When Ronnie McDowell recorded the 1977 crossover smash “The King Is Gone” after Elvis Presley’s death, he had no idea that his fascination with the rock icon would help spawn a friendship with Presley’s guitarist Scotty Moore. In a bizarre bit of Nashville history, it turns out that Moore, who died on June 28th at his home in Nashville, had previously owned the studio where “The King Is Gone” was recorded.
But McDowell, who scored country hits in the late Seventies and early Eighties with “Older Women” and “You’re Gonna Ruin My Bad Reputation,” among others, actually met Moore later when “The King Is Gone” had started to become a phenomenon.
“I was doing a television special at WSM studios in Nashville,” he recalls. “It was ironically a tribute to Elvis with me, Charlie Rich and Chuck Berry. A guy came up to me and said, ‘Hey, Scotty Moore wants to meet you.’ I said, ‘Where in the world is Scotty Moore?’ They said, ‘He’s an engineer here.’ I couldn’t believe it.”
That initial meeting turned into a friendship that would lead to them working together on and off for over 20 years, as part of an Elvis Presley tribute show that included the talents of Presley drummer D.J. Fontana and backing vocalists the Jordanaires. Though McDowell had worked to establish an identity for himself apart from his tribute to Presley, he was more than happy to step into the King’s shoes with the people who were there to witness his reign.
“They’d come out and tell stories and I would just sing the songs. It was just a wonderful, wonderful experience for me for over 20 years, being with all my heroes,” notes McDowell, who shares that Moore once presented him with Presley’s old 1956 Elgin watch as a birthday gift. “I never laid eyes on Elvis, but I never took for granted being with those folks.”
McDowell was a regular visitor at Moore’s house over the years, but notes that the guitarist had recently been distraught over the November 2015 death of his long-time companion Gail Pollock. On his most recent visit, McDowell says Moore didn’t feel like getting out of bed.
And though Moore split from Presley, it seems clear that his blues and country-influenced playing was an integral part of the sound that captured the imagination of so many and won admirers like Paul McCartney, Keith Richards and Bruce Springsteen. McDowell did his best to impress that upon his friend.
“Without [him] and Bill [Black], to me, there would have not been no Elvis,” he says. “Because it took all three of those elements to make and do what [they] did. Scotty was as much a part of that sound as Elvis’ voice.”