The last man standing, Scotty Moore recalls the day he recorded 'That's All Right'

By Bill Ellis, Memphis Commercial Appeal, July 4, 2004
He could have been a Starlite Wrangler. If history had played out differently, Elvis Presley might have been just a singer in a local country & western group. That's how Wrangler guitarist Scotty Moore pictured him when he first heard the unproven vocalist. "At that point, we were really thinking about another one we could add to the group," says Moore, now 72, when he was interviewed at his home and studio outside Nashville on Blueberry Hill Road.

The fates of the 19-year-old Memphis truck driver at Crown Electric and Wrangler cohorts Moore and bassist Bill Black were famously altered 50 years ago this Monday, when they recorded a raucous cover of the Arthur 'Big Boy' Crudup blues number "That's All Right" at Sun Studio, forever changing popular music. Moore - a 2000 Rock and Roll Hall of Fame inductee and the last living member of the group - will be at Sun on Monday to press "play" for a global-moment-in-time recognition of "That's All Right."

The event is part of Memphis's celebration of the 50th anniversary of rock and roll. Chance, circumstance and, most of all, persistence figured into the course of events. Presley had been trying to get into the good graces of late producer Sam Phillips and his Sun Records label for at least a year prior to the recording. In the summer of 1953, the fledgling singer paid $3.98 to record an acetate at Sun under the guise of its being a gift for his mother. He bought a second acetate in January of 1954. Phillips just wasn't biting.

Sun assistant Marion Keisker noticed Presley; her interest led to an audition on June 26 that also went nowhere. Moore and his bassist pal Bill Black were playing in the sextet Doug Poindexter & the Starlite Wranglers, which performed mostly country material at places such as the Bon Air Club. The group had made a single for Sun, the 1954 two-sider "My Kind of Carryin' On" and "Now She Cares No More for Me." "Maybe it sold eight (copies)," Moore laughs -- but still the musician stopped by Sun frequently to inquire into other recording opportunities.

One afternoon at the studio, he and Phillips were talking over coffee when Keisker said, " 'Well, what do you think about that boy that was in here a couple of hours ago?" recalls Moore. "Sam kind of looked at her and said 'Oh yeah,' and nothing was said. But it stuck in my mind, and over a two-week period, every time I was in there, I'd ask him, 'Have you called that guy you was talking about?' 'No, not yet.'" On July 3, Phillips gave in. Keisker handed Moore a piece of paper with the singer's name and phone number and Moore read it.

"Elvis Presley? What kind of name is that?" he remembers saying. Identifying himself as a Sun Records representative, Moore called Presley after dinner that night and got his mother, Gladys, on the phone -- Elvis had gone to a movie theater. He soon called back, and a rehearsal was set for the next day. Presley showed up around noon on July Fourth at the house Moore and then-wife Bobbie rented on 983 Belz in north Memphis, down the street from Black and his wife, Evelyn. According to Moore's 1997 autobiography, "That's Alright, Elvis" (as told to James Dickerson), Presley was wearing "a white lacy shirt, pink pants with a black stripe down the legs, and white buck shoes."

Moore spent the afternoon hours listening to Presley sing, impressed by his vast repertoire: "It seemed like he knew every song in the world, pop, country," says Moore. Black dropped by to hear how things were going. "I asked Bill what he thought. He said, 'Well, he sounded pretty good, he didn't knock me out.' I said, 'My thoughts, too." Moore still thought Presley might make a good second singer for the Wranglers. After the guitarist gave his assessment to Sam Phillips, they agreed on a studio audition the following night. "Just you and Bill come in," Moore recalls Phillips saying. "I don't need the whole band, I just want to hear what he sounds like on tape."

The players convened sometime in the early evening after work (Moore at University Park Cleaners and Black at Firestone). The Phillips-supervised session started out frustratingly slow, one ballad after another yielding no results. While everyone was taking a break -- around 9 o'clock, Moore recalls -- Presley broke loose on a blues number recorded in 1946 for RCA Victor by Forest, Miss.-born bluesman Arthur 'Big Boy' Crudup.

"Elvis just stood up and started singing 'That's All Right' out of nervous (energy)," says Moore. "Bill started slapping the bass and playing with him. By that time, Sam had come through the door. I was trying to find the chords. He said, 'What are you doing?' We said, 'We're just jamming, having a good time.' He said, 'Well, do it a little bit more, it sounds pretty good.' He went back in, closed the door and listened to it on mike. You could see him in there, he was grinning and nodding his head."

Presley's version didn't bear much of a resemblance to the gritty original. The young singer had put a hillbilly-styled vocal on top of the tune and strummed on his acoustic guitar with an abandon that moved to its own jolting rhythm. Another producer might have let that flight of fancy trail off in thin air while the boys got back to the "real" rehearsal. But this one had an expression of musical freedom that Phillips had heard in his head but not his studio. Where Presley had sounded generic on the ballads, his voice came to life on this gutbucket blues, a genre Phillips could appreciate since Sun had been recording such artists - from Howlin' Wolf to Rufus Thomas - for the past four years. But it wasn't just blues. It was a crossroads where blues met country. Moore and Black had never heard the song before, so they did the most logical thing: they adapted it to their own way of playing.

For Moore, that meant using an economical finger-picking style on his full-toned Gibson ES-295 electric, partly inspired by such country pioneers as Chet Atkins and Merle Travis. "I got into using fingers because it was just the three of us," says Moore. "I was just trying to make more noise . . . I'm glad I didn't hear ('That's All Right') because we might have tried to play it like it had been recorded." Black further filled out the sound of the minimalist trio with his thumping upright bass, a rhythmic pulse that made no excuses for the absence of a drummer.

The trio went over the brief tune several times that night before arriving at a version that pleased Phillips. A few days later, Sam played it for Dewey Phillips, who flipped. Sometime later in the week, Dewey spun the song repeatedly on his evening show, inspiring curiosity about the new singer. That date is uncertain, though Frank Price -- a 90-year-old Collierville resident who was in the Navy in Millington when he heard the song's debut -- says he's sure it was a Thursday. A B-side was needed and "Blue Moon of Kentucky" was cut, a choice Moore recalls was instigated by Black, whose straight-time rendition of the Bill Monroe bluegrass waltz turned it inside out just as Presley had done a few days prior with the blues song.

On July 19, "That's All Right" was released as Sun single 209. It's still worth marvelling that it came out at all. "You can't rule out the fact that by happenstance, Elvis was thrown into juxtaposition with somebody who had a vision of the eloquence and impact of African-American music," says Peter Guralnick, author of the definitive Presley biographies "Last Train to Memphis" and "Careless Love." Colin Escott, co-author of the Sun history, "Good Rockin' Tonight", agrees: "Sam realized that this was the way forward even though nothing like 'That's All Right' was selling or had ever sold. He didn't care. It felt good to him, he was going to put it out."

His instincts right on target, Phillips released four more singles of Presley's over the course of the next year and a half. By April 1956, the singer, now signed to RCA, had his first national No. 1 hit, "Heartbreak Hotel." By the late 1950s, Presley was a crossover phenomenon, with an average of nine records per year on the mainstream pop charts and five per year on both the country and R&B charts, according to Richard Layman in "American Decades 1950-1959." All that from a song which, Moore only half-joked at the time, was so different that people would run the group clean out of town. "And they did!"

Copyright EIN, 2004