Two recent passings were of note to yours truly and to many others.
First, Scotty Moore died. You know who Scotty Moore was? Scotty Moore was Elvis Presley’s first guitar player.
Scotty was a regular session guitar player for Sun Records owner Sam Phillips in Memphis in 1954, and in the course of trying to figure out if there was anything about Elvis that was worth exploring, Sam asked Scotty to get together with the kid and work with him.
So Scotty invited the extremely introverted 19-year-old over to his house, where Scotty and his wife fed Elvis a southern home-cooked meal before Scotty and Elvis retired to the living room to work on a few songs.
Just as the secretary at Sun Records had done earlier, Scotty asked Elvis a couple of questions, trying to figure out which direction to go.
“What kind of music do you like?”
“I like all kinds.”
“Who do you sound like?”
“I don’t sound like nobody.”
After a couple of nights, Scotty reported back to Sam and bemoaned little progress. Keep trying, said Sam, who eventually brought Elvis and Scotty into the studio along with bass player Bill Black. Exactly 62 years ago this month, the three were relaxing between takes of different ballads that weren’t going anywhere.
Then Elvis picked up his guitar and started goofing around with an old blues song called “That’s Alright, Mama,” and Scotty and Bill playfully joined in. They were giving the blues a unique country feel and an uptempo rhythm that had been non-existent in the original version by Arthur Crudup. Sam, listening in the next room, jumped up, poked his head in the door, and said, “What are you guys doin’?”
Thinking they were in trouble, Elvis said, “Nothin’. Just foolin’ around.” Sam said, “Well do it again. Now that’s different.”
Sam turned on the equipment, and “That’s Alright, Mama” was recorded, with Elvis leading with a strong rhythm guitar, Bill slapping the big standup bass, and Scotty throwing in his unique filler riffs, echoing the melody a beat later throughout the tune. After they recorded a “B” side – the similar-sounding “Mystery Train” – both Elvis and rock’n-roll were on their way.
Elvis, Scotty and Bill – joined a few months later by drummer D.J. Fontana – began touring the south and playing every festival, fair, honky-tonk or high school gymnasium that would have them, taking turns driving whatever car was available and slowly but surely building a name and a following.
Eventually, RCA Records – a giant based in New York that dwarfed the tiny, regional Sun Records company – bought out Elvis’s contract. Scotty, Bill and D.J. went with him, and Scotty in particular recorded with Elvis for the next 10 years, both on studio albums and movie soundtracks. Scotty’s distinctive guitar riffs on “Hound Dog,” “Don’t Be Cruel,” “Jailhouse Rock” and countless others were groundbreaking, and eventually earned him his own spot in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
By about 1966, realizing he could make a relative fortune as a full-time studio musician, Scotty went his own way. But when Elvis was preparing for his 1968 TV special – now known as the “Comeback” special after he had spent the previous seven years doing movies with no live performances – Elvis asked Scotty to join him. The TV special served as the catalyst to reignite Elvis’ career. Scotty did the show with Elvis, but after that the two never ran into each other again before Elvis died in 1977.
Scotty returned to studio work, and Elvis returned to live performing and recorded a slew of new hits in the late ‘60s and early ‘70s – “In the Ghetto,” “Suspicious Minds,” “Don’t Cry Daddy,” “Kentucky Rain,” “The Wonder of You,” “Burning Love” – and reinvented himself with his jumpsuits and capes and record-breaking live performances that culminated with the first-ever worldwide satellite concert in 1973. His new guitar player in live performances was (and still is) a legend in his own right, James Burton.
Scotty was worshiped by performers like Paul McCartney, Keith Richards and others who had grown up paying attention to those unique guitar licks behind Elvis’ vocals and who eventually asked Scotty to record with them. Scotty Moore died June 28 at his home in Nashville at age 84.
The second recent passing that caught my attention was Noel Neill. You know who Noel Neill was? She was Lois Lane on the original “Adventures of Superman” television show with George Reeves in the 1950s, which I watched religiously in reruns growing up in the 1960s.
Noel had actually played Lois Lane a few years earlier in the late 1940s opposite Superman actor Kirk Alyn in a couple of movie serials for Columbia. When the TV show started, an actress named Phyllis Coates initially played Lois. But when the show was renewed for a second season, Phyllis had other commitments, so they called on Noel, who returned to the role and played one of TV’s first career working women for the next five years.
Noel Neill brought a mix of intelligence, sweetness and humor to the part, and the chemistry between George, Noel, Jack Larson (Jimmy Olsen), John Hamilton (Perry White) and Robert Shayne (Inspector Henderson) was undeniable. George may have felt typecast, but they were obviously having fun on the set. Noel and Jack’s friendship lasted for decades, and they both made appearances at numerous fan conventions as well as appearing in various cameos in a number of Superman-related TV shows and movies through the decades.
John Hamilton died at age 71 in 1958 just after the last Superman episode was filmed. George Reeves died in 1959 at age 45, his death officially ruled a suicide, although conspiracy theories abound. Robert Shayne lived to be 92, passing away in 1992. Jack Larson died just last September at age 87.
Noel Neill died July 3 at the ripe old age of 95. By all accounts from fans who had come to know her over the years, she was as warm, friendly and sweet in real life as her Lois Lane was on screen. Rest in peace, Noel, and thanks for the memories.
Reach Gary Abernathy at 937-393-3456 or on Twitter @abernathygary.