Bill and Sue-On Hillman: A 50-Year Musical Odyssey  ::  Rock Roots and Influences

Scotty Moore’s 82-year-old fingers have no more music left in them.
Clarion Ledger ~ July 17, 2013
Arthritis has invaded the hands of the man “Rolling Stone” magazine rated 29th in its 2011 list of the 100 Greatest Guitarists of all time, ahead of legends such as Mark Knopfler, Joe Walsh, Muddy Waters, Slash, Dickey Betts, Bonnie Raitt, Carl Perkins, Roger McGuinn and Paul Simon.

Moore was Elvis Presley’s original lead guitar player who laid down the licks on classic early hits such as “Hound Dog” and “Jailhouse Rock.” He was also Elvis’ close friend and worked as his manager for a short time.

“It’s been about seven or eight years since I was able to play,” Moore says by phone from his secluded home outside Nashville. “I had stopped playing professionally several years before that, but I’d still play once in a while for my own enjoyment ... just whatever song came to mind, really.

“Sure, I miss it. But the arthritis came on gradually, so I knew the day would come that I had to deal with it.”

Even though he makes few public appearances and spends most of his days working in his yard and watching “whatever I can find” on television, he is hardly forgotten.

“Paul called just the other day,” Moore says.

That would be former Beatle Paul McCartney, who studied Moore’s work note by note as an aspiring musician in Liverpool, England.

“He was in Tennessee (for the Bonnaroo festival) and wanted to check on me,” says Moore, who was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2000. “We talked about this and that. We’ve worked together some through the years so it’s really not that unusual. Paul’s a good guy who respects the musicians who came before him.”

Moore will be at Lemuria Books in Jackson on Saturday at 1 p.m. to sign copies of his new book, “Scotty & Elvis: Aboard the Mystery Train,” which he co-wrote with Brandon author and music historian James Dickerson at the urging of Moore’s sister.

The book chronicles every step of Moore’s career, but the priceless nuggets focus on Moore’s early days with Elvis, when a 19-year-old from Tupelo changed the music world for good with a killer combination — model-worthy good looks, a soulful voice and moves on stage that few fans had ever seen.

“You know, it’s funny to me when people talk about Elvis swiveling his hips and all that,” Moore says. “That wasn’t put on. It was a natural thing for him to be on the balls of his feet when he played guitar and sang. You put a guitar in his hands, ask him to play, and that’s how he stood. That’s how he kept rhythm to what he was singing.

“But after we saw how much the fans loved it, we’d sort of encouraged him to do it. (Bass player) Bill Black was the one who would whisper in Elvis’ ear and tell him to shake his leg or throw his belt out into the audience. It became part of the show.”

Some critics didn’t care for Elvis’ onstage antics. “But I never could understand why,” Moore says. “It wasn’t vulgar. It was just a man filled with music from the top of his head to the tip of his toes, and it was the only way he knew to let it out.”

Moore, who was born in Gadsden, Tenn., and learned to play guitar at age 8, says he was “in the right place at the right time” to become an important thread in Elvis’ rise to fame.

While that was part of it, Dickerson says Moore has never given himself enough credit for his pure playing ability.

“People heard Elvis’ early songs and thought they were done by a big band, when it was really just drums (D.J. Fontana), bass (Black) and Elvis playing rhythm. The rest of it was Scotty doing magical things with his guitar licks. That’s why he’s considered by many to be the pioneer of lead guitar.

“Keith Richards (of the Rolling Stones) always said that ‘when everybody wanted to be Elvis, I wanted to be Scotty.’ ”

In 1954, Moore was the leader of the Starlite Wranglers band. He became friends with Sam Phillips, who had a small recording label in Memphis.

“Elvis used to come around to the label’s office, and the secretary kinda took a liking to him,” Moore recalls. “She was older than Elvis — he was just 19 at the time — but he was nice looking, said, ‘yes ma’am’ and ‘no ma’am.’ Just real respectful. He was driving a truck for a living at the time. So she encouraged Sam Phillips to give Elvis a chance.
“Sam called me and said he had this kid he wanted me to hear. He wanted to know what I thought of him.”

Elvis visited Moore’s home on July 4 and sang several songs. Moore was impressed with how many songs Elvis knew “but his voice wasn’t as deep as it got later. It was still kinda high,” he says. “And he was just OK on the guitar. He could play some rhythm but he didn’t know a lot of chords.”

The next day, Moore joined Elvis and Black in Phillips’ Sun Records studio for a recording session. For a while, things didn’t go well.

“Nothing seemed to click,” Moore says. “But we were sitting there, about ready to go home, and Elvis just started singing this song called ‘That’s All Right.’ Elvis couldn’t sit still much, and I think he was singing it out of nervous energy. Me and Bill started playing along with him.

“Sam stuck his head out of the control room and said, ‘What was that?’ I said, ‘We’re just messing around.’ Sam told us to start over but wait for him to turn the (recording) machine on. And that was the start of it.”

“That’s All Right” immediately found its way to radio. Elvis’ career had been launched.

Elvis, Moore and Black formed the group The Blue Moon Boys — borrowed from the second song they recorded, “Blue Moon of Kentucky. They soon added Fontana “because we really needed drums so people could hear us ... the only amplification our instruments had was my amplifier, and it was nothing compared to the amps of today.”

They set out across the South in a 1954 Chevrolet, with Black’s huge stand-up bass tied to the roof. Moore and Black usually drove.

“If you let Elvis drive, no telling where you’d wind up,” Moore laughs. “He didn’t have much sense of direction, so if he got on a road he pretty much stayed on it. We’d wake up and not know where we were.”

And they weren’t getting rich. “We were making enough money to put gas in the car to get to the next show,” Moore says. “And if somebody was willing to pay us enough for gas, we would go.

“I look back now and realize it was all about the music, never about money. It had to be or we would’ve quit.”

Moore felt responsible for Elvis during their travels. “I remember his mother getting me off to the side before we left and said, ‘Please take care of my boy.’ I wasn’t much older than Elvis, but I’d been in the Navy for four years and I guess to her I seemed a little more equipped to handle the ways of the world. But I never forgot what she asked me to do, and I tried my best.”

Moore faced a tough decision in 1968.

He hadn’t made a lot of money from Elvis’ hit records he’d played on, and Moore had become interested in producing sessions with other talent. He enjoyed the work and it was proving to be lucrative. When Elvis landed a lengthy Las Vegas gig shortly after his ’68 TV “Comeback Special,” Moore was asked to go with him.

He chose to stay in Nashville and continue his studio work.

Nine years later, Elvis died at 40. His struggle with addiction to pain medication is well documented. When talking about Elvis’ final years, Moore is torn between anger and sadness.

“We could all see (his death) coming,” Moore says. “We knew things were not going along as they should have been ... that he wasn’t being taken care of like he should’ve been.

“I say this without any hesitation: If things had worked out differently, and that group of us that started out with him could’ve stayed with him all the way through, Elvis would still be alive today. I firmly believe that.”



Bill and Sue-On Hillman e-Mail