last man standing, Scotty Moore recalls the day he recorded 'That's
Bill Ellis, Memphis Commercial Appeal, July 4, 2004
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.
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."
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.
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
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
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
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."
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.
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."
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.
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.
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.
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."
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