, he has never sought the limelight, nor has he ever explored his full stylistic range on record. That is what he has done with this album, though - even if, not surprisingly, he has chosen to do so in his own unconventional way.
Because, obviously, this is not the usual tribute album - it is not a collection of Elvis Presley songs, and while Scotty and D.J. play on every track, and Scotty has produced virtually the entire album, it is not, in any sense of the word, a "star turn." Instead, it pays tribute to the diversity of influences and diversity of styles that shaped an era, with original contributions ranging from the instrumental charm of a born-again Bill Black Combo to the blues of Joe louis Walker to the dreamy balladry of the Mavericks to the honky-tonk saloon sound of Keith Richards to Tracy Nelson's soulful "Is All of This For Me?". What it is all about, what it has always been about, is the music; what it is linked by is a musical vision that can encompass a host of sometimes warring factions, the musical vision, in other words, that once fueled Rock 'n' Roll.
It's a unique concept - but Rock 'n' Roll, as Scotty will frequently point out, is supposed to be fun. And everyone involved in the making of this album clearly enjoyed themselves doing it. Who knows, All the King's Men may well spark future reunions; it would be a shame if the revamped Bill Black Combo quit now, and maybe we can even look forward to Scotty joining such profound influences as Lowell Fulson and Gatemouth Brown, or even to taking the stage with the Rolling Stones. Whatever the outcome, Scotty is not the sort of person likely to dwell too much on it. Even with a video record of the experience, his intentions are to keep his gaze firmly fixed on the future, never to put his faith in the business part of the record business, and to maintain the usual fixed convivialities with friends. A thoughtful, sensitive, introspective man with a twinkling manner and a dry sense of humor ("Very dry," Scotty will say), he displays the same qualities in life that he does in his playing, and while sixty-five may seem a somewhat advanced age for a fresh start, every day for Scotty is a fresh start - so this album is, in a sense, just one more in a series of new beginnings.- Peter Guralnick
Copyright 1997 Sweetfish Records