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Music

The life and times of Scotty Moore, Keith Richards' ultimate guitar hero

When it came to absorbing guitar influences, Keith Richards had some great teachers. Chuck Berry, Django Reinhardt, Elmore James, and Robert Johnson all gave Richards an informal education, and the lessons that he learned would bleed into his own early guitar work. But if there was one guitar player who did more to influence Richards than anyone else, it was Elvis Presley‘s right-hand man, Scotty Moore.

“When I was a kid, after the BBC would shut off, another station would come on, called Radio Luxembourg,” Richards recalled to Rolling Stone in 2016, just a few days after Moore’s death. “It had terrible reception – I’d be carrying my radio all around my room. That’s how I heard ‘Heartbreak Hotel.’ I was an acoustic player, lurking in the folk area. But that’s when I knew I wanted to go electric.

“Scotty Moore was my hero,” he continued. “There’s a little jazz in his playing, some great country licks and a grounding in the blues as well. It’s never been duplicated. I can’t copy it. The closest I came was tracks like ‘Parachute Woman’, where I fooled around with echoes – those early Elvis recordings got me interested in the possibility of the studio. The first one I got had some of the Sun stuff: ‘Baby Let’s Play House’, ‘Milkcow Blues Boogie’. But ‘Mystery Train’ is the apex. It’s just Bill Black on bass, Elvis on acoustic, and Scotty. No drums. And it’s just the most amazingly huge sound. Elvis didn’t age as well as he should have, but at 19, 20 years old, it was mind-boggling.”

At 23-years-old, Moore was working with Sun Records producer Sam Phillips when Phillips encouraged him to pair up with a young 19-year-old who was coming around the studio and looking to cut a record. The kid had a rumbling baritone and a strange mixture of rhythm and blues and hillbilly hiccup. Moore sat eyeball to eyeball with Elvis Presley for the first time, and the two began to mess around on a sped-up version of an old Arthur Crudup blues tune called ‘That’s All Right’.

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For the next three years, Moore was instrumental in providing the lead licks for all of Presley’s biggest hits, including ‘Hound Dog’, ‘Blue Suede Shoes’, and ‘Jailhouse Rock’. Along with bassist Bill Black and eventually drummer D. J. Fontaine, Moore appeared with Elvis on The Ed Sullivan Show and performed with him in films like Jailhouse Rock and G. I. Blues. Their partnership came to an end when Presley’s manager, Colonel Tom Parker, refused to increase the band’s wages above $100 a week. Moore resigned, and apart from occasional recording sessions in the 1960s and Presley’s ’68 Comeback Special, the two never worked together again.

“All we really know about Scotty are those relatively few tracks,” Richards explains. “He stopped recording with Elvis in the early sixties, though he did return for the ’68 special. I was hoping they would pick up the thread together, but it didn’t happen. He was probably still getting paid scale – that band got paid scale for Jailhouse Rock and everything. If you were working with the Colonel, good luck.”

Moore had occasional success as a sessions musician, but he mainly worked to preserve Presley’s legacy by performing his songs after Presley’s death. While his contemporary career ended with Elvis, his reputation among guitar players made him a key influence on the next generation of players. George Harrison was a noted Moore disciple, as was Jimmy Page, but Moore’s influence went beyond even them – as rockabilly continued to live on in subsequent decades, players as diverse as The Stray Cats’ Brian Setzer, The Cramps’ Poison Ivy, Big Star’s Alex Chilton, and Motörhead’s Phil Campbell all cited Moore’s playing as being the foundation of their own styles.

But Richards was easily Moore’s biggest fan, and he even got to befriend Moore. “He was a gentle, unassuming guy. He liked his scotch – they didn’t call him Scotty for nothing. In 1996, I went up to Woodstock to do a session at Levon Helm’s barn with Levon, Scotty and Elvis’ drummer D.J. Fontana. I’ve gotten used to playing with my heroes – I played with Little Richard in his dressing room when I was 19, thinking, ‘This’ll do!’ – but this was the crème de la crème. It was a session of good old boys. There was plenty of whiskey that day.”

Richards attempted to shake down Moore on one guitar part in particular, but Moore held firm. “There’s a run-down that Scotty does on several cuts, like ‘I’m Left, You’re Right, She’s Gone’, which I’ve never figured out. When I’d ask Scotty, he’d just give me a sly grin… There will never be another Scotty Moore.”

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