MERRILL E MOORE:
ROCKIN’ AT THE
HOUSE OF BLUE LIGHTS
26 September 1923 – 14 June 2000
I can accept that, at the time of his greatest hits Duane Eddy was no Segovia. And Sandy Nelson was no Buddy Rich. In the same way, Merrill E Moore was never a great keyboard technician. Even within the narrow confines of his peer group – that of the odd music-form known as Rockabilly, he never attained the accomplished highs of those who’d come before him – the Boogie-woogie and Western Swing piano players that he’d listened to, and learned from during the 1940s. But then, anyone who loves Rock ‘n’ Roll for the right reasons, know that virtuosity is a small part of what it takes to become great. Rock ‘n’ Roll is all about passion, and not precision.
So why is Merrill E Moore remembered? He represents a musical cul-de-sac, his recordings were few, and even these are flawed. Yet they change hands for large sums of money, and his name has become the centre of a minor cult, a password into the inner sanctum of Rock cognoscenti. Moore had fire.
Rockabilly and Country-boogie were hybrids. The initial tentative fumblings to reach out across the great racial divide and sniff out what the Blacks were doing on the other side of the tracks. The first steps of what was to lead to Rock ‘n’ Roll. It began with the addition of a drum-kit to the standard line-up of the C&W group. An innovation that was to have far-reaching implications, but it was not yet Rock… it was not Black enough, not infused with the earthy power of R&B enough for that. But within Rockabilly – and within the Rockabilly piano-playing of Moore (and Moon Mullican) lay the seeds of a style that would be adopted by Jerry Lee Lewis, and many others.
‘Merrill E Moore’ wrote journalist Tim Johnson, ‘is one of those legends of the Country Rock era who, although they’ve never had complete commercial success, have been hailed as The Start Of it All’ (‘Dalkeith Advertiser’, 22 May 1969). Therein lies his importance.
Merrill Everett Moore was born in 1923 in Algona, in the state of Iowa, and started playing piano as a child. He studied keyboard for several years and was diversely influenced by styles ranging from Jazz and Classical to Church and Country music. By the time he was seventeen he’d already developed his boogie left-hand style which would later be augmented by his pounding right-hand improvisations, chopped rhythms and steady drum back-ups.
In the late 1940s, following radio and ballroom work – and a US Navy wartime spell, he moved to San Diego, California, with a burning thirst to play wherever he could get work. This ‘Good Old Boy’ steeped in the music of the country, was soon working the lucrative club scene. Initially both he – and Ella Mae Morse on the West Coast, plus Boyd Bennett in the mid-West, were developing a boogie-beat and band-shouting style vaguely derived from that of Amos Milburn and Wynonie Harris. Rock historians Phil Hardy and Dave Laing opine that the variant was ‘technically crude but well-received’ (in the Panther ‘Encyclopedia Of Rock Volume 1’, 1976). It may be true that they lack the authentic intensity of the artists they drew from, and to an extent rely on the flashy excitement generated by the instrumental back-up rather than through keyboard skills alone.
In 1952 – aged twenty-nine, Moore signed a deal with Capitol Records, and was to remain with them for the six years during which the various strands of Rock ‘n’ Roll came together to explode across the sleepy face of the Western World. The label also recruited Gene Vincent – in 1956, prodded from its complacency by the commercial necessity of answering RCA’s Elvis Presley hegemony. But – aside from producer Ken Nelson who accomplished this coup, Capitol had a condescending attitude towards its ‘down-market product’, which – at the time, also included Johnny Otis and Esquerita.
Moore’s recording success was erratic. He had regional and national hits with his solo sides, laying down the classics on which his later reputation would be based. Although “House Of Blue Lights” had been written in 1946, and had already provided hits for Ella Mae Morse and the Andrews Sisters, Moore remakes it into his own definitive version. As much a part of Rock mythology as ‘Heartbreak Hotel’ the ‘house’ was referenced by Little Richard in “Good Golly Miss Molly” and nudged the title of Deep Purple’s twelfth studio album in 1987. There’s a story that Moore was unable to take advantage of the single’s gathering momentum with hard national touring, due to the insistence of the ‘Buckaroo Club’ – or maybe it was the ‘College Inn’? that he fulfil his six-nights-a-week performing contact with them. If true, he seemed to bear no grudge.
“Down The Road Apiece” was another song with previous history going back to its 1940 debut by the Will Bradley Trio, and Chuck Berry also did a version which the Rolling Stones use as a template for their own remake, but Moore’s revision stands its place with them all. While “Rock Rockola” is another slab of pyrotechnical crude R ‘n’ R energy. Each of them fuse Moore’s unique boogie piano with the then-embryonic white Country end of the Rock spectrum. Yet he never achieved a hit record big enough to brand his name across a mass market, or to reach UK record buyers. Indeed, only three of his singles from this period were issued here – through Decca. His wild barrelhouse playing with contrastingly cool vocals set him apart from the more commercial approach of frenetic vocals dominating the mix.
A situation that lasted until the end of the sixties, when proto-Rock and Rockabilly had become highly-collectible, with enthusiasts searching out rarities and obscurities. To meet this specialist market, some of Moore’s best solo material from those Capitol years were collected by Ember, and would form the basis of his second period of recording activity. In July 1967 ‘Bellyful Of Blue Thunder’ was issued, the first of two Ember albums of reissued material from Moore’s rocking past. The album features “House Of Blue Lights”, ‘Bell Bottom Boogie”, “Rock Island Line” and “Rock Rockola”.
It was followed in May 1968 by ‘Roughhouse 88’, a set featuring “Sweet Jenny Lee” and “Snatchin’ And Grabbin’” aligned against Moore’s unique reading of “Five Foot Two, Eyes Of Blue” and “Cooing To The Wrong Pigeon”. A single – “Down The Road Apiece” c/w “Buttermilk Baby” was lifted from the second set. The albums were largely well-received by a coterie of Rock fans, and probably represent one of the few solid worthwhile achievements of that year’s much-touted Rock revival. Reviewing ‘Roughhouse 88’ ‘Record Mirror’ proclaimed ‘Merrill is alone now, no-one else plays like this and his wild, yet musically superb piano work surpasses anyone else on the scene.’
With a wide open grin and a big Stetson hat, this new prestige was vividly made flesh by the reception Moore received during the Easter 1968 UK ‘Wembley C&W Package’ on which he shares the bill with Conway Twitty, Bill Anderson, George Hamilton IV, and other such luminaries. He appeared on BBC-TV’s ‘Late Night Line-Up’, and reminisced to the press (to Wesley Laine of ‘Record Mirror’) about watching Hank Williams arrive an hour late for concerts – ‘a most miserable man, just like the lyrics of his songs’, about meeting Elvis Presley on the Southern Californian set of Elvis’ TV special, and of his respect for British artists Lonnie Donegan, Tom Jones, and Jazz pianist George Shearing.
Yet it’s an odd collection of material. The opening track revamps his early hit as “House Of Blue Lights ‘69”, while from the same vintage he takes Wilbert Harrison’s “Kansas City” and Shirley & Lee’s “Let The Good Times Roll”. Yet the same mellowing that afflicted the concurrent Jerry Lee Lewis output was apparent in the selection of Esther Philips’ hit “Release Me”, which he sadly chooses to interpret from the Engelbert Humperdinck blueprint.
But, if it didn’t exactly live up to everyone’s expectations, it was certainly a benchmark LP, and – for the forty-six year old Rocker, an impressive achievement. Inevitably the contents and style of the album reflects his live repertoire of the time, which used a trio format with Bob Henkle on sax and bass-fiddle, and Mike Johnson supplying drums and occasional vocals. Moore’s wife – Doris, also sang with the group some weekends, playing San Diego cabaret spots, where the vintage Rock content jostles uneasily against the slicker side of their act, the Latin tempos and ballads.
Moore confided to Max Needham that ‘I have learned a little more – five years of studying Theory and Composition, and we work better places than the old style calls for. Not that I don’t enjoy playing as I once did – indeed, I do!’
Cancer took him at the age of seventy-six. Merrill E Moore’s genre was essentially a hybrid thing, catching fire only when Rock ‘n’ Roll first became a viable commodity, and losing its relevance soon after, as Rock continued to evolve. In the wake of Moore’s innovations, Rock developed into a separate entity while C&W relaxed back into its interrupted somnambulism for a further decade. But various white working-class Southern performers in the small towns of Mississippi, Louisiana, Tennessee and Arkansas would look back on Rockabilly and the Boogie-woogie piano-playing of people like Merrill E Moore, as one of the roots of Country Rock.
MERRILL E MOORE
His collectible records may still be found on specialist websites (if you’re lucky)…
May 1968 ‘Down The Road Apiece’ c/w ‘Buttermilk Baby’ (Ember EMB-S 253)
April 1969 ‘Sweet Mama Tree-Top Tall’ c/w ‘Little Green Apples’ (B&C CB100)
‘BELLYFUL OF BLUE THUNDER’ (Ember EMB 3392, July 1967) with ‘House Of Blue Lights’, ‘Rock Rockola’, ‘Fly Right Boogie’, ‘Corina Corina’, ‘Hard Top Races’, ‘Bartender’s Blues’, ‘Tuck Me To Sleep In My Old ‘Tucky Home’, ‘Red Light’, ‘Bell Bottom Boogie’, ‘Big Big Boogie’, ‘Barrell House Bessie’, ‘Rock Island Line’, ‘Nursery Rhyme Blues’, ‘Doggie House Boogie’
‘ROUGH-HOUSE 88’ (Ember EMB 3394, May 1968) with ‘Buttermilk Baby’, ‘Ten Ten A.M.’ ‘Cow Cow Boogie’, ‘Sweet Jenny Lee’, ‘Five Foot Two, Eyes Of Blue’, ‘One Way Door’, ‘Down The Road Apiece’, ‘Gotta Gimme Watcha Got’, ‘Nola Boogie’, ‘King Porter Stomp’, ‘Yes Indeed’, ‘She’s Gone’, ‘Snatchin’ And Grabbin’’, ‘Cooing To The Wrong Pigeon’
‘BOOGIE MY BLUES AWAY’ (Bear Family Records BCD 15505, 1990), German 44-track 2CD compilation including previously-unreleased material, with rare EP version of ‘Nola Boogie’, plus ‘Barrel House Bessie’, ‘Music Music Music’, ‘Sun Valley Walk’, ‘Lazy River’, ‘Back Home In Indiana’, ‘South’, ‘Shanty In Old Shanty Town’, ‘Sweet Georgia Brown’, ‘Nobody’s Sweetheart’, ‘Jumpin’ At The Woodside’, ‘Somebody Stole My Gal’, ‘Moore Blues’, ‘Sentimental Journey’ and more
‘RED HOT Vol.1 No.1’
(UK – December 1977)