The Sideman

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

The complaint most frequently levied against Cleveland's Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum is a conceptual one. Putting up a tourist-friendly, mainstream memorial to what began as anti-establishment music, critics of the Hall say, is the best possible way to snuff out any sense of danger the form might still possess (emphasis on might). After all, museums are for dead things, not living ones.

When he's presented with this argument, Scotty Moore, who will be inducted into the Hall of Fame in the brand-new "sidemen" category during a March 6 ceremony at New York City's Astoria Hotel, emits a good-natured chuckle. "I hadn't really thought about it as a museum, but I guess that's right," he says, in a soft tone marked by a pleasant twang. "I'll try not to move when people pass by me."

This self-deprecating remark is characteristic of the man. As the string-strangler behind most of Elvis Presley's best work, Moore, who's in his late sixties, helped shape the sounds of the last half-century. But in conversation, he refuses to overdramatize himself or his contributions to the music for which he's being feted. Despite the Hall of Fame spotlight currently shining on him and the other inaugural sideman honorees (saxophonist King Curtis and bassist James Jamerson, both deceased, plus drummers Earl Palmer and Hal Blaine), he prefers sticking to the shadows, just as he did when he was on stage with Presley, figuratively putting himself in the background of his own story out of force of habit.

He's found a new place to dwell: Guitarist Scotty Moore is set to rock Cleveland's Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
He's found a new place to dwell: Guitarist Scotty Moore is set to rock Cleveland's Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.

That's not all bad, of course: Moore's modesty is a welcome alternative to the worshipful pap regularly churned out by the Rock and Roll Myth Machine. And modest he is. He makes it clear that the title of The Guitar That Changed the World!, his 1964 solo album, most certainly wasn't his idea, and he seems dumbfounded to learn that Presley was recently named the 57th most significant figure of the last millennium in a program aired on the Arts & Entertainment network. "There's no question he touched a lot of people," Moore concedes. "But a thousand years is a loooong time." On top of that, he had to be cajoled into participating in That's Alright, Elvis: The Untold Story of Elvis's First Guitarist and Manager, Scotty Moore, a tome he co-wrote with Jim Dickerson that was published in 1998. According to him, "There were just so many books out there that I couldn't see getting into the fray, so to speak. And I thought that everything had been told. But I have a daughter in Memphis who knew Jim, and she was constantly saying, 'Why don't you do something? Why don't you do something?' over several years. So finally I just said, 'If you'll hush, I'll do it. Now, leave me alone.'"

Moore's account of the July 1954 night when he, Elvis and bassist Bill Black recorded the Arthur Crudup blues "That's All Right (Mama)" for producer Sam Phillips at Sun Studios in Memphis is similarly low-key. Many rock historians regard this session to be the genre's single most important event, a seismic experience that permanently altered the pop-music landscape even as its mixing of black and white influences prefigured the civil-rights movement. But Moore sees the evening in much simpler terms.

"I did an interview with this fella in Amsterdam," he notes, "and he said, 'What did you think of the big bang?' And I said, 'What? What big bang?' And he said, 'You know. The big bang -- when Elvis cut 'That's All Right.'" After a hearty laugh, he clarifies things: "That wasn't the big bang. That was an audition."

Elvis passed, as it turns out. But Moore, a native of Gadsden, Tennessee, who got to know Phillips through the Starlite Wranglers, a band he'd helped form after his discharge from the Navy a couple of years earlier, still has a hard time making the moment seem magical. "We did what we were supposed to do, the three of us," he says. "We played a lot of rhythm, and I was trying to throw in some side notes in there, to make it kind of fuller. So I guess we knew it was a little different than the other things we'd been doing. But we didn't have any idea that it was going to be anything special.

"It was radio that made the difference," he goes on. "This disc jockey [Dewey Phillips, no relation to Sam] started playing the thing, and he just played it over and over and over and over. It was almost like he got the people in the audience kind of brainwashed by it. But even then, it wasn't like anything happened overnight. We had to pay our dues for about a year and a half. It wasn't until we did our first TV show, with the Dorsey Brothers, that we realized, you know, we'd better hang on."

Prior to the rocket taking off, Moore had managed Presley and his band, collectively known as the Blue Moon Boys. These duties were later taken on by Bob Neal and, more famously, Colonel Tom Parker, leaving Moore time to concentrate on playing -- and along with drummer D.J. Fontana, the first addition to the lineup, and bassist Black, who died of a brain tumor in 1965, he backed Presley on the hits that established his legacy: "Heartbreak Hotel," "Baby, Let's Play House," "Blue Suede Shoes," "Jailhouse Rock" and so on. But while Moore's clean, energetic riffing and power-glide solos have plenty to do with the tunes' success, he never forgot that he was there to support the singer, not overwhelm him.

"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.

"All the writers would call me up on the phone," he says, "but when I would get a rough script, invariably whatever they called to talk to me about wouldn't have nothin' to do with it. I wouldn't even recognize it. They'd always get just enough truth in there to make it believable, and I understood they had to stretch. But it should have been an hour long instead of thirty minutes, and I think deep down they wanted it to be like The Dukes of Hazzard. They'd want Elvis and Bill and me to stop and get gas at a service station, and the place would get robbed, and we'd be involved in some kind of chase or something -- and I hate to tell you, but that never happened. And they always wanted to make Bill look like the heavy in the whole thing. Now, Bill did have a short fuse, but they'd have him taking his bass and walking back to the next town, quitting or several other things like that. And that was just ridiculous."

The failure of Elvis didn't bother Moore much, but when his businesses went south, he was left with time on his hands. He filled it in 1997 with his first recording project in ages: All the King's Men, credited to him and Fontana. The disc, issued by Sweetfish Records, included guest appearances by a wide array of artists eager to pay homage to two such important figures, including the Mavericks ("I Told You So" [295K aiff]), the Bodeans, Cheap Trick, Tracy Nelson, Joe Louis Walker, Joe Ely and Steve Earle. But the biggest names on hand were a pair of Rolling Stones: Ron Wood, who paired with Jeff Beck on "Unsung Heroes," [252K aiff] and Keith Richards, the star of "Deuce and a Quarter" [280K aiff]. The CD was so well-received that Moore and Fontana are contemplating a followup to feature performers who expressed interest in participating on the first platter but couldn't because of scheduling difficulties.

"Bonnie Raitt was going to do it, and Chris Isaak," he says. "And there was a funny little story about Mick Jagger. We were at Ron Wood's studio in Ireland with Jeff Beck, and the phone rings, and it's Mick. He asks, 'What are you doing?' And when Ron says 'We're recording with Scotty and D.J.,' he gets us on the phone and goes, 'Well, why didn't you ask me?' And we were like, 'We already got two of you. We didn't want to push it.' Then, when I saw him later, I asked, 'If we do another one, are you up for it?' And he told us, 'I want to be the first one you call.'"

Meanwhile, the Hall of Fame beckons. Moore admits to mixed emotions over his admission. "The problem to me is, Bill Black, myself and Elvis were a group, the Blue Moon Boys. We should have all gone in as a group. But I know there's a lot of politics in that kind of thing, and with this new category, I'm happy that it's opening up for so many other deserving guys down the road.

"The time's probably right," he says with a snicker. "I'm gettin' up there. I suppose I'm just about ready for a museum now."

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