A deep love of the blues united the great British rock guitarists who came of age in the Sixties, but for some, Scotty Moore – best known as Elvis’ right-hand man on era-defining classics as “Jailhouse Rock” and “Heartbreak Hotel” – was every bit as influential. Keith Richards in particular wrote in Life that “Scotty Moore was my icon.” Recently, in the wake of Moore’s death at age 84, Richards spoke to Rolling Stone about his early idol.
Elvis would not have been Elvis without Scotty Moore. When I was a kid, after the BBC would shut off, another station would come on, called Radio Luxembourg. 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. 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. 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.
All we really know about Scotty are those relatively few tracks. 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.
Scotty’s two big influences were Les Paul and Chet Atkins, the innovators of the damned thing. 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. There will never be another Scotty Moore.
As told to Patrick Doyle