TINY MOORE’S 1952
This author recently contributed—in the form of research, photography, and detective work—to the newly released book “The Story of Paul Bigsby—Father Of The Modern Solidbody Electric Guitar” (written by Andy Babiuk, Hal Leonard publishing). The book was a mammoth undertaking, with myself and several members of the secret society known as the ‘Bigsby Brain Trust’ attempting to unravel the mysteries of the Paul Bigsby story.
When the book finally came out, I received many emails asking why Tiny Moore’s historic Bigsby electric mandolin wasn’t featured more prominently in the book (there is a single postage-stamp sized photo of Tiny from a 1980’s album cover). The answer was simple—we didn’t know where Tiny’s mandolin was!
Before the book was published, I had made some inquiries to try and find out the whereabouts of Tiny’s mandolin, with no success. Of course, after the book came out, several people pointed me in the right direction. The mandolin had been in safekeeping for Tiny’s family in the hands of Skip Maggiora of Skip’s Music in Sacramento, an institution in the California Capitol City. The mandolin is now part of Skip’s personal collection, along with historic instruments used by Bob Wills and the Texas Playboys and other Western Swing legends.
Luckily, Skip turned out to be a very accommodating guy, and thanks to him we can now give some well-deserved publicity to both the story of Tiny Moore, the electric mandolin virtuoso, and Tiny Moore’s 1952 Bigsby electric mandolin, one of the most important instruments Paul Bigsby ever made.
Below: Tiny Moore in his heyday. (If any readers know where I can find a good original copy of this photo, I'd appreciate it--all I have is this xerox.)
Billie ‘Tiny’ Moore was born in Energy, Texas on May 12, 1920, to a musical family. As a baby, Tiny’s mother gave piano lessons and brought Tiny along in a buggy as she taught. As with many Texas families, nearly everybody in the Moore clan played an instrument, and it wasn’t long before Tiny was taking violin lessons and learning how to play the ‘fiddle.’
As a high schooler, Tiny played fiddle and guitar in a group called ‘The Clod Hoppers.’ When the family moved to Port Arthur, Texas, he played with another group that included future jazz guitar legend Jimmy Wyble, and later with a different group that included future jazz guitar legend Herb Ellis. Tiny also ventured into Cajun country, across the border to Louisiana, playing with groups like Happy Fats’ Rayne-Bo Ramblers. It was during this time that Billie Moore, due to his large size and stature, would earn the nickname he would carry the rest of his life—‘Tiny.’ For those unfamiliar with country culture, giant guys always got the comical nickname ‘Tiny,’ and for young ‘Tiny’ Moore, it stuck.
Tiny’s story really begins in early 1930’s Texas, where a new hybrid style of music called ‘Western Swing’ was starting to take root. Western Swing was essentially jazz music, and big band-style pop music, interpreted by country musicians. One important difference between Western Swing musicians and traditional jazz or country musicians was that the Western Swing players took right away to electrified instruments and loud drummers, a necessity in the loud dancehalls where western swing was popular.
Important electric musicians in those early days included Bob Dunn, the steel guitarist for Milton Brown and his Musical Brownies, an extremely influential steel guitarist who was the first to record with an amplified instrument; and his colleague Leo Raley, who played electric mandolin in Cliff Bruner’s Texas Wanderers in that band’s formation following the death of Milton Brown in 1936.
Leo Raley saw no virtue in the traditional acoustic mandolin. Raley added a homemade pickup to his Martin A-style, and played lead electric jazz mandolin, a role that the instrument had never taken before (it should be noted that the first commercially available electric mandolins, from Gibson and Vega, debuted the same year—1936—that Raley began playing his Martin with the homemade pickup). Raley didn’t play the chordal style so associated with the polite parlor mandolin, and he didn’t play like a Bluegrass boy—Raley instead reinvented the mandolin as a little brother to the electric guitar.
Leo Raley started a small movement in Southeast Texas when he began using the electric mandolin as a lead instrument for western swing. Raley was not a virtuoso soloist, but those who followed Raley’s example were. These included players such as Johnny Gimble, who went on to play fiddle and mandolin for Bob Wills and the Texas Playboys; Paul Buskirk, the Houston-area virtuoso who played mandolin and guitar for everybody from Tex Ritter to Willie Nelson (Buskirk didn’t really play like Raley, coming from a West Virginia background, but undoubtedly Raley’s use of amplification influenced him); and young ‘Tiny’ Moore, who decided after seeing Raley to concentrate on lead electric mandolin as his main instrument.
The first electric mandolin Tiny played was a custom-made instrument by his friend Raymond Jones. As Tiny progressed, he eventually bought a brand new Gibson EM-150 electric mandolin, strung up with only four strings.
As World War Two began, Tiny concentrated on learning the mandolin, and after being drafted in 1943, Tiny served a two-year stint in the military working as a radio operator in Sioux Falls, South Dakota. The time spent in the Dakotas must have been good for woodshedding, for when Tiny returned to Port Arthur in 1945, he was a monster player, with the ‘Tiny Moore style’ fully formed.
In 1945 and 1946 Tiny played with legendary honky-tonk piano player Moon Mullican and his band the Showboys. It was by far the most professional gig he had worked thus far, and gave Tiny a hint of what might be possible, if he was lucky enough to catch a break.
Below: Moon Mullican on stage at the Big D Jamboree, Dallas.
That break came for Tiny in the most unlikely manner possible. Tiny had made plans to move to Oklahoma with a drummer friend in search of work, when the pair happened to drive past a late night diner in Beaumont, Texas, and saw Bob Wills’ tour bus parked in the lot. Bob Wills, lead vocalist Tommy Duncan, and Bob’s brother Billy Jack Wills were in the restaurant eating sandwiches after a performance at Beaumont’s Pleasure Pier, and Tiny wanted to meet them. Tiny struck up a conversation with Wills, and it wasn’t long before Wills asked him to get his mandolin from his car and play a little for them. Tiny was hired on the spot, got on the tour bus the next morning and became a featured member of Bob Wills’ Texas Playboys for the next four years.
Below: Bob Wills & the Texas Playboys, with Tiny Moore, second from left.
Bob Wills had been performing Western Swing music since the early 1930’s, first as a member of the Light Crust Doughboys (a corporate sponsored hot fiddle band that also included the other major architect of Western Swing, Milton Brown), and beginning in 1933 with his own band the Texas Playboys. The late 1930’s incarnation of the band was a large orchestra with brass and woodwind sections, however after losing most of his players to the draft in World War Two, Wills restructured the Playboys after the war to be a smaller, electrified combo with the emphasis on hot string players. The late 1940’s lineups of the Texas Playboys included incredible musicians like Junior Barnard on bluesy, distorted electric guitar; Herb Remington playing incredibly adventurous steel guitar, and fellow Texan Johnny Gimble on fiddle and mandolin. Together with Tiny’s hot electric mandolin, the group worked up incredible two, three, and four-part harmony leads that Western Swing scholars are still trying to pick apart today.
Below: Bob Wills and Tiny Moore.
In the late 1940’s, Wills owned a dancehall called Wills Point in Sacramento, California, but by 1950 had moved the Texas Playboys home base from Sacramento to Oklahoma City. After several years of hard touring, Tiny was beginning to tire of the road, and when Wills offered Tiny a position to manage Wills Point and stay off the road, Tiny jumped at the chance.
Bob Wills had three brothers, all of whom had their own bands. Many of the famous Texas Playboys came up through the ranks of Luke Wills, Johnny Lee Wills, or Billy Jack Wills’ various combos. Although the various Wills bands were essentially ‘farm teams’ for big brother Bob’s star attraction, ‘Billy Jack Wills and his Western Swing Band’ became something altogether different when Tiny Moore put together a new group for Billy Jack to front the house band at Wills Point.
The two CD’s of material that Billy Jack Wills and his band record in the early to mid-1950’s reveal that there was something truly magical going on in the group dynamic, much more so than in Bob’s band at the same time. Billy Jack Wills was 21 years younger than older brother Bob, and as such, the music was geared to a younger audience. Tiny, along with young virtuoso steel guitarist Vance Terry, guitarist Kenny Lowery, trumpeter Dick McComb and fiddler/bassist Cotton Roberts, created a hot dance band that filled the gap somewhere between Western Swing and the new Rock & Roll style of Bill Haley And The Comets. The playing was off the Richter scale, with Tiny trading insanely hot solos and breathtaking twin harmony leads with Vance Terry.
Below: Billy Jack Wills and his Western Swing Band (photo courtesy Andrew Brown).
Vance Terry, wanting an instrument like other top steel players like Joaquin Murphey, Speedy West, and Noel Boggs, ordered a custom-made Bigsby triple-neck steel guitar in 1951. A Bigsby steel guitar was something only the top professionals could afford at the time, as Paul Bigsby built each instrument by hand, with a waiting list a year long to buy his instruments. Bigsby’s handcrafted instruments also cost two to three times more than a comparable Gibson or Fender.
Tiny Moore followed Vance Terry’s example and went to visit Paul Bigsby. Tiny ordered a Bigsby electric mandolin for himself, to replace and update his ten-year-old Gibson EM-150. While Tiny has erroneously been credited with receiving the first solidbody electric mandolin, the truth is that Bigsby made his first electric mandolin (unless an earlier example surfaces) for Paul Buskirk in 1950, which was a ten-string mandolin strung in 5 courses (not to mention the fact that Bigsby instruments made after early 1949 aren’t true ‘solidbodies,’ they are neck-through-body instruments with hollow wings). Bigsby also made several other mandolins around the same time, including electric mandolins for Eschol Cosby and Al Giddings, and a re-necked Kay acoustic mandolin for Nudie Cohn the ‘Rodeo Tailor,’ among others.
Tiny originally placed an order with Bigsby for a four-string electric mandolin. The story of how Tiny’s mandolin wound up being a five-string is an interesting sidebar in the Bigsby saga.
After Paul Buskirk had his 10-string mandolin made in 1950, he brought it back to Houston, where a local mandolin player named Scotty Broyles saw the instrument and noted that Buskirk added a fifth pair of strings, tuned to a low C below the standard mandolin tuning of G-D-A-E.
A short time later Scotty Broyles went into the Navy and found himself stationed in San Diego at the Naval Base on North Island. San Diego had a tremendous country music and western swing scene in the early 50’s, centered at the Bostonia Ballroom east of San Diego in El Cajon. Here Scotty saw just about every top country music star of the day in person, and took color slide photographs whenever he could (in fact, several of Scotty’s beautiful color slides were included in the Bigsby book, including the only known color photograph of Merle Travis holding his 1948 Bigsby electric guitar).
Scotty befriended another country music fan on the Naval base, a musician and amateur guitar builder named Jim Harvey. Beginning around 1951, Jim Harvey built guitars, steel guitars, and mandolins in his La Jolla garage workshop, all showing a heavy Bigsby influence—neck-through-body construction, birdseye maple bodies with natural finish, aluminum nuts and bridges, etc. Soon Harvey agreed to build Scotty a 5-string electric mandolin, based on the Buskirk 10-string idea but with 5 single strings.
Jim Harvey’s earliest creations had DeArmond floating pickups, as they were the only commercially available pickup at that time (it might be hard to imagine, but 60 years ago guitar manufacturers wouldn’t sell their pickups or parts as separate accessory items). Jim Harvey was aware of Paul Bigsby’s pickups, and he decided to drive up to Downey to meet Bigsby in person and ask to purchase pickups for use on his own Jim Harvey instruments.
Scotty Broyles tells the story: “Jim asked Paul if he would sell him a pickup, and Paul said he’d have to see his work, and if it was good enough, he might consider it. Jim went out to his car and got the guitar he was working on, and Bigsby spent about ten minutes slowly looking it over. Finally, without saying anything, Paul walked over to a cabinet mounted on the wall, pulls out a pickup, comes back over to Jim and tells him the pickups are fifty dollars, and they’re the same price if he takes the pickup by itself or leaves the instrument to have him install it.”
Jim Harvey would go on to make a dozen or so instruments, about half of which used Bigsby pickups, including Scotty’s electric five-string mandolin.
Scotty recalls how Tiny Moore became associated with the five-string electric mandolin: “Jim Harvey had taken my unfinished mandolin up there to Paul Bigsby to have a five-string pickup installed. Well, it was sitting around Bigsby’s shop for a few weeks while he installed the pickup, and about that time, Tiny Moore came and visited Bigsby to see how his new electric mandolin was coming. Tiny had ordered a four-string mandolin, but when he saw my Harvey five-string mandolin lying there, he changed his mind and told Paul right then and there his had to be a five-string too. Paul was mad, because he was just about done with Tiny’s instrument! Eventually Tiny got his way, and that’s the reason Tiny’s Bigsby had five strings instead of four, was because he saw mine in the shop.”
Below: Scotty Broyles and his 1952 Harvey 5-string mandolin, with Bigsby pickup.
Tiny’s Bigsby mandolin was finished on September 3, 1952, and we know that because the serial number stamped in the body near the mandolin’s tailpiece reads 9352. Paul Bigsby didn’t leave us much information on the creation of his instruments, but we do know (because he told many of his clients) that the serial numbers represented the date of completion.
Tiny Moore’s Bigsby, although now weathered and showing the signs of decades of hard work on the road, is a magnificent example of Paul Bigsby’s work. One of the hallmarks of Bigsby instruments is the graceful slope where the neck joins the body. All genuine Bigsbys have this slope that seamlessly fades the back of the neck into the neck/body joint (and it’s easy to spot a forgery when they lack this feature), and the one on Tiny Moore’s mandolin is perhaps the most graceful example of the neck-to-body fade this author has ever seen.
The binding, inlay and construction are tight and expertly done. At some point Tiny replaced the early Klusons with replacement tuners, and moved the rear strap hook from the tail area to the top of the instrument, but other than that, the instrument is in remarkably original condition (astute Tiny Moore fans may note that the instrument had a few sets of different volume and tone knobs over its lifetime of use, but the ones on it now are the originals that Skip found inside the instrument’s case).
Detail for geeks: Note that the Bigsby 5-pole pickup used the same covers as the 6-pole pickup, which had cast "dimples" for the six poles. For the 5-pole pickup, Bigsby simply drilled between the dimples.
Tiny’s instrument has a couple of unique features, despite the fact that all Bigsby instruments are unique. A feature not found on any other Bigsby instrument is the master volume control located above the bridge, with the tone control by the pickup switch, suited to Tiny’s ergonomic preference. The bridge saddle is straight across at a slight angle, which all of Bigsby’s mandolins and the upper mandolin neck of Grady Martin’s doubleneck guitar have in common, unlike the typical compensated Bigsby bridge saddle found on the larger instruments. The mandolin’s top and back are made of figured curly maple, unlike the birdseye maple used on most, but not all, Bigsby instruments. The mandolin utilizes the standard mandolin scale length of 13 7/8”. With its neck-through-body design (with hollow wings) style of construction, the instrument is also light as a feather, as most Bigsbys are.
When Tiny received his Bigsby mandolin in the fall of 1952, he used the instrument extensively with Billy Jack Wills’ band, and also on several Bob Wills recording sessions in 1955. If you search out the Billy Jack Wills CD’s (not available on iTunes, but the CD’s are easily found on eBay), you can hear Tiny’s Bigsby in all its glory, and it really is a magnificent sounding instrument. With Tiny mixing Django Reinhardt and Charlie Christian guitar licks into his mandolin playing, Tiny probably influenced more guitar players than mandolin players.
Tiny was so good, in fact, that he received offers from huge stars of the day such as Red Foley to go on the road and leave the Sacramento gig behind. Tiny refused the offers, though they would have meant a huge pay raise.
Below: Another classic shot of the Billy Jack Wills band (courtesy of Andrew Brown).
Bob Wills wound up drafting most of the Billy Jack Wills band into the Texas Playboys touring band in 1955, and after Wills Point closed in Sacramento, Tiny rejoined Bob Wills’ band for a short time before quitting the road once again, choosing to remain in his adopted hometown of Sacramento.
From 1956 to 1961 Tiny played locally and appeared on local children’s television as ‘Ranger Roy,’ a character he invented for a kid’s show with a monkey as his sidekick (Skip recalls: “Tiny had a real nice old Gibson flat-top acoustic guitar, but it got covered in monkey bites and claw marks during his ‘Ranger Roy’ phase!”). When that gig ended, Tiny founded the ‘Tiny Moore Music Center’ in Sacramento, selling instruments and giving lessons—where a young Skip Maggiora also taught and sometimes would run the studio when Tiny was on the road.
In the 1970’s, Tiny collaborated with Jay Roberts to make the Roberts ‘Tiny Moore Model’ electric mandolin, very loosely modeled after Tiny’s Bigsby. They were sold directly out of Tiny’s music store, and not many of them were produced. Today they are quite collectible, though the Roberts are not Bigsby copies—they are different in nearly every way except the basic appearance.
Tiny had a great second career when Merle Haggard came calling in 1970 to do a Texas Playboys reunion album. Haggard was obsessed with the music of Bob Wills and is directly responsible for bringing Wills’ name out of fading obscurity back into the limelight. Tiny played both mandolin and fiddle, and did so well with Merle’s band (‘The Strangers’) that he became a regular member of the touring and recording band. Tiny would continue to play with Merle Haggard on and off throughout the 1970’s and 1980’s, eventually ending the Haggard gig when Merle insisted his entire band relocate to the Redding, California, area—Tiny declared he was staying in Sacramento and handed in his resignation.
Below: Tiny's original Bigsby case still has the "Merle Haggard Road Show" sticker on it from his 1970's tours.
In the last few years of his life, Tiny recorded a few new albums, mostly straight jazz albums by himself and with fellow mandolin virtuoso Jethro Burns. One of those albums, ‘Tiny Moore Music,’ shows the aging, but still agile, master of the instrument holding his battle-scared Bigsby mandolin on the cover.
Tiny Moore died on December 15, 1987, while playing a gig at Cactus Pete’s in Jackpot, Nevada. Until the day he died, Tiny was still playing great, rocking his little electric mandolin like the mighty instrument it was.
Skip Maggiora founded Skip’s Music in Sacramento in 1973, and Skip’s is now an institution around the area. Tiny’s three most important mandolins—the Gibson EM-150, Tiny’s personal Roberts mandolin, and of course, the legendary 1952 Bigsby mandolin are now treasured centerpieces of Skip’s personal instrument collection.
Below: The three instruments used by Tiny Moore in his long career, photographed at Skip's Music (thanks Skip):
While Tiny's Bigsby mandolin was sadly overlooked in the recent Bigsby book, I’m proud to tell Tiny’s story here in these pages. Thanks to Skip, we’re able to get a better look at this incredibly historic and important Bigsby instrument.
Thanks to Skip Maggiora, Andrew Brown, Chris Lucker, and Scotty Broyles.
The author is interested in hearing from readers with Tiny Moore stories, or from anybody with a Bigsby story to tell. Email Deke Dickerson here.