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One of the most challenging tasks in dealing with historical subjects, even more contemporary ones, is evaluating individuals who claim to be primary sources – but whose remarks and observations are not part of the record created at the time of an event. I’ve posted before on the issues of memory in regard to “retroactive” source information, more could be said on that and its pretty obvious that a very large body of information comes to exist based on source statements months, years or even decades after the fact – statements which are almost certainly contaminated to some extent by memory issues, regardless of the sincerity of the source. You have to pause when you find experiment after experiment demonstrating that witnesses will challenge even their own written or recorded statements prepared within minutes or hours of an event when interviewed at a later date. Their current “memories” simply override even their own earlier records.
That’s one issue, but there are a variety of others. All of them are important to me because I frequently do turn to individuals as sources – and have learned the risks of that the hard way over a couple of decades. Yet on a recent online forum post, I read an individual remarking that they had seen a name mentioned, did a Google search, and began to insert the information they found into the dialog, taking it quite literally. It had taken me some three years to parse that particular source in regard to whether they were credible or not, or to what extent – in that particular case my conclusion was not at all.
Which raises the point that sources may be credible, partially credible or not at all credible – in some instances certain things they say can be verified, while others prove to be extremely questionable. And there is the issue of “situational” sources, who provide information over a long period of time and filter it according to personal circumstances. That is one of the things that makes Richard Case Nagell such a challenging source – he did filter his story over time, in regard to both legal issues and personal ones involving custody battles over his children. Taking any single remark from him, without understanding the chronology and context of his remarks would be a mistake. He is a perfect example of what turns out to be a credible but extremely challenging source.
Some of the other challenging sources that I’ve crossed paths with are people like Fred Crisman, Thomas Beckham and Gene Wheaton. Each required years to evaluate – especially since the first two can demonstrably be shown to be both con men at certain points, to have used fake religious credentials and in Crisman’s case to have carried out a significant UFO hoax along with forging a document outlining has career as a CIA “asset”. Not to mention anonymously inserting himself into the Garrison investigation with a letter identifying himself as a suspect – and yes, the man had some serious problem while being totally sincere and personally convincing. There is no doubt that some sources are so sincere that they convince themselves of their own alternative history.
Beckham on the other hand proved to be an entirely different story, as he did indeed have certain limited but verifiable personal experiences in New Orleans and could offer some insights into both Guy Bannister and Lee Oswald. Yet being the kind of guy he was, that grew like Topsy, reinforced by his contact with Crisman, and became yet one more alternative reality. For those of you interested in either man, I have provided Debra Conway with my extensive research files on both of them and hopefully at some point they will be available on CD; I don’t think there is a body of information about them that comes close to that collection which had the benefit of work by a variety of others including people who had been personally scammed by Crisman.
Then you have a source like Gene Wheaton, who has the right credentials, was in the right places to hear and know what he claimed and shared it with the ARRB – yet the ARRB showed not the least interest in him and the staff member who worked with him for over a year eventually told my friend Stu Wexler she did not even remember his file, without doubt the most sensational she would have had go past her during her tenure there. Stu and I will be talking about that at the Lancer conference this fall and showing an interview with Wheaton – that will give those in attendance a chance to personally evaluate him as a source. And of course, as I write in SWHT, if you decide Wheaton is telling the truth, then you have a very strong insight into the people who went from Florida to Dallas to kill the President.
Scotty Moore and Elvis. (Photo: Courtesy of Scotty Moore.)
The passing of original Elvis Presley guitarist Scotty Moore this week, despite living to the ripe old age of 84, nevertheless sent shockwaves across the rock ‘n’ roll community already still mourning the deaths of several of its heroes this year.
The loss of Moore, who continued to produce, record and perform right up until before he fell ill with symptoms not exactly revealed at press time, sent a special kind of jolt through the hearts of music fans the world over, because his guitar playing has served as one of the key building blocks of the modern rock infrastructure since that fateful day after the Fourth of July in 1954 when he cut his first session with Elvis at Sun Records with producer Sam Phillips.
The King may have given rock music its swagger in the mid-’50s, but Moore gave the young genre its sense of danger with his sharp, piercing variation of the Chet Atkins style that influenced him on such priceless early Presley cuts as “That’s All Right”, “Mystery Train”, “Long Tall Sally” and that indelible walking riff on “Jailhouse Rock”.
“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.”—Keith Richards
Elvis and his swinging hips might have made millions of teenage girls swoon in the ’50s, but just as many fell in love with the pure rawness and simplicity of Moore’s guitar playing, including some of the most renowned guitar players of the last 60 years: Keith Richards, Jeff Beck, Jimmy Page, George Harrison, Ron Wood, Rick Nielsen, Mark Knopfler, Alvin Lee, Eric Clapton, Bruce Springsteen, Johnny Ramone, the list goes on forever.
“All I wanted to do in the world was to be able to play and sound like that,” Richards once famously stated. “Everyone else wanted to be Elvis; I wanted to be Scotty.”
Listen to the reckless abandon he uses to back Presley in his second performance at the Louisiana Hayride on August 20, 1955, and you will clearly recognize what Keef and countless others heard on the outset, that unbridled purity that made Moore’s tiny little amp sound like Neil Young’s great wall of Fenders. The strings on his Gibson ES-295 were lightning in a bottle, the spark that ignited the biggest youth movement in American history.
Like Marilyn Monroe and Mickey Mouse, Elvis Presley sadly has been relegated to a hyper-marketed image constantly displayed on anything you can put a picture on, a pretty face to sell in gift shops on the boardwalk of the Jersey Shore. But the music he created with Scotty Moore during those halcyon first five years transcends any such cheapness. It was a partnership that kick-started a revolution.
Below are five guitarists who helped me personally recognize the genius of Scotty Moore beyond the obvious aforementioned heroes.
“No Elvis, Beatles or the Rolling Stones!” Joe Strummer might have rallied on the song “1977”. But the hijacking of the cover design of that first Elvis Presley studio album for London Calling wasn’t to merely take the piss out of the then-freshly deceased King.
Much of what guitarist Mick Jones exuded in his own musicality came from Scotty Moore, whose playing influenced the Big Audio Dynamite frontman’s own style on such classic Clash cuts as “The Prisoner”, and of course their cover of “Brand New Cadillac” by Vince Taylor, an early British rock singer who himself was deeply influenced by that Presley material recorded at Sun three years before he debuted the original version of the song in 1958.
In fact, on his radio show for the BBC that ran from 1999 until his death, Joe Strummer famously played the Presley tune “Crawfish” from the 1958 film King Creole, considering the minimalist calypso performance from both Elvis and Scotty to be one of his favorite tunes.
As much as punk rallied against the rock establishment in the ’70s, it did so by returning it back to its pure primal instinct, much of which begins on the strings of Scotty’s Gibson.
Excluding Neil Young’s failed foray into the format in 1983, nobody shy of Robert Gordon’s run in the new wave era carried the torch for rock ‘n’ roll’s birth years like The Stray Cats. And Massapequa’s Brian Setzer was their pompadoured guitar hero who gave his roots in early Elvis a sense of dash and daring on par with his fellow Long Island axe masters Joe Satriani and Steve Vai.
In the early 2000s, Setzer debuted his powerful greaser-garage trio the ’68 Comeback Special, where he was able to emulate Elvis and Scotty as one human being. Nobody before or since can do it better than Setzer.
The problem, it seems, with being as excellent a pop songwriter as Alex Chilton was, sometimes the other aptitudes one might possess tended to be overlooked. Such is the case for the Box Tops/Big Star icon’s incredible guitar playing, which never sounded more directly planted in the school of fellow Memphis icon Scotty Moore than his time moonlighting as the lead guitarist for Tav Falco’s Panther Burns in the late ’70s/early ’80s.
Recording and performing under the thinly veiled pseudonym LX Chilton, songs like “Bourgeois Blues” and a scorching cover of The Yardbirds’ “Train Kept A Rollin’”, Alex took the template of the classic Moore solo and turned it sideways, bringing a coiled sense of angularity to the rudimentary rockabilly format. And by being in the background while Falco worked his magic on the frontline, it allowed Chilton the guitarist full reign to cut loose with a sense of sheer freedom you knew Scotty was feeling when he peeled off that solo on the old Big Mama Thornton barn burner“Hound Dog”.
Speaking of Alex Chilton, The Cramps cut their first 45 with the man himself at Sun Studios in Memphis, delivering a cover of The Trashmen’s “Surfin’ Bird” with “The Way I Walk” on the flip, both of which would appear on their Chilton-produced debut EP Gravest Hits (which was largely crafted at nearby Ardent).
Recorded a good 10 years before the studio was officially reopened for business in 1987, the ghosts of the dormant Sun were indeed strong in the essence of that 45, especially in the playing of guitarist Poison Ivy, who takes the Scotty Moore model of soloing and methodically claws its eyes out by sounding like she’s taking scissors to the strings while the guitar’s still plugged in.
That instrumental interlude during “Surfin’” that kicks off around the 2:44 mark has got to be the most extreme thing ever put to tape at Sun, an invasion of New York City punk ethos right in rock’s birthing room, and emerging with the creation of its own baby—‘psychobilly’—in the process.
“I’ve got the Scotty Moore No. 1 guitar,” proudly proclaimed “Filthy” Phil Campbell, the longest serving guitarist to play at the side of Lemmy in Motorhead, and now sadly the sole surviving member of the legendary heavy metal band’s classic lineup, as both Lem and Phil “Philthy Animal” Taylor passed away in 2015. “They only made 12 of them and mine is the No. 1. I’ve got a Gibson 125 from 1961 which is really nice.”
Perhaps no other album in the Motorhead catalog better exemplifies the loose but wild role Scotty’s playing might have had on the Welshman nicknamed “Wizzo” than 1991’s 1916, an album often overlooked for the likes of Ace of Spades and No Remorse, but it deserves a place right alongside them as the cream of their catalog.
Campbell’s riffs on tracks like “I’m So Bad (Baby I Don’t Care)”, “Angel City” and the thrashing “Shut You Down”, in particular, greatly benefitted from Lemmy and Phil’s shared love for not just the speed and intensity of rockabilly, but its shake appeal as well. Meanwhile, the late Kilmister would take his love for early Elvis even further with his trio The Head Cat with guitarist Danny B. Harvey and Slim Jim Phantom of The Stray Cats on drums.
If you slowed down the breakneck velocity of Motorhead right up until the very end, you’d hear some serious elements of Elvis ’56.