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The Sideman

The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame acknowledges Scotty Moore, the guitarist behind the King.

"I tried to keep it simple -- and simplicity, you know, that's something you have to work at. I listen to some of the things now and I think, I could have played a lot more stuff there. But I'm glad I didn't. Like on 'Don't Be Cruel': I played the little intro on that and played a chord on the very end, and that's all I played during the whole song. But it didn't need anything else. That little rhythm thing Elvis was doing on his guitar and D.J. and the Jordanaires [a vocal quartet often used by Presley] doing that little doo-wop thing...Well, it just fell right in a groove, and I figured, maybe we'd better leave well enough alone.

"Sometimes it took quite a while to get it right," he continues, "and the studio people would fuss at us. They'd go, 'Buncha damn amateurs.' But we were constantly trying to find things that we thought would fit the song and not get in the way of the vocal. Besides, it didn't take me long to play every note I knew" -- another laugh -- "so I just wanted to put them to good use."

Presley's 1958 induction into the Army didn't end Moore's interactions with the King; he worked on numerous '60s tracks and was a key participant in Elvis's 1968 television special, which saved a career nearly done in by lousy, interchangeable movies and the mainly crummy soundtracks that went along with them. But Moore was involved in other projects as well. He founded his own label, Fernwood Records, which spawned one decent-sized hit (Thomas Wayne's "Tragedy"), and worked for Sam Phillips as engineer and head of production at Sun. (He was involved in the creation of some intriguing and underappreciated work by Charlie Rich, for instance.) And then there was the Epic Records release The Guitar That Changed the World!, an effort that teamed Moore with Presley cohorts Fontana and the Jordanaires, plus studio regulars such as saxophonist Boots Randolph, under the supervision of Nashville super-producer Billy Sherrill.

"It was supposed to be one of a series," Moore remembers. "Billy sold CBS [Epic's owner] on the idea that we could do a lot of the Elvis stuff -- volume one, volume two -- and put them in chronological order. And CBS said, 'That's a good idea.' But when it got down to doing the session, they said, 'Maybe you ought to just do some of the bigger hits today, and we'll kind of test it.' And when they did, that was the end of that project.

"I know they must have sold quite a few of them, because D.J. and I play Europe every once in a while, and nearly every show, somebody comes up with a copy and wants us to sign it. But the funny thing is, Sony owns Epic and CBS and all that now, and every so often, I still get statements in the mail from them telling me I still owe about $2,500 in production costs on that." Lightheartedly, he adds, "When it's about money, they never forget."

Of course, Moore has his gripes about remuneration, too. He doesn't mind that he makes no money from the continued sales of Presley's familiar songs; he was paid for playing on them, and that's that, as far as he's concerned. But he feels differently about the issuing of previously unheard takes on platters such as Sunrise, put out by RCA, Presley's longtime label, in 1999. Thanks to a complicated set of accounting gyrations, RCA has been able to shrink what it owes Moore to practically nothing. For Sunrise, he says, he's received a single check for $42.25. Nonetheless, he has no plans to initiate any lawsuits over such practices. "Things'd get too nasty. It'd be too big a fight. But there'd be some fur flying if Elvis was still alive."

News flash: He's not. (He died in a Graceland bathroom in 1977.) Moore, who last played with Elvis around the time of the '68 TV special, watched Presley's demise from a distance, saddened by his deteriorating physical condition and unimpressed by much of the music. "I think the stuff in the '70s was a little overproduced," he says, "and I don't know if it was as good as his first things. You know, when D.J. and I play, we never get a request for anything pretty much out of the '50s. But when Elvis would do those songs later, he'd just throw them away in medleys -- do them really fast, like, 'I hate to have to do this.' And that would always bug me."

Not that Moore was one of those with Elvis connections who dogpiled on Presley's corpse before it had cooled. He pretty much kept to himself while others cashed in, focusing on two businesses: a tape-duplication facility and a printing shop. But he did pitch in as a consultant to Elvis, a short-lived early '90s television series that depicted Presley during his nascent stage. Scotty was portrayed by actor Jesse Dabson, with whom he's still friendly: "He's been doing these Southern Bell commercials the last two, three years," he says with paternal pride. But while most reviewers back then were pleasantly surprised by the program's aura of verisimilitude, Moore knew better.

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