That's Alright, Elvis

The Untold Story of Elvis's First Guitarist and Manager, Scotty Moore As told to James Dickerson (Schirmer Books, $25)

Review by Jean Metcalfe

Life is unfair.

—John F. Kennedy, 1962

If life were fair, Scotty Moore would today be sitting at the board of his own state-of-the-art recording studio, and Scotty's second wife, Bobbie, would be driving a top-of-the line Cadillac, paid for with Elvis Presley money.

And given all that has been written about Elvis's infamous manager Tom Parker, if life were absolutely fair, the Colonel would have lived out his life as Andreas Cornelius van Kuijk in his native Holland, never having had a chance to sink his greedy hooks into the young man who would be King.

"That's Alright, Elvis" is a book that begged to be written. Keith Richards would likely agree:

"When I heard 'Heartbreak Hotel,' I knew that was what I wanted to do in life. . . . All I wanted to do in the world was to be able to play and sound like that. . . . Everyone else wanted to be Elvis—I wanted to be Scotty."

In addition to his expertise on guitar, Scotty was a good if unofficial manager for "Elvis and the Blue Moon Boys" (Elvis, Scotty and bassist Bill Black) during the early days. But when things started to heat up, the band leap-frogged over 'bubbling under' and went directly to red hot, leaving Scotty little time for managerial duties. Within a four-day period, Elvis, Scotty and Bill had recorded "That's All Right, Mama" in Sam Phillips' Memphis Recording Service, it had been played on the radio (creating a stampede to the stores), and Phillips had signed Elvis to a recording contract.

"Don't feel pressured or anything," Phillips told them, "but we got to have a B side by tomorrow." Bill Monroe's "Blue Moon of Kentucky" fit the bill.

At about that time, "Sam [Phillips] and Scotty decided it would be to everyone's advantage if Scotty became Elvis's personal manager," and he signed a one-year contract with the 19-year-old Elvis and his parents. It was an uncompensated position, unless he secured bookings for the group. When Phillips subsequently lined up local DJ Bob Neal to seek bookings for Elvis, Scotty tried to get the attention of big-time promoters outside the South. He contacted the Chicago office of Colonel Tom Parker's Madison, Tennessee-based Jamboree Attractions, and received a reply from Parker's assistant, Tom Diskin: "There are few outlets for hillbilly entertainers in this area around Chicago."

Curiously, a week later Scotty found himself in a meeting with Bill, Elvis, Phillips, Neal, Diskin — and the Colonel himself. That meeting, set up by Neal, "sealed the fate" of Elvis and the Blue Moon Boys. Scotty didn't even mention the letter: "Mostly, he sat and listened, watching the show."

Elvis expressed concern to Scotty and Bill when he noticed they were being eased out of the picture. Although they were splitting the take for performances 50-25-25 after expenses, Elvis was getting three percent of record sales while Scotty and Bill received zilch. Elvis thought they should split his share of record sales 50-25-25 as well, but Scotty disagreed. He suggested that he and Bill each receive one-quarter of one percent, leaving Elvis with two and a half percent. "OK, fine—I understand," Elvis said, but nothing was ever put in writing. And guess what, chillun' . . . .

If Scotty Moore is bitter, he does not admit it in this book. He does say, however, that "I should have gone the next day and gotten it drawn up and signed, but I kept putting it off." Ah, hindsight. But one must bear in mind that Scotty, a former hatter, wore many hats: husband, ex-husband, father, father figure, guitarist, band manager/leader, booking agent, et al.

Fortunately, Bobbie Moore was a person with assets as important to a musician as his favorite axe: She was an understanding wife and had a steady job. Her '54 Chevy took the band members to all of their performances, and her salary from Sears took care of the monthly payments and the repair bills. When the Chevy's odometer had "spun around three times," Elvis bought a 1951 Lincoln. On the door he painted "Elvis Presley—Sun Records." According to the book, "In later years, when [Bobbie Moore] read stories about Elvis giving new cars to perfect strangers, she wondered if he would remember to replace her 1954 Chevy. He never did."

Says Jerry Schilling, Creative Affairs Director of the Elvis Presley Estate, "Scotty was like the rock in the foundation that Elvis depended on." Schilling should hand-carry a copy of "That's Alright, Elvis" to Priscilla.

Scotty Moore is an interesting, talented, likable guy, but he's no angel. A peek into his personal closet reveals no halo; there are, however, several skeletons. He's experienced good times and bad, several marriages and divorces (one loses track), infidelities, out-of-wedlock offspring, an arrest for delinquent child-support payments, fist fights (one with Jerry Lee Lewis), comebacks and a recent bankruptcy. During one short-lived good time, he bought himself a C-5 Classic Gibson guitar and a black Cadillac Eldorado with red interior.

Buy the book. But don't do it out of sympathy for Scotty Moore (though one guesses he could use the money). Buy "That's Alright, Elvis" because it's interesting and an easy-read. It covers Scotty's and Bill Black's post-Elvis careers and Bill's untimely death, it divulges Scotty's earnings from Elvis, and includes copies of contracts and some rare photographs. Other topics include Elvis's movies and his strained relationship with wife Priscilla, Scotty's post-Elvis recording sessions with the likes of Ringo Starr, and his 1995-96 tours with Ronnie McDowell. Even more interesting are such revelations as a mysterious guitar switch that took place in 1960 involving Elvis's Gibson J-200.

A nice bonus at the end of the book is a listing of "Scotty Moore's Recordings With Elvis Presley," broken down by years, and a half page titled "Guitars Owned by Scotty Moore," with descriptions, dates purchased and dates sold/traded. Additionally, there is a section on "Select Bibliography" and one containing chapter-by-chapter "Notes."

On September 7 Scotty Moore, D. J. Fontana and James Dickerson presided at a book/album signing at Hawley-Cooke Booksellers' Shelbyville Road Plaza location. To the audience's disappointment, the appearance did not include a Q&A opportunity. However, Dickerson did say that he wrote the book as a result of his friendship with Scotty's daughter, who encouraged her father's cooperation. Whereupon the 65-year-old Moore quipped wickedly, "I told her I would do it if she would shut up about it."

Scotty and D. J. Fontana, Elvis's first drummer, have recently released a very enjoyable 11-song album, All the King's Men, on Sweetfish Records. Guest artists include Jeff Beck, Keith Richards, Ron Wood, the Mavericks, Joe Ely, Steve Earle, and Ronnie McDowell and the Jordanaires. "Soulmates," the latter's contribution to the album, could easily fool the ear into thinking that the King is indeed still alive.

Included in this reviewer's copy of All the King's Men was an insert promoting "That's Alright, Elvis," and offering a $5 discount if the book is ordered from the publisher before Dec. 31, 1997 and a specified promo number is mentioned.

Speaking of Elvis . . .

Quotes from his first drummer

He was always polite and kind to everyone.

I've never seen anything—movies, television, pictures—that made him look as good as he did in person.

I think he had everything.

If it hadn't been that I worked for him, I'd have been like any other drummer on the street.

[The most fun times were] the early years.

I haven't read the first one [books about Elvis]. I know he treated me as a gentleman and I treated him as a gentleman, and that's all I needed to know.

Nah, [Elvis didn't give him a Cadillac] but that wouldn't have made any difference. We were friends. So he didn't have to give me nothing to buy my friendship.

[On what he himself is doing these days] Oh, a little bit. Every now and then I'll go out with Scotty and different guys. I go to Europe several times a year… I had a heart attack this May. I've just been takin' it easy, basically. I don't know what I'm doin' up here [in Louisville].

— D.J. Fontana