To the fore on two rock’n’roll classics and more besides, the late Joe Moretti was one of British pop’s ‘guitarist’s guitarists’. Profile by Alan Clayson.
Prior to British beat music’s subjugation of the planet in the mid-1960s, only a handful of native recordings were really on a par with anything in the annals of US classic rock. Among these were Vince Taylor’s Brand New Cadillac and Shakin’ All Over from Johnny Kidd. Each song lived in their riffs – and the guitarist who played both of them was Joe Moretti, a man who rippled across the decades as an influence not only on the fretboard fireworks of such disparate guitar heroes as Pete Townshend, Syd Barrett and Wilko Johnson, but also on the subtler picking of players such as George Harrison and Tony Hicks.
London, then as now, was the storm centre of the British music industry, and Joe – who died a year ago in February, aged 73 – had to uproot from his native Glasgow. His original plan to become a painter had been ditched after hearing Scotty Moore, Roland Janes, Cliff Gallup and other rockabilly guitar sidemen.
Taking what he’d taught himself on his grandfather’s piano, he bought a Swedish-made Herdin acoustic – ‘a terrible thing painted with brown varnish’ – and then a Hofner Senator. Combined with a serviceable singing voice, Joe’s increasing dexterity gave him the confidence to try his luck in a Daily Record competition to find the ‘Tommy Steele of Scotland’ after Tommy, England’s ‘answer’ to Elvis, had delivered a performance at the Glasgow Empire in 1956.
The contest was won by the celebrated Alex Harvey who, magnanimous in victory, asked Joe to join his group. The Strathclyde music scene was as incestuous a game of musical chairs as anywhere else, however, and the outlines soon began to dissolve between personnel of Harvey’s band and rival outfits.
One of those rivals was the Ricky Barnes All Stars, and it was with that band that Moretti made his TV debut on the BBC’s Six-Five Special. That was quite a coup for an act from Scotland, a part of the kingdom where few musicians could rely solely on gigs to make a living. For Joe at this point, London might as well have been Mars – but then the All Stars were invited onto a package tour, headlined by the Kalin Twins, which visited the capital late in 1958. During a conversation after the London show with Brian Gregg, bass player with the troupe’s all-purpose backing ensemble, Joe was advised to take his chances in the big city.
This was the advice the 20 year-old had been wanting to hear, and the following month he walked into the 2i’s, the Soho coffee bar-cum-skiffle club that Alex Harvey had assured him – correctly – was the shrine of British rock.
‘The 2i’s was meant to hold about 40,’ remembered Moretti, ‘but it was always packed with people standing shoulder to shoulder.’ It was in this sweatbath that young hopefuls named Thomas Hicks, Harry Webb, Reg Smith, Terry Nelhams and Roy Taylor had awaited their destinies as Tommy Steele, Cliff Richard, Marty Wilde, Adam Faith and Vince Eager.
Room was made for Joe to do a turn, and before he’d even left the building he found himself enlisted into the Cabin Boys, who backed Colin Hicks, Tommy Steele’s younger brother. The consequent round-Britain trek with the Cabin Boys was followed by a month likewise serving Vince Eager in his role as ‘Simple Simon’ in Mother Goose at Southport’s Garrick Theatre.
As 1959 dawned, Moretti began to enter the orbit of Vince Taylor and the Playboys. Screaming Lord Sutch reckoned that Taylor had everything it took to be a second Gene Vincent – and, on the rebound from the Vince Eager pantomime gig, Joe pledged himself gladly to the Playboys, going so far as to move into Taylor’s house in west London.
However, though the group was a reliable draw on the ballroom circuit, they were hardly an overnight sensation. The previous autumn, a solo single by Taylor on Parlophone had flopped, and everything hung on the next release. The resulting Brand New Cadillac was, however, put at a disadvantage by an outright BBC ban – because it ‘advertised’ a make of car. Nonetheless, it was a turntable hit on jukeboxes in far-flung provincial cafés and became the common property of countless groups, both at home and on the continent. It was also to permeate subsequent generations of pop via versions by the Downliners Sect, the Fall, the Clash and the Brian Setzer Orchestra. Into the bargain, a 1976 reissue of the original stalled only on the edge of the domestic Top 50, five years after Mungo Jerry’s Baby Jump – very much hinged on Moretti’s Brand New Cadillac guitar figure – spent a fortnight at #1.
However, back in 1959, Parlophone washed its hands of Vince Taylor and the Playboys, who disbanded before the summer was out.
‘We didn’t have many gigs because Brand New Cadillac hadn’t made it,’ sighed Joe. ‘In six months, we’d done a week’s tour and one radio show [an edition of the BBC’s pop series, Saturday Club]. The split up had to come. The guys in the Playboys were looking for ways to get ahead in the business, and there was a lot of head-hunting going on.’
Space was found for Joe in Johnny Duncan and his Bluegrass Boys, who’d also been on that week-long tour the previous February. A skiffle unit that had caused Lonnie Donegan some nervous backward glances during the genre’s 1957 prime, their star was on the wane when Moretti was telephoned from Abbey Road’s canteen on a Friday morning in May 1960, where Johnny Kidd and the Pirates – guitarist Alan Caddy, drummer Clem Cattini and, on bass, Brian Gregg – were waiting to record Shakin’ All Over. Much of the charm of Kidd’s hit parade debut, 1959’s Please Don’t Touch, had emanated from Alan Caddy’s frenetic riffing.
But Caddy was riven with self-doubt about how he was going to combine the two contrasting guitar parts – one on hand-muted strings – of Shakin’ All Over when the group entered the EMI complex’s Studio Two. ‘The assistant producer told us that they were going to supply a session guitarist to augment the backing sound,’ recalled Gregg. ‘We were nervous that they’d give us someone whose style wasn’t really rock, so Alan rang our friend Joe Moretti to help out.
‘Alan was the sort of guy who’d be happy to let someone else take the glory if the song would sound the better for it. He showed Joe the intro riff and then, for the recording, played the bass line along with me, but two octaves higher. Joe contributed his own guitar solo, which was great, but the now-famous riff was entirely Alan Caddy’s idea.’
Rather than taking a stake in the disc’s royalties, Joe chose to accept the standard session fee – and was beset with conflicting emotions when Shakin’ All Over knocked Cliff Richard from #1 in August 1960. By then, Gene Vincent had become Moretti’s paymaster for a brief stint that culminated in a TV appearance in Italy, during which Vincent, a generous frontman, directed the adulation of viewers towards the guitar breaks.
1961 found the mercurial Moretti in the ranks of the Wise Guys behind trumpeter Eddie Calvert, another veteran of the Kalin Twins excursion. Though well into his 30s, Calvert had shown what was possible by scoring two mid-’50s chart-toppers, but the going had become erratic – so much so that sessions began to represent a more comfortable vocational option to Joe. In the sphere of the studio, you could work near home in the employ of whoever called the shots, with no extra time or favours done – or, indeed, any interest in the music you were being paid on a regulated scale to play. Yet an initial attempt to move into session work backfired when, booked to play bass, Moretti discovered to his dismay that the music was written in a clef that he was then unable to sight-read.
He managed much more successfully from the mid-1960s onwards, working for a diverse group of artists including Tom Jones, Chris Farlowe, Alma Cogan, Donovan, Marianne Faithfull, Don Partridge, Leapy Lee, Johnny Hallyday, Les Reed, Richard Harris, Andrew Lloyd Webber (for the pre-West End album of Evita), Johnny Dankworth and Phil Everly. A 1968 update of the signature tune to John Peel’s Top Gear series on Radio One was attributed to the Joe Moretti Group.
Before the session work took off, however, Moretti had found himself back on the road again, first with Georgie Fame’s Blue Flames and then with Nero and the Gladiators, in which Joe was required to wear a uniform toga and laurel wreath. His guitar can be heard on their robust 1961 arrangement of Grieg’s Hall Of The Mountain King, the second of their two Top 50 singles. More prestigious were Scarlet O’Hara and Applejack, successive smashes in 1962 for former Shadows Jet Harris and Tony Meehan; Moretti was enlisted into their touring band prior to a parting of the ways.
Next, the Tony Meehan Combo with Joe on board reached the Top 40 – just – with 1964’s Song Of Mexico, one of a number of the band’s songs that anticipated jazz-rock by at least five years. ‘We were doing the sort of thing that Chicago and Blood, Sweat And Tears came up with later,’ said Meehan, ‘but we were booed off.’ Joe was to venture deeper into this territory with the People Band, an entity connected to one of the Arts Laboratories that had come into being around 1967.
Audiences were more receptive to the middle-aged muzak of Cyril Stapleton’s BBC Show Band throughout a lengthy residency at Streatham Locarno, where the sharp-eyed might spot Moretti – as they would later in the decade with Herbie Goins and the Night-Timers, whose stamping ground was central London watering holes where they were acclaimed for a soul music repertoire that stretched from smooth Motown to let-me-hear-you-say-yeah’ routines.
Other public activities included dressing as a toreador for a TV special starring Barbra Streisand, and – also in the 1970s – undertaking some dates with vocalist Madeleine Bell in South Africa, where Joe was to retire.
If nothing else, these live ventures made a change from performing hours of take after take of the same tune in the course of maybe three sessions a day, five days a week. Yet whether driving Vince Taylor through Brand New Cadillac, operating the wah-wah pedal on Leapy Lee’s maddeningly catchy pop-country hit Little Arrows or roaming the far reaches of the avant-garde with the People Band, it was all just part of a day’s work for Joe Moretti – and, at the most fundamental level, whether performed on the stage or in the studio, all that ever really mattered to him was that it was music.