By: Ken Burke, Dan Griffin, Brian Setzer (Foreword)
Reviewed by: Don Noble
Chicago Review Press, 2006
The Blue Moon Boys is not the kind of book I would normally read. I am not, I confess, a music guy. The names Scotty Moore, Bill Black, and D. J. Fontana meant nothing to me, and I have not made the pilgrimage to Graceland. Lead author Ken Burke has a previous title, Country Music Changed My Life. I cannot say the same. But, I was a teenager in the fifties and was entranced by the young Elvis of “Heartbreak Hotel” and the other early work, and I was impressed and amused by Dan Griffin’s documentary about Elvis, Two Hundred Cadillacs, in which he explores one of Elvis’ odder hobbies—buying Cadillacs and giving them away, often to strangers.
Griffin, a native of Sand Mountain and a 1974 graduate of Sardis High School, is a member of the Alabama Music Hall of Fame and, although Peter Guralnik with his two-volume bio of Elvis is still the King, Griffin and Burke are extremely knowledgeable commentators on country, rock and roll, and that peculiar hybrid form which Elvis began, rockabilly.
Some of Elvis Presley’s story is pretty well known. Elvis, a shockingly pretty and shy young man, had paid to cut some records at Sam Phillips’ Memphis Recording Service. Later, Phillips had Scotty Moore, guitar man, audition Elvis, and Moore heard something he liked. They brought in bassist Bill Black, and the three worked hours to develop the sound on Elvis’ first release, “That’s All Right (Mama).” In those early days, Moore served as a real mentor. In fact, in an early appearance, the young Elvis was so nervous that his leg shook uncontrollably. Elvis tried to bring it under control, but Moore noticed that the girls were screaming and told Elvis, “Keep shaking that leg.”
Elvis kept shaking that leg, and wiggling his hips and pelvis in a “jaw-dropping bump and grind to the salacious strip-club beat Fontana laid down” on stage and then on the Milton Berle and Ed Sullivan TV shows. Scandal. Horror. There was no crotch-grabbing or “costume malfunction,” but still America was shocked. My, what innocent times we were living through and did not have the sense to know it.
Elvis’ rise to fame and wealth was, of course, meteoric. And it would be nice to say that his band shared in all that, but as this book makes perfectly clear, that was not the case. Once his career was established, “Presley promptly turned his back on them.” Many blame Elvis’ manager, the nefarious Col. Tom Parker, but Burke and Griffin insist Elvis share the blame. The band was kept on standard union wages and told Elvis was the star. They were replaceable.
Although Elvis is finally not the “loyal and good-hearted” fellow his publicists promoted, he does energize the first half of this book. After the boys have broken up, the book loses momentum. The second half, while it has its strengths, will be of interest only to aficionados. There are too many lists of too many musicians from too many bands I have never heard of.
Bill Black, who died in 1965, did go on to a successful musical career of his own with the Bill Black Combo. Fontana and Moore were exploited by Presley for years, even appearing in movies in embarrassing costumes.
Both superior musicians, Fontana and Moore were recognized as the masters and musical pioneers that they were, however, by colleagues such as George Harrison, Ringo Starr, Keith Richards, and many others. In recent years, Fontana and Moore traveled and recorded as The Blue Moon Boys and even had an album, All the King’s Men, produced by Dan Griffin and nominated for a Grammy.
It is ironic that Griffin, who put his heart and soul and his own money into resuscitating Moore and Fontana, is finally accused by them of hoarding the riches and profiting at their expense. Ah, the music business.
Don Noble is a University of Alabama Professor Emeritus of English and host of the Alabama Public Television literary talk show Bookmark.
This review first appeared in the Tuscaloosa News.