NO DEPRESSION #77 bookazine
Spring 2009

FIRST
BASS

BOB MOORE HAS WITNESSED
AND MADE MUSIC HISTORY
HOLDING DOWN THE BOTTOM
END FOR NASHVILLE'S STUDIO

A - T E A M
BY RICH KIENZLE - PHOTOGRAPH BY DAVID WILDS





"PRACTICE! ONE HOUR!"  When 17 year-old Bobby Loyce Moore, the bass player in Paul Howard's Arkansas Cotton Pickers, heard that order through his hotel room door, he did as commanded: spent a solid hour running scales on his instrument. Fiddler Roddy Bristol, who'd taken an interest in his musical development, got him started and if the scales tapered off too soon, Bristol would be back rapping on the door. The dividends proved huge. Moore called it "a real good experience, because I got into playin' some jazz and faster things you have to think about, rather than just go out and play 'You Are My Sunshine.'"

At 76, Bob Moore looks back on a career that paralleled Nashville's metamorphosis into a worldwide recording center, where he helped create some of American music's most enduring hits. "In those days, a bass player was a comedian in the band. I was something new; I was a player, not a comedian," he asserts. True enough. For the most part, baggy-pants hijinks (think Speck Rhodes with Porter Wagoner) was the norm for country bassists in the 1940s and '50s. Moore, a charter member of Nashville's original studio A-Team and, with an estimated 17,000 sessions, its most recorded bassist, redefined the instrument's role in country much as Jimmy Blanton redefined jazz bass with Duke Ellington's Orchestra. Along the way. he helped to raise the level of Nashville's musical discourse.

Little Jimmy Dickens

His session work transcended genre, from the raw music of Little Jimmy Dickens to late '50s Elvis rockers and landmark Nashville Sound recordings to most of Roy Orbison's quintessential songs (which he also produced). Moore's own moment in the sun came in 1961 with his visionary hit instrumental, "Mexico." During his peak years, Moore worked bluegrass dates, accompanied Chet Atkins on an album with Arthur Fiedler & the Boston Pops and Brook Benton on "Rainy Night In Georgia," and did rock sessions with artists including Bob Dylan, Simon & Garfunkel, and Moby Grape.

Like the music, Moore himself was a product of Nashville. "I never knew my father," he admits. Sidney Moore took a linotype job in Paterson, New Jersey, six months after his first son was born. Sidney's wife Nellie, again pregnant, went with him, while Bobby remained with her mother, Minnie Johnson, at her East Nashville home. His musical fascination bloomed early. Minnie listened to the Grand Ole Opry each week, and the toddler's baby teeth scarred her Victrola, where he'd hang on the edge of the console, watching the 78-rpm discs spin.

Minnie and her daughter Ruth worked full-time. With Bobby too young for school, a woman named Zona Robinson provided day care, and her sons, Billy and Floyd, became his closest friends. Aware of his family's modest means, in 1941, 9-year-old Moore trekked downtown to Fifth and Broadway on Saturdays to shine shoes for a nickel. After the Opry relocated to the Ryman Auditorium in 1943, he hung around the backstage door, where musicians and officials befriended him, occasionally inviting him inside.

Bob Moore

Moore and his friends delved into music. The Robinsons had guitars; Bob, who played baritone horn in the school band, spied an unused upright bass in the music room and got permission to take the instrument home, providing he returned it daily. The trio practiced at the Robinsons' and dutifully lugged the instrument to and from school. Moore taught himself, but during Saturday shoe-shining at the Ryman, he threw musical questions at customer Jack Drake, bassist with Ernest Tubb's Texas Troubadours. "Jack was always kind," he recalls. "I'd ask him something and he'd show me. Jack didn't play any wrong notes, but all he had to play was Ernest Tubb's notes, which is very simple. But Jack had a way of pullin' a string that got a better sound out of a bass than anybody else down there. I mimicked him and it built my right hand."

Jam-Up and Honey

The Eagle Rangers, a Sons Of The Pioneers-inspired outfit, became the musical outlet for Moore and the Robinson brothers, with future Hank Williams Drifting Cowboy Jerry Rivers playing fiddle. In 1946, the group performed in rural areas outside Nashville and on WGNS radio in Murfreesboro with singer Bob Jennings. (Hear "That Old Moon Seems to Know" mp3, Bob Moore's very first recording) Two summer vacations spent backing up Opry blackface comics Jamup & Honey on their tent show tours further honed Moore's stage skills. A 1948 move from Nashville to his mother's New Jersey home lasted only until the Eagle Rangers, booked in South Jersey, visited him. He was soon back in Tennessee.

His timing was perfect. At the Opry, Paul Howard and his progressive western swing band the Arkansas Cotton Pickers, sick of stilted musical policies hostile to their progressive sound, quit to try their luck on Bob Wills' turf: the dancehalls of Texas, Arkansas and Oklahoma. Moore, a longtime western swing fan, became the band's the new bassist, calling the gig "the prestige of the eons to me, because he was known to have the hottest band there was." A January 1949 Howard session for King Records in Cincinnati became Moore's first actual studio experience.

Unfortunately, with western swing's popularity in decline, the bandleader started missing paydays. One of his guitarists, Nashville native Robert "Jabo" Arrington, Moore's closest friend within the band, quit. Back home, Arrington formed a band for Opry newcomer Little Jimmy Dickens, hiring Moore on bass and ex-Eagle Ranger Floyd Robinson on guitar. When they recorded "A-Sleepin' At The Foot Of The Bed" at Castle Studio in October 1950 (Arrington and future A-Teamer Grady Martin played twin lead guitars), it became the first top-10 country hit to feature Bob Moore's bass.

Newly married when he left Dickens in early '51, Moore spent six months in Houston backing Curly Fox and Texas Ruby before he and wife Betty, expecting their first child, moved to her parents' New Jersey home. Finding musical work scarce there, Bob returned alone to Nashville. Mom Upchurch's boarding house on Boscobel Street, popular with struggling musicians, was home base. His roommate was Hank Garland, famed for his guitar solo on Red Foley's hit "Sugarfoot Rag" and obsessed with mastering jazz.

Monday through Friday, Moore awoke at 4 a.m. to accompany Flatt & Scruggs on their live, 15-minute WSM show, one of eight back-to-back weekday programs hosted by Opry stars. Moore landed several more of these at $3 a pop per day (roughly $25 in 2008 dollars). He occasionally made more by filling in as the star if a singer no-showed. WSM became a classroom for Moore, who hung around for "Noontime Neighbors." Broadcast from Studio C, the daily program blended talk with pop music from WSM's orchestra, led by station music director Owen Bradley, who became Moore's mentor. "He would always say, 'Come on over here, Bobby. Let me show ya.' I'd go over to the piano with him, and he'd lay his ten fingers out on the keyboard and say, 'Now look what happens when I move just this one finger.' He got me watchin' the arithmetic of it. He knew what I could do, and had his part teachin' me my playing language."

Moore's growing family was with him by the time he joined Red Foley's band in 1953. (He and Betty would have two sons and a daughter. R. Stevie Moore has pursued a singular musical agenda, mostly from his New Jersey home studio. Linda played bass in the 1980s country band Calamity Jane.) Foley, a Decca recording artist, had been a Opry star since 1946, but he was depressed over his wife's suicide, and quit to host the new Ozark Jubilee, an Opry-styled radio-TV program from Springfield, Missouri. Moore, working between Nashville and Springfield, found the weekly commute -- nearly a thousand miles -- burning him out. "I was not in Nashville. I wanted to come back, and it must have showed."

Bradley noted Moore's restiveness at a 1954 Foley session at Castle Studio. At the time, Bradley wore four other hats: Decca country A&R man Paul Cohen's assistant, Decca artist, session musician, and leader of a popular 15-piece orchestra playing Count Basie-flavored swing for dancers at upscale venues around town. After the session, he offered Moore a spot in his band. "I told him, I can't make a livin' on that big band," Moore recalls. "He said, 'Well, in about six months, Paul Cohen is gonna make me head of the Nashville office [Bradley succeeded Cohen in 1958]. If you can handle that, I'll get you another session or two to help you out, but after I take control, with you workin' on my big band, you'll have all my [session] work.' So that started me, and from then on I was straight ahead."

Playing in Bradley's band deepened Moore's musical range. "I needed to go to college, and I got it right there," he says. He also learned the realities of jazz versus mainstream tastes. "Owen said, 'The public don't like [but] one thing and that's the melody.' He'd say, 'Play me a run,' and you'd play him some kind of a run and he'd say, 'Now sing it back to me,' and you couldn't do it. Then he'd say, 'You are my sunshine...could you sing that back? That's what the public likes!"

In 1955, with Castle set to close, Bradley bought an old house on 16th Avenue South, built a new studio inside, and added a metal Quonset hut for film projects. Interior remodeling accidentally left the hut with such superb acoustics that "the Quonset hut turned out to be the big cheese," Moore says. That remained so even after RCA opened their famous studio complex in 1958.

Columbia's Don Law, Capitol's Ken Nelson and RCA's Steve Sholes had Moore on their first-call list, leading to his charter membership in Nashville's original A-Team. Aside from Moore, the core group included Bradley and his younger brother, guitarist Harold Bradley. On guitar were Moore's friends Hank Garland and Grady Martin, along with Chet Atkins and guitar specialist Ray Edenton. Drummer Buddy Harman, a former Carl Smith sideman, used to work with Moore at Nashville's Rainbow Room. "We played dinner music for the early crowd, then played stripper music for the later drunks," Moore laughs.

Pianists included the iconic Floyd Cramer and Pig Robbins. Boots Randolph and his tenor sax arrived in the late '50s. The Jordanaires, the Anita Kerr Singers and soprano vocalist Millie Kirkham were there from the start. While fiddle and steel were briefly out of vogue, early A-Team fiddlers included Dale Potter and Tommy Jackson; the early steel guitarists were Jerry Byrd, pedal steel pioneer Bud Isaacs and Pete Drake. As session work increased to a constant level, this group of musicians developed into a musical SWAT team, capable of creating cohesive arrangements on the fly and improvising clever musical hooks that enhanced Nashville recordings of all genres.

bob_hat2

It all came not a moment too soon. To a Nashville gobsmacked by the havoc rock 'n' roll wreaked upon country record sales in 1956, producers felt they needed a new paradigm. Bradley at Decca, RCA's Chet Atkins (whose path from studio guitarist to A&R assistant to producer paralleled Bradley's), and Capitol's Ken Nelson, a former Chicago pop singer, aimed to expand country's appeal with records acceptable to the core audience but also to pop record buyers, for whom the big-band era was a recent memory. It wasn't a new idea. At Decca, Bradley and Paul Cohen occasionally used vocal ensembles, popular during the big-band years, behind Foley and Ernest Tubb in the late '40s - particularly the Anita Kerr Singers, who worked at WSM. Eddy Arnold's 1954 #1 ballad "I Really Don't Want To Know" featured heavy background vocals. The post-Elvis approach replaced fiddles and steel with vocal harmonies.

In 1956, Nelson used the Jordanaires, who routinely moved between sacred and secular on Sonny James' "Young Love" and Ferlin Husky's "Gone," their softer, pop-flavored harmonies the inverse of their earlier full-tilt doo-wopping on Presley's first raucous RCA hits. Atkins adapted the formula to Jim Reeves in early '57, resulting in "Four Walls," his first crossover hit, copied by other producers.

Moore was present on dozens of other hits using this concept, which earned the sobriquet the Nashville Sound. Among them were Reeves' "He'll Have To Go," Don Gibson's "Sea Of Heartbreak," and Patsy Cline's "I Fall To Pieces" and "Crazy." "'Crazy' is not country in anybody's book," Moore says. "But start that record and listen to it, and it's just a good, clean, not overdone pop record." A-Teamers, he adds, had a credo: "Get in there and learn the damn [song]. If you want to be successful, get your job done and do it well, and that's the truth. The guys settin' in the control room, they're writin' your check, so you know damn well you better deliver, but you're doin' it for them. Back in those days, it was surely for them. Their name got on the record and yours didn't!"

Some producers used certain A-Teamers exclusively. In one year, Moore played on 300 sessions for Mercury. "That just kinda happened, through friendship," he says, "hangin' out or gettin' one hit record and [producers] sayin', 'Oh, we gotta have him, he made a hit!' People, their superstitions come out real quick, you know." But Moore also had an intuitive ability to guide singers, providing musical cues to keep them in meter (a challenge even for some great vocalists). It evolved from cues he gave the meter-challenged Dickens onstage in 1950 into more subtle promptings for others. "I got to listenin' during a song to how [singers] would react to different things. Elvis'd always look around [at] me, and wink. And it was just - something that helped him to get back in comfortably without even knowin' it."

Fred Foster, Moore, Roy Orbison 1960

As they helped Nashville triumph in the face of rock, Moore and his colleagues, paradoxically, worked sessions with rockers signed to major labels hoping for their own Elvis: Ronnie Self, Johnny Carroll, Johnny Burnette and Janis Martin among many. "We never thought about it," he admits. "I still can't tell the difference between country and rockabilly. We thought we were doin' country music, then later on, it got defined as rockabilly." Moore, Garland, Randolph and other A-Teamers accompanied Presley on his 1958-62 Nashville sessions and onstage at his 1961 Hawaii concert.

A 1959 session with singer Billy Grammer, signed to the new, Baltimore-based Monument label, provided Moore another opportunity when he heard label owner Fred Foster mention that one of his two partners wanted out. A week later, Moore left Baltimore owning 37 percent of Monument. Grammer's hot "Gotta Travel On" was a strong start, but Roy Orbison's pop successes such as "Only The Lonely" and "Blue Bayou," with Moore and the A-Team creating the glossy accompaniment, truly established Monument. Moore, however, kept his ownership stake a closely guarded secret. "I didn't want to be part-owner of a label and workin' for RCA, havin' them sayin', 'Aw shit, man, you know about all we're doin' over here."

Sheer happenstance, he says, shaped some hits. At the 1960 Marty Robbins session that yielded his relaxed, bluesy ballad "Don't Worry," Grady Martin was soloing on a six-string bass guitar when a sudden malfunction in either his amp or the mixing board (depending on who one talks to) distorted his sound into what's now called fuzztone. "I'm sittin', watchin' and hearin' every bit of this and playin' at the same time. And that just came up right in the middle of the take. Once we heard it, the guys in the control room were scared we's gonna stop, and they come up to the window and was givin' 'keep goin!' signals. And that was it! Grady is not a player that would play the exact same thing twice in a row. He can follow a program but that is not what he intended. But immediately, when he heard that, and somehow kept goin', he made what he played fit that sound. That's God-given."

During a tour of Mexico with Foley in 1953, a huge, out-of-tune Mariachi band burned into Moore's memory. He developed an idea for that sound. In 1961, while recording instrumentals for Monument as Bob Moore and his Orchestra, he attached that idea to Boudleaux Bryant's instrumental "Mexico," with local trumpeters Karl Garvin and Bill McIlhiney playing the slightly dissonant harmonies. "I was on vacation and started hearin' it on the car radio," he says, "So I called back to our office and they said, 'We been tryin' to find you, because you gotta come back home and go on a promo tour. That damn thing's hittin'!" "Mexico," which peaked at #7 on the Billboard Hot 100 in October 1961, is a point of pride for Moore, one that almost certainly inspired Herb Alpert's phenomenally successful Tijuana Brass concept. (Moore and Foster eventually parted ways over some of Foster's business moves, though they reconciled years later.)

When a day's sessions ended, A-Teamers often continued the music with jazz sessions at Jimmy Hyde's Carousel Club in Printer's Alley. They began with Garland and Moore, whose bass heroes included jazzmen Oscar Pettiford and Stan Kenton Orchestra sideman Eddie Safranski, jammed at the club while rooming at Mom Upchurch's. "That brought business in," he says, "and every guitar player in town started comin' down. Hank was blowin' them away. They were drinkin' Jimmy Hyde's booze and payin' their money. [From] Belle Meade Country Club, rich young stockbrokers started comin', and their out-of-town guests. Within a year or two, you couldn't get in the place."

Some of the out-of-towners were jazz luminaries. "Stan Kenton come in one night...the greatest thrill of my life. Called me over to his table, complimented me, shoot! I was in big time then!"

The A-Team, Moore asserts, was an organic unit, changing constantly as musicians came and went. Some lacked the temperament, couldn't handle the workload or music business politics. Atkins, Randolph, Ray Stevens and Floyd Cramer became successful solo artists. New blood came from musicians who'd worked their way up the hierarchy. "They called them the B-Teamers for a while. Some got to be A-Teamers later on. [Guitarist] Pete Wade's one, [guitarist] Billy Sanford's another, [bassist] Junior Husky was another one." Guitarist/bassist/harmonica player Charlie McCoy came in the same way.

Sessions were lucrative for A-Teamers. Moore owned and piloted his own planes; in the '60s, he partnered with developer Kip Caudill and builder Braxton Dixon to turn a defunct petting zoo on the shore of Old Hickory Lake in Hendersonville into Caudill Estates. Among its earliest residents: Orbison and Johnny Cash, his famous wood-glass-stone home built by Dixon.

Moore's workload compelled him to stash several of his hand-carved basses at major studios around town to avoid needing to transport them. He reluctantly embraced electric bass, not using the one he owned until "Jim Reeves wanted it on something, and I had bought one from somebody and I think it was in self-defense. I never did like 'em. And so anyway, I had it in the car and he said, 'Well, go get it and let's try it.' And so I did." He'd later use electric on Kenny Rogers' "The Gambler" and many other times, but he prefers upright acoustic.

A variety of producers drew on his talents, among them old friend Jerry Kennedy, an A-Team guitarist turned Smash Records producer. Moore was among the preferred group of A-Teamers Kennedy used behind Roger Miller (Moore's bass kicks off "King Of The Road"), Tom T. Hall, Faron Young and Jerry Lee Lewis. "When he'd set up a session...[Kennedy] would say 'Set the guys up' to [his assistant] Trish and Trish'd just call us all. We were his gang." At Epic Records, Billy Sherrill, known for tightly crafting his productions, used Moore often. He sensed the magic as Charlie Rich recorded his famous early ballad "Sittin' And Thinkin'." "I was sittin' right there. The setup in the Quonset hut...there was nothin' between me and [Rich's] left hand except the flat beside me where my ashtray sits. I'm sittin' just lookin' right down the keyboard, right beside him and it just run through me - that song."

Bob Moore
Kenny Lovelace, Jerry Lee Lewis, Bob, James Burton, Buddy Harman 1984

It's hardly surprising that Bradley was his favorite producer. "Just put Owen at the top and that's where he'll always be," Moore says. In other cases, he recalls some sessions being more laissez-faire than many realize. Historians know Grady Martin was de facto producer of many '50s and '60s Columbia hits credited to Don Law, and that Ken Nelson, who gave his artists great latitude, heard every note and could step in. Atkins, Moore recalls, sometimes let session players or arranger Anita Kerr do the work. Hickory Records owner-producer Wesley Rose, Moore says, "would sit in the control room and tell you, 'Go do what you want. I don't know nothin' about it.'"

Pappy Daily, who produced George Jones for four labels over fifteen years, had no real musical background. He, too, let the musicians do the heavy lifting, and he paid Moore extra to supervise Jones's 1965-71 Musicor recordings. With early session calls the next day, as 2 a.m. approached, the bassist set limits for the often-inebriated star. "I said, 'I'm gonna give you this one more [take] and if you don't get it, I'm gone!' And 'course he didn't hardly get through the intro. I picked up and left. Pappy come runnin' out of the control room applauding, sayin' 'Thank God!'"

The late '60s brought a second wave of rockers, starting with Dylan. Moore came in to finish Moby Grape's 1969 Truly Fine Citizen after bassist Bob Mosley quit during the Nashville sessions. That year, he and drummer Jerry Carrigan were the only Nashville players to back Chet Atkins on an album with Arthur Fiedler & the Boston Pops. He also worked on Dylan's Self Portrait sessions and with other rockers in addition to his country workload. The heavy schedule continued into the '70s, but it was inevitable at some point an influx of younger artists, producers, musicians and new studios realigned the A-Team's makeup and lightened Moore's workload. He's philosophical about it today. "Several things added to this," he explains. "One of them being a natural phenomenon and that's called attrition. Another part is my age. The younger producers have come in and brought their buddies, which always happens."

Moore, who divorced in 1975, abruptly retired in 1980 after the death of his fiance. That self-imposed withdrawal lasted until 1981, when Crystal Gayle invited him to join her band for a year-long world tour that rebooted his passion for playing. "The bad thing," he says, "is I had to play electric bass. I absolutely loved that part of my life and wish I could do it again." Not so a 1983 stint touring with Jerry Lee Lewis, which he recalls as "a disaster." Around that time, he met Kittra Bernstein, who'd worked in the Los Angeles music scene; they married in 1993.

Beyond performing, other opportunities came his way, including a chance to produce his longtime friend Johnny Cash in 1989, after Cash's Columbia contract expired. Mercury then purchased eleven masters from Moore that became 1990's Boom-Chicka-Boom, considered by some Cash fans superior to his previous Mercury efforts or his final Columbia material. "He was still that guy from Arkansas," Moore reflects. "Cash's mystery is in his instant flow of simple words that make so much sense. I produced that album and he was the easiest guy to work with. It went just easy and pleasurable." Kittra suggested having Cash's mother Carrie secretly add her voice to the song "Family Bible," a surprise that moved Cash to tears when Moore first played it for him.

At their home in Franklin, Tennessee, Kittra catalogues her husband's musical legacy, using his session books and recordings. Moore himself is far from retired. He works on big-band recording projects, performs at Elvis festivals in Europe, tends to his properties in Florida, and does a few sessions. "I did a couple of Eddy Arnold things and a couple Ray Price things, and [for] some of my old buddies, people that I really liked from before," he says. "Nothin' on a regular scale - just on a one-by-one basis. They usually let me pick my band. I still like to work with all of them."

He still has a wish list. "I'd like to produce Anne Murray and James Taylor. They're two that I never got to work with that I always admired. Gordon Lightfoot - I always liked him and his songs. I like his writings and his delivery. I never got to work with him, either. There's probably some others, but that's the first ones that come to mind."

Jon Koonce Sutler 2004
with Jon Koonce video

While his website includes a newer photo of him standing in front of his grandmother's old home on Long Avenue in East Nashville, the Nashville of Moore's youth is largely gone. So is the modest local music business centered around the Opry and WSM where his career began, superceded first by the vibrant, growing industry established by hits he helped create, and then - for better or worse - by 21st-century Music Row, with streets officially named "Music Circle" and "Music Square." Two facilities where he made history are historic sites: RCA Studio B and the Quonset Hut, part of the old Columbia Records complex now owned by Curb Records, who've been restoring the celebrated studio. Many of Moore's producer friends, artists he worked with, and A-Team cohorts are gone, most recently Buddy Harman, who died in 2008. He remains philosophical about it all.

"Nobody wants to be 76, but [considering] the alternative, then you do. I'm not enjoying knowin' that I have less years left than I did 25 years ago, but I have grown up enough to realize I need to enjoy and forget about the bullshit, and this is life and life is the same for everybody. And so, I'm enjoyin' what I do now. I enjoy that I've had the success that I've had. That don't mean I'm a Mickey Mantle and hit all the home runs in the world, but I've hit my share and so I'm happy about that. I'm happy that I got a lot of good friends, that I still have my health, and that I have enough wherewithal to get on through the rest of my life and then leave something to my kids and my wife. So I have to do my thinkin' every day."



As an ND contributing editor, Rich Kienzle profiled pedal steel innovator Lloyd Green. He's interviewed thirteen other Nashville A-Teamers, among them Chet Atkins and Owen Bradley, for Country Music Magazine and their history publication The Journal (which he edited), Guitar Player, Vintage Guitar, and Fretboard Journal, as well as for Sony BMG Legacy and Bear Family Records.

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