Scotty Moore, the pioneering rock guitarist whose sharp, graceful style helped Elvis Presley shape his revolutionary sound and inspired a generation of musicians that included Keith Richards, Jimmy Page and Bruce Springsteen, died Tuesday. He was 84.
Moore died at his home in Nashville, said biographer and friend James L. Dickerson, who confirmed the death through a family friend.
“As a musician, I consider him one of the co-founders of rock ‘n’ roll because of the guitar licks that he invented,” Dickerson said, calling Moore an icon.
Presley’s ex-wife Priscilla Presley echoed that sentiment in a statement Tuesday night: “Elvis loved Scotty dearly and treasured those amazing years together, both in the studio and on the road. Scotty was an amazing musician and a legend in his own right. The incredible music that Scotty and Elvis made together will live forever and influence generations to come.”
Moore, a member of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, was the last survivor of a combo that included Presley, bassist Bill Black and producer Sam Phillips.
Moore was a local session musician when he and Black were thrown together with Presley on July 5, 1954, in the Memphis-based Sun Records studios. Presley was a self-effacing, but determined teen anxious to make a record. Moore’s bright riffs and fluid solos - natural compliments to Presley’s strumming rhythm guitar - and Black’s hard-slapping work on a standup bass gave Elvis the foundation on which he developed a fresh blend of blues, gospel and country that came to be called rock ‘n’ roll.
For the now-legendary Sun sessions they covered a wide range of songs, from “That’s All Right” to “Mystery Train.” After “That’s All Right” began drawing attention, Presley, Moore and Black took to the road playing any gig they could find, large or small, adding drummer D.J. Fontana and trying their best to be heard over thousands of screaming fans.
The hip-shaking Presley soon rose from regional act to superstardom, signing up with RCA Records and topping the charts with “Heartbreak Hotel,” “All Shook Up” and many other hits. Elvis was the star, but young musicians listened closely to Moore’s contributions, whether the slow, churning solo he laid down on “Heartbreak Hotel” or the flashy lead on “Hard-Headed Woman.”
“Everyone else wanted to be Elvis,” Richards once observed. “I wanted to be Scotty.”
Starting in the late 1950s, Moore worked on various projects. In 1959, singer Thomas Wayne had a Top five hit, “Tragedy,” on Moore’s Fernwood record label. Moore put out a solo album in 1964 called “The Guitar That Changed the World!” and with Fontana played on the 1997 Presley tribute album “All the King’s Men,” featuring Richards, Levon Helm and other stars. He and Fontana also backed Paul McCartney for the ex-Beatle’s cover of “That’s All Right.” In 2000, Moore was inducted into the Rock Hall of Fame. More recently, he was a recording studio manager, engineer and businessman.
“He was a class act as a human being,” biographer Dickerson told The Associated Press late Tuesday. “Besides being one of the best guitarists that ever lived and most inventive, he was a great person, and you don’t always find that in the music industry.”
Dickerson said a family member of Moore’s longtime companion, Gail Pollock, who had been staying in the house with Moore confirmed the death Tuesday. Pollock died in November 2015.
Moore was born near Gadsden, Tennessee, in 1931, and learned guitar at an early age. He was a fan of jazz and country and was strongly influenced by Chet Atkins and Les Paul. After serving in the Navy during the Second World War, he settled in Memphis, working at a dry cleaning plant during the day and playing music after his shift was over.
Phillips, who had not been impressed with Presley at first, had called in Moore and Black to work with the young singer. The two had been recorded by Phillips previously as members of a country- Western band, The Starlite Wranglers.
“I wanted them to get together (with Presley) and get a feel for each other,” Phillips told the Los Angeles Times in 1981. “I also told them to keep an eye out for material.”
Moore told of that recording session many times over the years, remembering that it was not going well until Presley broke into a spontaneous, upbeat version of “That’s All Right.” The song, also called “That’s All Right, Mama,” was originally recorded by bluesman Arthur “Big Boy” Crudup in 1946.
Moore and Black began jamming with Presley and helped work out the version that Phillips put on tape.
“Sam poked his head out of the door – this was before mixing consoles had a talkback button – and he said, ‘What are you guys doing? That sounds pretty good. Why don’t you keep doing it?’,” Moore told Guitar Player.
“So I got my guitar, ran through it a couple of times, and that was it. That was the beginning of, how do you say it – all hell breaking loose!”