The Hand of the King

By Sergio Ariza

Before there was a Mick and a Keith, a Robert Plant and a Jimmy Page, there was Elvis and Scotty Moore. The first fellow needs no introduction, he’s still the King, but not so many people remember a Winfield Scott Moore III, born December 27, 1931 and died June 28 2016, . Something not at all fair if we remember that Scotty was the first guitar hero in rock history, a man who  turned the instrument into a synonym of the genre and was in that legendary recording studio Sun Records on July 5, 1954, together with Elvis and Bill Black, with Sam Phillips in the recording booth, where black music mixed with white, the blues with country and where rock and roll was born. 

Of course rock and roll can have many birthdays, and many were before this one, but on that day a myth was born who spread it throughout the world until it became the most important music of the 20th century. Scotty Moore played a fundamental role in that myth, being Elvis’ right hand man and lead guitarist. That trio, known as the Blue Moon Boys would record various singles at Sun that still are  the Rosetta Stone of rock, such as Blue Moon of Kentucky, Good Rockin’ Tonight, Baby Let’s Play House and Mystery Train, their energy was incredible and many overlook the fact that there was just one voice, one acoustic guitar, an electric one, and a bass. Together they made history and began to spread rock fever everywhere, first in Memphis, then in the U.S. south, later in the whole country and finally the world.  

It all got started when Elvis went to Sun studios in Memphis in 1953 to cut a record for his mother. Sam Phillips, the studio’s owner, saw great potential in that 18-year-old kid’s voice. At the time he didn’t know what to do with him, but earlier he had recorded a record by Doug Poindexter and the Starlite Wranglers and he was captivated by the sound of the guitarist, a follower of Chet Atkins who  answered to the name Scotty Moore. Also with him was bassist Bill Black so Phillips decided to give them a call for them to get  together with the singer and rehearse things with him. After a couple of unsuccessful sessions on July 5, 1954, during a break,Elvis started fooling around with a version of That's Alright (Mama) by bluesman Arthur Crudup, Black quickly joined in on bass, and Scotty wasted no time in plugging in his Gibson ES 295 from 1952, a guitar he had picked up a year before in exchange for a Telecaster, and joined in too. Phillips couldn’t believe his ears, the black R&B mixed with white country and rockabilly sprang forth. He quickly told them to do it again so he could record it, when they were done Black declared, “ If you put that on the radio they’re going to kick the crap out of us”. But Phillips knew they were about to make history.

And that was it, the next afternoon they got back together to record their version of Blue Moon of Kentucky, a country number with their own special touch. Everything they touched turned to gold and his time at Sun gave Elvis the best moments of  his career. There shouldn’t be one music fan that doesn’t have each and every song  they recorded the following year and a half. On all those songs Moore played his Gibson ES 295, one of the most legendary guitars in history, and like  Elvis does with his voice, he brings his country influences into his phrasing, with Atkins and Merle Travis leading the way, and mixes them with blues influences by people like Pat Hare. But before leaving Sun, there was another big change: July 7, 1955, Scotty switched his ES 295 for a Gibson L5 from ‘54. Added to this was an Echosonic amp entrusted to a man named Ray Butts who had built one for Chet Atkins. It only had 25 watts of power but had a delay system that allowed for the echo ‘slapback’ sound from Sun studios. Both the new guitar and amp  would make their debut on Mystery Train, one of the best songs of all time and Elvis’ good-bye song to Sun. The amp would be with him for life, but not the guitar.

By then the original trio had acquired drummer DJ Fontana and Scotty had been replaced by ‘Colonel’ Tom Parker as the band’s manager. Parker took no interest in the musicians of his new protegé and Elvis got to be more isolated from them, just like with the rest of the world. The ‘Colonel’ paid them 100$ per week or 200$ if they had a gig and limited their access to the singer. In the meantime he reached a deal with RCA for an astronomical figure for the times, 40,000 dollars. The world was clearly witnessing  the coming of their new Messiah. 

When Elvis signed with RCA he brought along the Blue Moon Boys and Scotty kept leaving his mark on everlasting classics like Heartbreak Hotel, Too Much, Hound Dog, on which his solo was classified by Scotty himself as ‘ancestral psychedelic’, and Jailhouse Rock, one of the first examples where ‘power chords’ were used. In April 1956 Elvis scandalised half the country in his appearance on the Milton Berle Show, and while at it, became the most important star in the country. In less than a year he became the most famous man in the world.   

His live performances greatly helped in spreading the new religion, Elvis was the main event but we can’t overlook the amazing role played by the guitarist. Maybe most of the spotlight was on Elvis but many young 6-string lovers also had ears for the shy guitarist, capable of mixing to a T the country licks with blues phrasing.  Keith Richards explains it like this, “Everyone wanted to be Elvis but I wanted to be Scotty”. He wasn’t the only one, George Harrison, Eric Clapton and Jimmy Page have always declared their admiration for the essential rockabilly guitarist. His way of playing with his fingers, with a thumb pick, was an inspiration for most of the guitarists in the following generation.

However, his importance wasn’t financially rewarded. Presley generated millions of dollars but none of his players saw much of it, Scotty and Bill Black finally stood firm in September 1957, just when ‘Colonel’ Parker was getting Elvis away from live performances to concentrate on his film career, and they decided to quit. Elvis found out through others, and in spite of having other excellent professional musicians, it didn’t feel the same. So 2 weeks later they contacted them again. In these times, Moore was already recording with his 3rd great guitar, a Gibson Super 400 from ‘56 that the prestigious maker had given him in the summer of ‘57. This would be the kind of guitar he would play for the rest of his career, getting a new model in ‘63 by switching with Chips Moman. The funny thing is that Scotty’s Super 400 would reappear on mythic recordings from Elvis in Memphis in 1969, on songs like Suspicious Minds and Don’t Cry Daddy used by Reggie Young on loan from Moman.


Then Elvis went to do his military service and the group was left in the lurch. Even so, in 1958  Have Guitar Will Travel, was released, an incredible rockabilly instrumental accredited to the Scotty Moore Trio. Unfortunately, it didn’t become a success, so Scotty decided to try his luck as producer and founded Fernwood Studios. The first thing they recorded was a song called Tragedy by Thomas Wayne, the brother of  Johnny Cash’s guitarist. Besides producing it, Moore also played some of the guitar bits. It was a national hit, reaching #5 on the charts, but they didn’t get that far again. When Elvis returned in 1960, straight to the Frank Sinatra show, the Blue Moon Boys were there to play with him. During the 60s Scotty kept collaborating with the King on numbers like  ‘Surrender’, ‘Good Luck Charm’, (You’re the) Devil in Disguise and Bossa Nova Baby, besides working as a producer for Sam Phillips at Sun Studios. In 1964, when he released his first solo record at Epic Records, expressively called The Guitar that Changed the World, Phillips fired him.  

There weren’t any more recordings with Elvis either, so in 1968 when he decided to make a spectacular TV comeback and they invited him to be there with DJ Fontana and the singer (Bill Black died in ‘64) for an NBC special, he was really surprised. Nobody explained very well what he had to do, but just in case, he decided to bring his Super 400. The producers wanted to surround the King with friends and his former musicians to calm his nerves because he hadn’t played live in years. After launching into Heartbreak Hotel, with Elvis singing every note of Scotty’s solo, the singer decided to change his acoustic for Moore’s Super 400. The magic that gave rise to rock came back, the performance became history and allowed Elvis to once again hit the top.

But despite it all, that was the end of his relationship with the King, they never saw each other again. Scotty went back to Nashville where he worked as a sound engineer. Not until the 90s did he return to playing on records and on stage, helped out by another legend of rockabilly guitar, Carl Perkins. He had got rid of his mythic Super 400 before that. After not playing it for years, he thought the time had come to sell it, a collector offered him $10,000 and he accepted. A while later Chet Atkins asked him why he sold it so cheap, Moore flatly replied, “ I needed a tractor”. He doesn't seem to have regretted it, on his webpage, in the part dedicated to the guitar, you can see a photo of Scotty on the tractor in 2011 with the following caption, “The tractor still works and, unlike the guitar, It still used”.  

In 1997 he got back with DJ Fontana to record a tribute album to Elvis called All the King’s Men with appearances by other guitarists such as Keith Richards, Jeff Beck, and Ronnie Wood, a ascertainment of the enormous legacy he left in his wake. In his final years many legends got the luxury of playing with the man who gave rock its first iconic solos, people like Paul McCartney and Clapton. 

Not surprisingly, the first rock and roll is legendary territory. If the stars from the 60s and 70s are still big names that fill stadiums nowadays, we cannot forget the first generation, names  like Chuck Berry, Little Richard, Buddy Holly and Jerry Lee Lewis. Pure music history that mustn’t be forgotten. Scotty Moore left us a year ago, millions of people have heard the sharp sound of his guitar, but very few know his name or what he looks like. Let nobody think that he deserves a lesser praise. Elvis had other guitarists, like Hank Garland, Jerry Reed, and the amazing James Burton, but none left a bigger mark on his music than him, the last survivor of the day that gave birth to rock, the man who was the Hand of the King and an essential part of his success.  

(Images: ©CordonPress)