P I A N O * M A N

Moore has played it all, from boogie joints to Mr. A's

Update, June 16, 2000
  • Anita Williams wanted to let us know that her uncle, Merrill Moore, passed away on June 14, 2000, after a long, feisty battle with cancer. There are a few clips of his music online at This site if you'd like to take a listen.

    By Welton Jones, Critic at Large

    Anyone strolling up First Avenue past the bus station that November night in 1952 might have noticed especially happy sounds coming out of the College Inn, there on the southwest corner of C Street and First. The Saddle, Rock and Rhythm Boys, house band at the joint, might have been kicking their big Capitol Records hit, "The House of Blue Lights," with special verve. The band leader, 29-year-old Merrill Moore, was taking them to Hollywood and a recording career.

    Forty-five years later, the man known as "one of the great hidden secrets of American music" stares out the big window in his comfortable home overlooking Mission Bay and spins the story one more time. "They wined us and dined us and they took us to a room and showed me a big map on the wall with black dots all over the country my records were selling," says Moore. "They wanted me to go out on tour with one of their concert packages so they could take advantage of the sales." This was obviously, The Break. But back in San Diego, Jimmy Kennedy, owner of the College Inn, couldn't have cared less. Moore was two years into a seven-year personal contract with Kennedy for six hours a night, six days a week.

    "He wanted his bands known just well enough to work for him," says Moore, with no noticable rancor. "And he did help us out. It was Kennedy who brought his friend Ken Nelson from Capitol Records to hear us in the first place." Three years later, Moore quit Kennedy's employ, contract or not, and left for Los Angeles. "I didn't know enough to do it in 1952," he explains. "In those days, if you liked to play, you'd sign anything to play." Though the recordings are decades old, from a time before Elvis Presley and Buddy Holly, Moore's music is marvelous - tuneful intelligent, urgent, raw, elegant, tricky, savage, hilarious and always danceable.

    What it isn't, is very well known. Not in this country, anyway. And the old records, produced within the primitive commercial techniques of the day, reveal only one segment of his art, the boogies and novelty tunes that were his very first hits. "He's always ridden that line between country-western and boogie-woogie pop," explains Lou Curtiss of Folk Art Rare Records in Normal Heights. "He's a real pioneer in both rock 'n' roll and country swing."

    Labels just don't stick to Moore. He didn't know the word rockabilly when he was first hailed as one of its founding fathers. In the curve of pop-music history, he is assigned a spot after the great boogie pioneers like Meade (Lux) Lewis, Albert Ammons and Pete Johnson and before Jerry Lee Lewis. But his bands just as frequently have steel guitars and fiddles as they do tenor saxes. The king of western swing, Bob Wills of the Texas Playboys, is perhaps Moore's closest model. He's often lumped with Moon Mullican, a white Texas boogie player of the '20s, and Freddie Slack, who had a big band and a bigger singer - Ella Mae Morse - during World War II. But Moore dismisses Mullican now and, though respectful of Slack, considers him as another pianist he hung out with when they were in the Navy together.

    Asked for his own idea of influences, Moore produces a list - Wills, Carmen Cavallaro, Frankie Carle, Erroll Garner and Freddie Slack - that defies confident identification by any single individual. In San Diego today, he's probably known most widely as "that guy who plays piano at Mr. A's." A Moore set today can include songs by Hank Williams, George Gershwin, Huddie Ledbetter, Sy Oliver, Perez Prado, Hoagy Carmichael and "traditional," all rethought with stylish respect.

    That awesome boogie-woogie left hand is apt to emerge at any moment. Certain songs just require the whine of the steel guitar slide. Moore sings, in Lew Curtiss' words, "as well as most good musicians do" by the ultimate attraction of the music is that it delivers solid satisfaction. People don't mind paying for music like this. Certainly, they pay well in Europe. Far more of Moore is available on foreign labels - legal and otherwise - than from any American source. Record collectors from the continent often ring his doorbell.

    And Moore's European tours - he has another one scheduled this fall - are like triumphal processions. But the Merrill Moore discography is pitifully thin. After the first burst of boogie-woogie novelties, Capitol recorded only one session of instrumentals in the late '50's. These weren't released until 1990, by Germany's retro specialists, Bear Family Records.

    Country swing pianist Merrill Moore and wife Doris often performed
    together early in their marriage.

    SPECTACULAR REPUTATION - Nobody ever quite figured out how to merchandise Moore's personal version of jazz and western swing except the pirate labels, which may account for his spectacular, if specialized, reputation among aficionados. A bright career crushed by a selfish boss? Moore doesn't think so. Instead, he's proud of his years pleasuring audiences. "It was a job," he says of his 57-year professional career. "I worked at it. I raised a family. I never had a vacation, never was out of work and never had an agent."

    Moore began studying piano when he was 7, back home on the family farm near Algona, Iowa, about 150 miles north of Des Moines. He studied with his Sunday school teacher and, by the time he was 12, he could play the "Minute" Waltz and the Prelude in C-sharp minor. "I could read notes," he recalls, "but I didn't know about chords. If you have an ear and you're truly talented, getting music theory is a problem. You can get by without it." (Moore didn't really catch up with theory until 1956, when he began studying with Joe Bardelli in Hollywood. And he didn't find his best teacher until 1968, when Ella Fitzgerald's pianist directed him to the late Harry Fields. Fields' technique, which also polished Erroll Garner and Andre Previn, became the basis of Moore's own teaching.)

    The young Merrill plugged into the mainstream of Depression-era pop music by listening to the radio at the birth of swing. Frankie Carle's "Sunrise Serenade" was his first piece of pop sheet music. He was 11. At 18, Moore turned pro for good, joining the Chuck Hall Band on the Midwest ballroom circuit, playing places like Peony Park in Omaha. His war was spent in the Navy, mostly at Lake Coeur d'Alene in Idaho, where he noodled along with Freddie Slack. After the war, he picked carefully through the mobs of girls chasing the boogie-woogie piano man and chose to wed . . . his high-school sweetheart, Doris Cooper. They'd met when they were 12 and he played piano for the Cooper Family Gospel Quartet.

    Pooling their money with three friends, the newlyweds made it to Escondido, where her parents had moved a couple of years earlier. From there, on a hunch, they left for Tucson where Moore snagged a gig at the Santa Rita Hotel for $75 a week. Occasionally, he'd grab Doris and a guitar for strolling minstrelsy in the restaurant. By 1948, the Moores were back in San Diego where he had taken a job selling clothes at Marston's Department Store, for $35 a week plus 10 percent of his sales. One Sunday, the Musicians' Union had a party and Moore "played a little piano." A few days later, he was approached at the store by one of the partygoers, who offered him a gig at $75 a week.

    That was Bob Bauer. His place was the Copper Kettle at 28th Street and Logan Avenue. "It was a sailor joint," Moore recalls, "with girls all over the place but clean as a pin. The band started at 9 each night and the fights at 9:15. Some nights, they had to put up the chicken-wire screen to protect the band." They were the Western Rangers, headed by guitarist Arkie Guerin and including Big Max Wright on guitar and vocals, Lucky Craft on Steel guitar and Charles Johnson on drums. "Rehearse? Hell, no! We'd play the record and learn it that way. Arkie would say to me, 'Go to G-seventh and stay there. We're gonna come back by pretty soon.'

    "If we hit a diminished chord, we'd take a break to work out what it was we'd hit." Throughout his career, Moore had little time for written arrangements. "A good pianist can control an 18-piece orchestra," he says. "Look at Count Basie. They didn't read much. They just played the blues.")

    $100-a-week gig - In 1949, Guerin and Moore left for $100 a week at an Ocean Beach bar called Rosie's, where they became so popular that owner Ernie Eslinger brought them out from behind the bar and onto a bandstand he built for his new dance floor. "Pretty soon," Moore recalls, "Arkie left - he could make more money at the William Penn Hotel, playing cards - and I got the band. That's when we went to work for Jimmy Kennedy. He had 11 nightclubs downtown. I think he carried around seven liquor licenses in his pocket that he wasn't even using." Moore's first assignment for Kennedy was the Buckaroo Club, another of the five bars Kennedy ran on that corner of First Avenue and C Street. That's where the Saddle, Rock and Rhythm Boys were born - Dave Carpenter on steel guitar, Johnny Stokes on drums, Monti Gibson on bass and Johnny Dueschel on violin, plus Moore.

    The Bear Family sides give a good slice of that repertoire, from "Five Foot Two, Eyes of Blue" to gritty car-crash instrumentals. A band playing such stuff so well today might clean up. Moore moved on to the Los Angeles area in 1955 to join Cliffie Stone's "Hometown Jamboree" on Channel 5, a weekly live show from Harmony Park in Anaheim that featured Tennessee Ernie Ford and used as guests a parade of Nashville country stars - Molly Bee, Eddie Arnold, Chet Atkins, Carl Perkins. Moore also did a daily KFWB radio show from Pasadena and kept busy with studio work on recordings with Tommy Sands, Sonny James, Johnny Cash, Faron Young, Hank Thompson and Kay Starr.

    "But I wanted to play my own music," he says. So, in 1962, he returned to San Diego permanently, with a four-piece band at Del Webb's new Ocean House Hotel on Mission Bay (later the Mission Bay Hilton), adding the twist and the cha-cha to his repertoire. The years slipped by and Moore rarely took a break. He worked some in Las Vegas, Lake Tahoe or Arizona, sometimes with a band, sometimes alone, sometimes with wife Doris or daughter Paulette as vocalist. He even led an eight-piece band on Holland-American Lines' cruise ship New Amsterdam - "18 trips to Alaska, total of 125 days" - which got old because Doris wasn't allowed along. But San Diego was home territory - the Hotel Del Coronado, the Hilton, the Town & Country, the Marriott Intercontinental and, finally, Mr. A's.

    <>p>Mr. A's fixture - Moore was recovering from a 1986 car wreck that hampered his left arm when he first started playing at the Fifth Avenue penthouse restaurant. (An operation in 1991 fixed the arm.) He remained a fixture there until last September. "It's the classiest place in town," he says. "But nobody drinks anymore. I don't want to sit there and play for the bartender." So most of his playing is done these days in his home studio, on the brown 1934 Steinway model M grand, the one with the fingerboard chipped and scarred on the left where that boogie-woogie hand roams. The music sheets on the piano aren't tunes but exercises. Stiff, somber books like Hanon's "The Virtuoso Pianist," Tausig's "Daily Studies" and Rafael Joseffy's "School of Advanced Piano Playing."

    At 75, Moore plays for a few private parties. He's seriously considering Lou Curtiss' offer to play at the Adams Avenue Street Fair this fall. And he's preparing for gigs in England and Austria.

    Might he be interested in finally doing a recording session the way he wants it? Of course. He's considering a European offer, in fact, to do a selection of Antonio Carlos Jobim, Cole Porter, Gershwin, Fats Waller, some swing, some jazz. No boogie-woogie? "I think I'd like to graduate from that," says one of the great hidden secrets of American music.

    courtesy: The San Diego Union-Tribute, August 9, 1998

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