Tuesday, April 3, 2012

That's Alright, Elvis

Having just finished reading Scotty Moore's autobiography That's Alright, Elvis, my lasting impression is how important Scotty Moore and Bill Black were to Elvis at the start of his career, but how little money the two of them made from Elvis while he earned millions.

The book is written by James Dickerson, who spent countless hours with Scotty, as well as interviewing many of his friends and associates. The first three chapters deals with Scotty Moore's childhood (he began to play the guitar at the age of eight), his four years in the Navy (he served in Korea and China) and his time in Memphis (where he put together his first real band, the Starlite Wranglers, recruiting Bill Black on bass) before teaming up with Elvis.

And of course it's Scotty Moore's association with Elvis that is the most interesting part of the book, as told in the rest of the chapters (except for the final two that deals with his career after Elvis). According to Scotty, it was he who nagged Sam Philips, owner of Sun records, to give Elvis a call, after hearing Sam's secretary Marion Keisker mentioning Elvis to her boss. Sam finally agreed and gave Elvis' phone number to Scotty. They met on July 4, 1954, and one day later recorded the blues song "That's All Right, Mama," after Elvis started playing it during a break.
Bill was sitting on his bass. When Elvis started singing, he leaped to his feet and began playing. Then Scotty joined in. The uptempo tune hit home with Scotty. Fast music was what he liked. For years he had been making up guitar licks for uptempo music, a combination of finger slides and bent-string pauses, but he had found nowhere to put them. It wasn't until Elvis was flailing away at his guitar that he suddenly knew where those licks belonged.
The rest is, as they say, history. And Scotty Moore played a big part of that history, especially during the early years, both as Elvis' first guitarist and manager. It's fascinating to read about the life on the road with the Blue Moon Boys, as Scotty Moore shares his memories. "It was a matter of loading up the car, piling in on top of each other, and striking out for the next town."

He recalls that food was a constant problem because of the hours they kept, as fast food restaurants had not yet been invented. And he remembers working up several songs recorded by other artists, such as "Tweedle Dee," to fill a fifteen minute show (In the beginning their only hits were "That's All Right, Mama" and "Blue Moon Of Kentucky.") Also, he credits Bill Black with much of their early success. He was a great comedian on stage, taunting and yelling at Elvis and cracking jokes.

But despite their vital role in helping create Elvis' success, things didn't turn out so well for Scotty Moore and Bill Black financially. They never got anything on the royalties received from record sales, despite promises from Elvis. And the verbal 50-25-25 split they had in the beginning for performances was removed in the middle of 1955, in favor of weekly paychecks of $200 if they were working and $100 if they were not.

Reading the book, I was amazed to learn that Scotty's income from Elvis for the first three and a half years amounted to only about $23,000, plus an additional $4,600 from the movies and the RCA session. In September, 1957, he and Bill Black resigned. A cancelled session to record an album of instrumentals under the name the Continentals together with Elvis on piano (the project was his idea) was the last straw.
There was an awkward scene in the studio in which Elvis physically backed away from Scotty and Bill and disappeared behind the protective wall of his entourage. Bill was furious. He slammed his electric bass into its carrying case. Scotty was more disappointed than angry. He just couldn't bring himself to believe that Elvis would treat them that way.
For Elvis, it just wasn't the same without Scotty and Bill, and they agreed to come back a little more than a month later. But when Elvis went into the Army in March, 1958, "they were simply let go." Bill Black was so disappointed, he never recorded with Elvis again.

Scotty Moore did go back to Elvis in 1960, and attended most of his session right up to 1968. That was also the year that he performed on stage with Elvis for the last time, together with drummer D.J. Fontana during the taping of the television special for NBC. During the rehearsals Elvis asked them if they would be interested in doing an European tour with him. They both said they'd love to.

But Scotty never spoke with Elvis again. And although the title of the book, That's Alright, Elvis, refers to the fact that he holds no grudges towards Elvis, it's clear that he was saddened that Elvis didn't come through on certain things, although he never cursed him. "Why should I?" says Scotty at the end of the book. "He was like a brother to me."

Scotty Moore's book That's Alright Elvis was published in 1997, and in 2005 a revised and updated edition was released. It is now out of print but available as a Kindle Edition from Amazon.

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