Home Music Music Lists

Scotty Moore: 10 Essential Songs

“Mystery Train,” “Jailhouse Rock” and other era-defining tracks from Elvis Presley’s right-hand guitar man

Scotty Moore Plays Guitar Stage Elvis Essential Songs

Elvis Presley and Scotty Moore rehearse for their appearance on the Milton Berle Show at the NBC Burbank studios on June 4 1956 in Los Angeles California.

Michael Ochs Archives/Getty

"People don't know what they want until they hear it," Scotty Moore once said. After the world heard Moore, who died Tuesday at age 84, it became clear that his sound was in high demand. As Elvis Presley's lead guitarist in the Fifties and Sixties, he helped solidify the guitar's role as a focal point and foil for the lead singer within a rock & roll context and influenced multiple generations of players that followed in his wake. With his quick licks, fierce solos and lithe rhythms, Moore provided the perfect backdrop for Presley to burst to the fore with his wide array of soon-to-be-legendary histrionics. Before there was Keith and Mick, before Page and Plant, before Morrissey and Marr, before Axl and Slash, there was Scotty and Elvis.

Moore wasn't just a pioneering rock guitarist; he was also one of the best. (In Rolling Stone's ranking of the 100 Greatest Guitarists, Moore comes in at Number 29.) Throughout a given song he would alternate between impressively cool detachment and intense, explosive passion. As he played, he wove together a wide range of different blues and country flavors and in doing so, created something truly
unique.

Beyond the multitude of Number One singles, you need only listen to the diverse array of pupils who studied his every move on wax to get a sense of his lasting legacy. "Tone is the thing," Jeff Beck said. "That's something that came from Scotty Moore, who once told me, 'Get some better tone and you're
there.'" Keith Richards was equally effusive, if not more to the point, when he wrote in his autobiography, Life, that "Scotty Moore was my icon."

"I'm very proud of how much the music has held up over the years," Moore told RS back before he was finally inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2000. So it has. Here are 10 of his greatest contributions to rock & roll.

Play video

Elvis Presley, “That’s All Right” (1954)

It all began with this one song. After months of trying to get his attention, in the summer of 1954, Elvis Presley finally managed to convince Sun Records head Sam Phillips to give him a shot. The producer thought the young man might have some promise, so Phillips called up his friend Scotty Moore to see if he'd be interested in doing something with him. Presley and Moore, along with bassist Bill Black, hit it off and shortly thereafter a recording session was booked for July 5th. When they got into the studio however, things just weren't clicking musically. It was only when Elvis began singing a snippet of the Arthur "Big Boy" Crudup song "That's All Right" in between sessions that any kind of spark lit up in the room. "All of a sudden," Moore told Presley's biographer Peter Guralnick, "Elvis just started singing this song, jumping around and acting the fool, and then Bill picked up his bass, and he started acting the fool too, and I started playing with them." It was a moment pure improvisation, but an inspired one. The song was released as Presley's first single, and served as the launching point for his eventual ascent to King of Rock & Roll status.

Play video

Elvis Presley, “Good Rockin’ Tonight” (1954)

For Elvis' second Sun single, Phillips chose the semi-obscure jump-blues number "Good Rocking Tonight," originally written by R&B singer Roy Brown in 1947. While Presley sounds clearly energized on the track, it's Moore's pair of expressive guitar solos, coming first around the :40 mark and again a minute later, that steal the show. "They were completely off the cuff," Moore explained of his approach to soloing. "You might get a bass riff or something, as a hook for the song, but the solos were strictly ad lib. Even now I'll go back and I can't play note for note what I played then. I can get the general feel of it but I can never go back and hit it note for note. It just doesn't feel right."

Play video

Elvis Presley, “Mystery Train” (1955)

When it debuted in August 1955, "Mystery Train" actually hit the shelves as the B side to another song, "I Forgot to Remember to Forget." While the lead single was just fine, the flip side refused to be ignored: "Mystery Train" is a mesmerizing fusion of country and rock that's since become an enduring classic in both fields and eventually landed at Number 77 on Rolling Stone's list of the 500 Greatest Songs of All Time. Much of the song's lasting appeal comes courtesy of the almost otherworldly tone that Moore pulled from his trusted Gibson ES-295. "'Mystery Train' became like a signature thing for me," Moore explained. "That was the first one I played through my custom-made amplifier. It had the same slapback effect that Sam had been using on the overall record."

Play video

Elvis Presley, “Baby Let’s Play House” (1955)

"Baby Let's Play House" is one of the more plainly sexually suggestive songs in Elvis' oeuvre. When he warbles, "Come back baby/I wanna play house with you," you don't really need to read between the lines to understand what he's getting at. Moore lends the playful cut a light musical touch that runs counter to Black's brooding, very present bass line. Shortly after it debuted, the song climbed all the way up to Number Five on the Billboard Country Singles chart, but as fate would have it, "Baby Let's Play House" actually ended up having an even more important impact overseas. "The record that made me want to play guitar was 'Baby, Let's Play House,'" Led Zeppelin's Jimmy Page recalled in 1977. "There was just so much vitality and energy coming out of it."

Play video

Elvis Presley, “Heartbreak Hotel” (1956)

In 1956, the pressure was really on for Elvis. He had just signed a new deal with RCA Records for the then almost unheard of sum of $40,000 and his new bosses were expecting him to deliver hits. Rather than be cowed, however, Presley came into the studio brimming with confidence: It was he who suggested that they record the song "Heartbreak Hotel," and it was he who advocated that it be released against some of the wishes of the suits upstairs. History, of course, proved Presley right. When the song debuted in January, "Heartbreak Hotel" wasn't just a hit; it was a phenomenon. People simply couldn't get enough of Presley's moody crooning, or of Moore's jangly, echo-drenched guitar. The call-and-response dynamic between the two men was never stronger or more engaging than it was on "Heartbreak Hotel." This chemistry imbued the song with a distinctive intrigue that audiences found irresistible.

Play video

Elvis Presley, “Blue Suede Shoes” (1956)

Presley's take on "Blue Suede Shoes" wasn't intended as a vindictive shot at his former label and personal friend Carl Perkins; according to Scotty Moore it was birthed out of real admiration. "It's been claimed that RCA and Colonel Parker were trying to get Elvis to do the song," Moore said, "But he did it more as a tribute thing than anything else. He had been talking to the band about it, and then he just decided he wanted to do it." In Perkins' hands, "Blue Suede Shoes" was a relatively laid-back rocker with a distinctive, countrified flair. Presley's version lifts the tempo while dispatching with most of the song's subtler charms. Moore is particularly in your face here, offering up a pair of nasty, rollicking solos near the beginning and middle of the track. In the end, Presley's take on the song helped Perkins out tremendously by giving him a much needed financial boost as he was recovering from injuries sustained in a brutal car accident on March 21st, 1956, that nearly cost him his life.

Play video

Elvis Presley, “Jailhouse Rock” (1957)

From the very first crack of the snare drum, combined with Moore's distinctive two-note intro, everything about this hit single screams attitude. "'Jailhouse Rock' was supposed to be like prisoners breaking rocks on a rock pile," drummer D.J. Fontana explained in his 2002 memoir. "Scotty and I got over in a corner and I'd play the first beat and he'd play the one in the middle. We were actually just piddling around with it. They had the mics on and they asked what we were doing. So we said, 'Well, we don't know. We were just trying to find something that you could use for the soundtrack to make it sound like a chain gang smashing rocks.' So they said, 'Man, whatever you were doing just then, that's great. Don't touch it. That's exactly what we need.'"

Play video

“Have Guitar Will Travel” (1958)

By 1958, Elvis was without question the biggest star in music. Under the watchful gaze of his manager Colonel Tom Parker, money was rolling in like it never had before. As Moore saw it, however, not enough of the newfound gains were making it into his bank account, despite his obviously critical role in helping to put together so many of the King's biggest successes. As a salaried employee, the guitarist felt undervalued and so he, along with bassist Bill Black, decided to quit. With little else to do in the meantime, Moore and Black entered a recording studio to cut a single under the moniker the Scotty Moore Trio. Titled after the Fifties television show Have Gun – Will Travel, "Have Guitar Will Travel" reveals an adventurous side of Moore that was only really hinted at on all those Elvis recordings. It's an odd listen, to say the least, but a critical artifact of late-1950s rockabilly.

Play video

Thomas Wayne Perkins, “Tragedy” (1958)

After sowing his wild oats in the Scotty Moore Trio, the guitarist decided to set aside his ambitions for wider stardom, and in an interesting turn elected to try his hand at running a record label all on his own. "With a guy named Ron Wallis I started Fernwood Records," he said. "The first thing we recorded was 'Tragedy' by Thomas Wayne." Thomas Wayne Perkins was actually the brother of Johnny Cash's chicken-picking guitar player Luther Perkins. Moore saw promise in the young man's abilities as a singer, so he rebilled him as Thomas Wayne, and put him together with a backing band named the DeLons. For his first single, Moore picked out a song written by Gerald H. Nelson and Fred B. Burch titled "Tragedy." It was a mournful rocker, but an effective one. Moore produced the song himself while also contributing a bit of guitar. It ended up becoming a huge national hit peaking at Number Five on the Billboard Hot 100 the year after it was released. Unfortunately, in the years to come, neither Thomas Wayne Perkins nor Moore's Fernwood Records were able to duplicate the stunning success of their one-hit wonder.

Play video

“Mean Woman Blues” (1964)

As the mid-Sixties approached, Moore was working full-time as the production manager for Sam Phillips Recording Service. Essentially, he was tasked with supervising nearly every facet of the actual recording process that went on under the studio's roof. While generally happy with his role, at some point Moore decided he wanted a piece of the limelight himself. He called in drummer D.J. Fontana, along with sax player Boots Randolph and Elvis' oft-utilized singing group the Jordanaires, signed a deal with Epic Records, and cut an album titled The Guitar That Changed the World. When it was released in 1964, the record landed with a thud. Audiences simply didn't have an appetite to listen to Presley's former bandmates without the King crooning away up front. While much of the album comes off as a trite imitation of Elvis biggest early hits, some of the songs carry a distinct and interesting modern Nashville flair. This is never more true than on the closing track, "Mean Woman Blues," which features an impressive array of guitar acrobatics that would make Chet Atkins blush. In the end, The Guitar That Changed the World cost Moore a lot more than he bargained for: When his boss Sam Phillips found out about the project, he summarily showed him the door.  

In This Article: Elvis Presley, Scotty Moore

Show Comments