On the evening of July 2nd, 1963, the Beatles played one of their classic BBC radio sessions, recording a smooth, carefree cover version of Elvis Presley’s “That’s All Right (Mama)” at London’s Maida Vale Studios. If the Fab Four seemed a might bit self-assured on the recording, they had well and truly earned it: only the day before, they had debuted and recorded “She Loves You” with producer George Martin across town at Abbey Road studios. Even bigger and better things were clearly in the offing for the group that—even at this comparatively early point in their career—could already count a pair of chart-topping singles and a number-one album to their name.
As part of the BBC’s “Pop Go the Beatles” program, the July 2nd segment found the band channeling the King’s work on “That’s All Right (Mama)” in fine style, with Paul McCartney turning in a top-drawer impression of his idol, who loomed large in the Beatles’ legend. As Paul later remarked about Elvis, “I liked him best around 1956, when he was young and gorgeous and had a twinkle in his eye, when he had a sense of humor, plus that great voice. He was an incredible vocalist. Try and do it sometime—we all have—and he is still the guv’nor.”
As more than a few Beatles biographers have observed, ground zero for the group’s origin story may well indeed have been the mid-1950s, when Elvis’s sound began to find its way onto the British airwaves courtesy of Radio Luxembourg, that pirate radio harbinger with the most powerful transmitter in the world. Across 1955, songs like “That’s All Right (Mama)” and “I Forgot to Remember to Forget” saw the King eking his way into the homes of the future Beatles. But it wouldn’t be until the spring of 1956 when John Lennon saw his adolescent world fall into a state of eclipse with the release of “Heartbreak Hotel.” “When I heard it,” John later recalled, “it was the end for me.”
As it happened, “Heartbreak Hotel” was the end for a lot of future rockers, including Keith Richards, who famously remarked that “it was almost as if I’d been waiting for it to happen. When I woke up the next day, I was a different guy.” Future Beatles lead guitarist George Harrison was also suitably transfixed, hearing the sounds of raw rock ‘n’ roll power in Scotty Moore’s searing performance on “Heartbreak Hotel,” the breakout hit on which Moore played his trademark hollow-bodied Gibson.
On February 11, 1956, Elvis performed “Heartbreak Hotel” on the Dorsey Brothers Stage Show. The soon-to-be-crowned King of Rock ‘n’ Roll suitably tore it up, punctuating a raucous performance with his patented gyrations and tantalizing stutter-steps. But Presley’s bravura stagecraft notwithstanding, Moore’s guitar work drives the song into the stratosphere. As “Heartbreak Hotel” makes its slow burn to the precipice of Moore’s solo, the guitarist rips into the staccato chords like a veritable anthem. And then it happens: all hell breaks loose when Moore arches his back into a fiery guitar solo for the ages.
For Elvis, “Heartbreak Hotel” was a signal moment in a career that was chockfull of star turns. But for Moore, who died at the age of 84 this past Tuesday, the song proved to be an out-and-out showcase for the guitarist, who was spinning out electric prowess in lockstep with the King’s unremitting vocal stylings. With his guitar brimming with reverb, Moore burned even brighter with “Jailhouse Rock,” a song that finds the musician in a tension-ridden duet with Elvis, whose vocals seem to catapult off of the guitarist’s chords like a slingshot.
While the Beatles would never undertake a Presley cover version in the friendly confines of Abbey Road, this latter aspect of the ways in which Moore propelled the King’s sound via his guitar can be heard on nearly every one of the Fab Four’s groundbreaking records. In such moments, John, Paul, and George invariably explore the tension between their vocals and the peerless forward momentum inherent in their peculiar brand of Mersey beat guitar rock.
Years later, Harrison would finally meet Moore in the flesh during a break from the American guitarist’s 1999 British tour in the company of D.J. Fontana, Elvis’s original drummer. One evening that spring, Harrison invited Moore and Fontana out for a visit to the Beatle’s Friar Park estate, where he lived with his wife Olivia.
For George, it was undoubtedly a rare moment of normalcy during a challenging time. He had recently seen his throat cancer fall into a temporary remission, and it was only scant months later that he would find himself face-to-face with a would-be assassin’s knife during a home invasion. It very likely would been the end for George if not for Olivia, who saved her husband’s life after halting his attacker with several blows from a handy table lamp.
But that night with Moore and Fontana back in the spring of 1999 proved to be a memorable one for Harrison, who treated his guests to tea and supper before casually suggesting that the musicians retire to his studio. Together, they whiled away the hours in the comfort of George’s music room, where telltale guitars from his Beatles years adorned the walls.
At one point, George sheepishly asked if he could play Moore’s solo from “Too Much” for the older guitarist. It was clearly a deeply personal moment for Harrison to enjoy the privilege of performing for the selfsame man who had helped to set rock ‘n’ roll into motion all those years ago with Elvis. As George prepared to play Moore’s intricate solo from the guitarist’s early days with the King, the older man confessed that for the life of him he couldn’t remember what he’d first played back in 1956 on “Too Much.” “That’s okay,” George reassured him. “I can’t remember ‘A Hard Day’s Night’ either.”