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 Waldorf 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 60s, 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.

Scotty Moore, still one of the King's men 40 years later
Ebet Roberts
Scotty Moore, still one of the King's men 40 years later

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. 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.

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