Merrill Moore

T HE MAN SITS DOWN AT THE BATTERED OLD STEINWAY GRAND PIANO, A CHESHIRE CAT GRIN CREASING HIS FACE “I guess I’ve played more nights in this town than any other musician alive” he says. “I started playing her e in ‘48, when I was jus t a teen-ager, down on 28th and Logan Avenue.”

Merrill MooreHe pounds out the first notes of Fats WaIler’s “Your Feets Too Big,” and the grin turns into a huge, tooth -studded smile. “Hah!” he exclaims joyously turning up the heat as his big, beefy hands roll thunderously across the 88’s. “Ah don’ like ya cuz yer feets too big” he sings. “Don’ wantcha cuz yer feets too big — yer pedal extremities is obnoxious, mama — HAH!” Merrill Moore has come home.

Moore is one of the founding fathers of rock & roll, although most Americans are not familiar with his music. Moore was playing rockabilly, a cross between country & western and rhythm & blues, before Elvis, before Carl Perkins, and even before Jerry Lee Lewis, who himself admits the major key influence that Moore’ s music had on his own style.

Moore rated a chapter in Nick Tosches’ acclaimed book, “Unsung Heroes of Rock & Roll,” and he is absolutely revered as an icon in England, where one of his recordings reached number two on the British top 10.

But Moore resides in sunny San Diego, not foggy London, and remains criminally neglected in his hometown of more than 20 years, where he should be yiewed as a local treasure.

Born in Algona, Iowa, in 1928, Moore moved to San Diego in 1948. Influenced by the boogie-woogie piano stylings of artists such as Albert Ammons and Pete Johnson, he started his own band, “The Saddle and Rhythm Boys,” in 1950. Mixing his beloved boogie-woogie with western swing arrangements and instrumentation, he came up with what would in five years come to be known as ‘‘rock & roll.” Catching the ear of A&R man (record company liaison) Ken Nelson, the band was signed to Capitol Records in 1951.

In short order, Moore had a bona-fide hit on his hands with a cover of Freddie Slack’s “The House Of Blue Lights.” “Bell-Bottom Boogie.” “Red Light” and “Cow-Cow Boogie” followed it up, selling respectably as well, and it appeared that Moore was on his way to stardom.

Unfortunately for Moore, a nightclub owner and a record company A&R man, recognized in the music biz as the two lowest forms of life on the planet, impeded his budding career. “We were at The Pari s Inn at First and C Downtown” explained Moore, “and the fellow who owned the club, Jim Kennedy, had signed me to a personal management contract for seven years. ‘House Of Blue Lights’ was selling very well, and Capitol Records had my wife and I up there to the studio. They wined us and dined us, real nice, you know, and they wanted to put me on a package tour with a group of other artists.

“So I came back to San Diego all high on a cloud going ‘Oh, boy! This is it! This is the start of something big!’ But he (Kennedy) had me on this seven-year contract to play at his club, and he wouldn’t let me go . And that would have been the breaking point for me . ‘House Of Blu e Lights’ was going, we were making money for Capitol, but that was that.”

To add insult to injury, Kennedy, who has since gone the way of all things, received 50 percent of Moore’s total earnings for his loving approach to management — a percentage almost unheard of in the music business. “We were just kids, we didn’t know any better” sighed Moore.

Merrill MooreThe other stumbling block in Moore’s advancement came with A&R man Nelson, perhaps a well-meaning, but certainly an unimaginative individual.   Moore’s sound was something new, bursting at the seams with youthful energy and a spirit of musical adventure. It should have been directed toward a youth market, or at least at the already existing R&B market . But Nelson sold Moore as a country & western performer, aiming at an audience notorious for their conservative to reactionary tendencies, and strict adherence to traditions.

“We weren’t country, they didn’t know how to market us” said Moore. “If Capitol could have gotten me on like ‘The Johnny Otis Show,’ marketed us towards rhythm and blues, well, we’d have been a lot better off. We played rockabilly, rhythm and blues — that eight-bar piano feel.”

With touring out of the question, Moore worked hard as a studio pianist for Capitol, appearing on recordings by artists such as Wanda Jackson, Tennesse Ernie Ford, Sonny James, Faron Young, Hank Thompson, Kay Starr and Tommy Sands. From 1955 to 1960, Moore was the house pianist on Cliffie Stone’s “Hometown Jamboree” television show on Channel 5 in Los Angeles.

The ‘60s proved to be lean and frustrating for many an American artist, as the “British Invasion” saw bands such as The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, and The Dave Clark Five gain favor with stateside audiences, at the expense of homegrown stars as famous as Elvis, Little Richard and Jerry Lee Lewis . Moore was no exception.   Ironically enough however, pirate recordings of Moore’s Capitol sides began to pop up all over Europe in the ‘60s, becoming hot items to collectors.

“We’d hear stories about our records selling in Europe, and we were getting all this fan mail” said Moore. “So we started digging in, getting addresses. We went to the musicians union, we went to lawyers, we even went to Capitol Records themselves. But we never could find anything out, and we never could get any money out of anyone.”

Moore to this day remains a legendary figure in England, where classic American rock is savored rather than dismissed. Members of popular Brit rockers The Squeeze are among the European fans that occasionally turn up at Moore’s front door in Bay Park.

For the last 20 years or so, Moore has kept himself busy playing solo shows, and by giving piano lessons . Locally, he has appeared for years at a time at The Hilton Hotel, Del Webb’s Ocean House, The Coronado Hotel and the Le Pavillion, among others gigs.

His work has frequently taken him to Las Vegas, where his stints have included performing at The Showboat , The Sahara and The Tropicana. As many of these shows are as an anonymous piano-man, audiences often don’t even realize who the man behind the ivories is, or that he once was a major recording star. Moore is a versatile enough musician that he can perform jazz, classical, pop standards or his own hell-spawned brand of boogie and blend humbly into his surroundings . “To stay alive, you’ll play anything, you’ll play supermarket openings if you have to” quipped Moore.

But don’t get the wrong idea. Moore has done just fine for himself, thank you, as his beautiful home overlooking Mission Bay attests, and he has done it strictly by performing and teaching. “In the late ‘60s, I started studying in Beverly Hills with a fellow by the name of Harry Fields, and I got my teaching credential for the piano,” he said. “I’ve got a great teaching program, I can have you playing in two weeks.”

A serious car wreck in 1986 slowed Moore down for a time, but he’s almost fully recovered, save for some weakness in his right hand. In fact, he’s getting ready to go out on his first major European tour come July, with dates already set for London and Munich, and more on the way.

Also, The Bear Company of Germany will be rereleasing every side Moore cut for Capitol on compact disc this summer, 47 songs in all. Moore calls the company “legit,” and seems excited about the project.

Perhaps Moore will finally receive some compensation for his status in Europe after all.


The La Jolla Light newspaper

Thursday , January 11, 1990.

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