It's been almost half a century since guitarist Scotty Moore reinvented rock-and-roll with Bill Black and Elvis Presley down at 706 Union Avenue. In those days, Sam Phillips' Recording Service and Sun label were hardly tourist attractions. Even locals scarcely glanced at the small storefront on the west side of town, and had anyone noticed the activity going on inside -- bluesmen like Howlin' Wolf and Ike Turner coming and going, wannabe singers recording acetates for $3.98 plus tax, and hillbilly groups like Moore and Black's Starlite Wranglers trying to catch Phillips' ear -- they would've shaken their heads and walked on, hardly aware that within those four walls a revolution was under way.
When Phillips put Elvis (who, in the beginning, was one of those $3.98 customers), Scotty, and Bill together, nothing jelled until the group took a break. Elvis was fooling around on his guitar when the blues song "That's All Right, Mama" popped into his head. "All of a sudden," Scotty told author Peter Guralnick, "Elvis just started jumping around and acting the fool, and then Bill picked up his bass, and I started playing with them." Sam Phillips stuck his head out of the control room to ask the trio what they were doing. "Back up," he said. "Try to find a place to start and do it again."
And the rest, as they say, is history.
Elvis, Scotty, and Bill inspired countless would-be rockers, from the Beatles and the Rolling Stones on through Bob Dylan and Tom Petty. Yet until the Stray Cats came along in 1979, no one took what they did -- the sound, the style, the lyrics -- and reinterpreted it so literally. Formed in the midst of the mainstream punk/new wave movement, the Stray Cats -- Lee Rocker and his pals Brian Setzer and Slim Jim Phantom -- took rock-and-roll back to the ground floor with their songs about fast cars and faster women, house parties, street rumbles, and cool characters galore.
For the Stray Cats, all natives of Long Island, Memphis was their mecca -- home of not just Sun Studio and Elvis Presley but also Dorsey and Johnny Burnette and Paul Burlison (the original Rock and Roll Trio), Charlie Feathers, and Jerry Lee Lewis. But Presley, Black, and the Burnette brothers were dead by the time the Stray Cats came on the scene, and despite occasional flickers from Feathers and Lewis, Memphis rockabilly was forgotten. When Lee Rocker finally found the nerve to look up Scotty Moore, he discovered that this hero, too, had abandoned the Bluff City in 1964.
Back in '57, Moore and Black had resigned their positions backing the world's biggest rock-and-roll star after Elvis refused to bump their salaries up from a paltry $200 a week. Moore began engineering and producing around Memphis, working for the Fernwood label (where he produced a Top 10 hit, Thomas Wayne's "Tragedy") and at Sam Phillips' new studio at 639 Madison Avenue, just around the corner from Sun. But in early '64, after he recorded his own instrumental album -- The Guitar That Changed the World -- Phillips let him go, and Moore headed straight to Nashville.
Soured, Moore hung his guitar up for 24 years. But he continued to work behind the scenes as co-owner and engineer at Music City Recorders. He opened a tape-duplicating business and bought a print shop. Moore was a hardworking businessman when Rocker called him in '94. The Stray Cats had broken up the previous year, but Rocker had a new band, Big Blue, that was set to record in Memphis. "I came down there and we just hit it off," Moore says. It marked a career high for Rocker, who was ecstatic about working with the legendary guitarist.
"Scotty put his guitar in the car and drove over to Memphis," Rocker recalls. "We were recording at Kiva [now the House of Blues Studio], and he came in and did two songs with us -- 'Little Buster' and Jimmy Reed's 'Shame, Shame, Shame.' It was just incredible!"
Moore was familiar with Rocker's work. "I had seen [the Stray Cats] two or three times on television. I kept wondering why they were playing that stuff so fast," he laughs. "Lee's a great bass player. The stuff that he does is right in the groove. We've been working together ever since."
Though a 30-year age difference separates the two musicians, it's obvious that they enjoy working together. "We do some of the stuff that Lee's recorded, of course some Elvis tunes, some different blues, Carl Perkins," Moore says. "What I'm real proud of is how the music's held up over all these years. This is still what people want to hear."
And the two are excited to bring their act to Memphis and the Gibson Lounge. "I don't know, offhand, when I last played in Memphis," Moore says. "I'm looking forward to playing the Lounge. That's how I like playing, in a real small room. We're gonna be in your face!"
Moore should feel at home in the Gibson-operated club -- he's been playing Gibson guitars since 1952. "I played a Fender Esquire for a little while, when I was in the Navy," he says. "But when I started playing standing up, it wasn't comfortable, which is why I switched to Gibson." Although he currently plays a Chet Atkins Country Gentleman model, Moore played an ES-295 when he was with Elvis. A few years ago, Gibson issued twelve Scotty Moore signature guitars, "a modified ES-295," he relates. "There's one in the Rock 'N' Soul Museum [in Memphis], but I want to design a guitar from scratch."
"In fact," says Moore, lowering his voice conspiratorially, "the Country Gentleman I'm playing -- I made a few changes on it. I made it feel good -- like an old pair of house shoes or like cuddlin' a girl up in the cradle of your arm."
When, at the end of our conversation, Scotty Moore declares, "I'm glad I'm still playing," it's obvious he means it. "I didn't realize until I started back how much fun it was," he says, taking a deep breath. "When I'm playing with Lee, I feel at home on stage. I have a lot of time to make up for."
Lee Rocker and Scotty Moore
Saturday, February 16th
by CHRIS HERRINGTON
From the Motor City to the Bluff City, Detroit's Chef Chris and His Nairobi Trio took home the big prize at The Blues Foundation's International Blues Challenge finals last Sunday at The New Daisy Theatre.
The culminating event in the Blues Foundation's BluesFirst convention, this battle of unsigned bands -- which has previously hosted eventual blues stars Sean Costello, Susan Tedeschi, and last year's winner, Memphian Richard Johnston -- saw roughly 50 blues acts from all over the country (and a few from overseas) compete, each sponsored by one of the foundation's member blues societies.
Chef Chris and His Nairobi Trio, sponsored by the Canada South Blues Society, stood out on a night when some of the other five finalists seemed accomplished but generic. Eschewing flashy solos and show-off indulgences, this lean, mean four-piece offered lovingly deconstructionist takes on classics like Bo Diddley's "Who Do You Love?" and Johnny Cash's "Folsom Prison Blues" alongside highly original originals. The band -- its name taken from a skit on the old Ernie Kovacs television show -- also demonstrated a singular sense of style to go along with their endearingly oddball music. The drummer looked like Tommy Lee's little brother; the bass player sat down the whole time and barely moved; the guitarist was decked out in a leopard-print fezz and a red feather boa; and leading the way was the gargantuan Chef Chris (an actual chef, apparently) with his shiny brown suit, shinier red boots, yellow polka-dot tie, cowboy hat, and massive goatee.
The band ended its set with a drawn-out story song in which Chef Chris detailed the herculean task of making crawfish gumbo for his sweetie ("I get all kinds of cayenne pepper/I like to see my baby sweat when she eats the gumbo"). The song culminated in the double (though "double" seems too restricting) entendre chant of "Eat the tail/Suck the head," which could have been an obnoxiously winking punchline in other hands but was transformed into something like awe or bewilderment or mysticism by Chef Chris. It even drew a standing ovation from much of the crowd. The whole thing was sublimely weird -- with the David Thomas/Crocus Behemoth-like frontman leading the way, this band must be what Pere Ubu would have sounded like as a bar-blues band. Kudos to the judges for giving them the big prize -- $1,000, 1,000 CDs, studio time at Ardent, booking and media consultation, and appearances at several blues festivals, including this May's Handy Awards -- over more traditional entrants.
Second Place went to The Tyree Neal Band from Baton Rouge, featuring lead singer/guitarist Neal, the 19-year-old nephew of contemporary blues star Kenny Neal. The band's tight urban groove was spiked by Neal's solo-heavy (and, in this reporter's opinion, snooze-worthy) repertoire, which helped him win the night's Albert King Award for most promising blues guitarist. Third Place went to the Boston-based Nicole Nelson Band, where the powerful pipes of the 23-year-old Nelson made up for her mostly forgettable band. Nelson's set-closing rendition of the early Wilson Pickett classic "I Found a Love" was a highlight.
Among the other finalists was this year's Memphis entrant, The Handy Three, sponsored by The Beale Street Blues Society. The Three -- singer-guitarist Mark Lemhouse, bassist Scott Bomar, and drummer Stephen Barnett -- offered a very solid set that paid homage to the jug-band and country-blues heritage of Beale Street's early years. The other two finalists -- Indianapolis' Smokehouse Dave and The BBQ Kings and the Charlotte-sponsored Fat Daddy Blues Band -- were in the white-guys-pretending-to-be-the-Blues-Brothers mode of contemporary blues bands. -- Chris Herrington