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O.C. Pop Music

He's Not Just a Sideman

Guitarist Scotty Moore was instrumental in rock's early days--and still is.


Scotty Moore may be the single most influential guitarist in rock 'n' roll--the guy who not only created the mold on the extraordinary records he made with Elvis Presley in the mid-1950s, but without whom Elvis himself may very well have remained a talented but unfocused hillbilly singer from Tupelo, Miss.

Yet as important an instrumentalist as he is, during the 23 years he toured and recorded with Presley and in the 23 years since Presley's death, Moore never made a solo record.

"That's something I never aspired to do," Moore said from his home in Nashville. He further insists he never will, making him that rarity of rarities, a rock guitarist without ego.

Perhaps even more surprising coming from the man who invented many of the licks that have become part of the rock guitar lexicon, he confesses, "I doubt if I could sit down and play you the melody of a song all the way through. I just always enjoyed playing behind the singer."

Moore, 68, still plays in public, but as it was from the beginning, it's always as an accompanist for singers. In recent years he has collaborated with country singer Ronnie McDowell, whose first hit was his 1977 Presley tribute single, "The King Is Gone."

He has also teamed up with former Stray Cats bassist Lee Rocker, with whom he's appearing this weekend at the Coach House in San Juan Capistrano and the Troubadour in West Hollywood.

Rocker, of course, is a roots-rock devotee who was monumentally influenced by the Sun Records sessions Elvis made with Moore, bassist Bill Black and, later, drummer D.J. Fontana.

Because of his lifelong respect for Moore, Rocker has invited the venerable guitarist to join his band from time to time. Last summer, Rocker flew the guitarist out from Tennessee to join him at the Hootenanny 2000 Festival in Santiago Canyon, and their appearance provided one of the annual roots-rock event's highlights.

Moore was part of the first group of musicians inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame earlier this year in the new Sidemen category, though Moore wasn't happy with the category's name as it applied to the way he, Black and Fontana worked with Elvis.

"Guys like [drummer] Hal Blaine and [saxophonist] King Curtis played on all different kinds of artists' records over the years. They were true sidemen. I never considered playing with anybody else.

"I loved going in with Elvis, to go in and cut new songs. To go in and cut four songs in three hours [as professional studio musicians often did]--that didn't appeal to me at all. I like to take my time with the song and try to find something that would fit that was not somebody else's idea."

That deeply felt sense of experimentation was just what Elvis needed when he began to record--a time when he was singing everything from pop standards to old country hits, from gospel tunes to film music.

When Sun Records producer Sam Phillips introduced the shy 19-year-old singer to Moore and Black in 1954 in Memphis, no one knew where it would lead.

But Phillips--the blues and R&B music producer who vowed he could make a million dollars if he could find a white singer who sounded as if he were black--recognized that Moore and Black were talented enough to help bring something unique out of Presley's raw talent.

"Neither one of us knew what we were doing," Moore said. "Let's face facts--Sam and I became good friends when I had a country-western group that sold a couple dozen records. I knew he was looking for something new, and he knew I was looking for something new. So early on, Bill and I went in to work with Elvis because it didn't cost Sam anything, first and foremost.

"[Phillips] didn't know what he was looking for, but he knew it when he heard it. I didn't know. All I knew is that first song ["That's All Right"] sounded OK--it had a good rhythm and a good feel to it. But Sam said, 'That's it--that's what we're looking for.' "

Though most of the attention has centered on Presley's singing and his kinetic performance style, Moore--who also handled duties as Presley's manager until Col. Tom Parker entered the picture--said that as a guitarist Elvis "had great rhythm. He didn't know all the chords in the world, but he had an uncanny feel for the rhythm. He had it in his voice too."

On that front, Moore added, "I've seen singers who would take half a day learning eight bars of a song's bridge, but Elvis knew he could do a song if he heard it one time through. It was just second nature to him."

Those early Sun singles--billed, it's worth noting, as "Elvis Presley, Scotty and Bill"--took off first in the South, prompting interest from the major national labels. RCA Records famously paid Sam Phillips $35,000 for Presley's contract, then the highest amount ever paid to sign a recording artist.

Once Presley went to work for RCA, his singles and albums bore only his name, under orders from his new manager, Col. Parker. It was a slap in the face to Moore, Black and Fontana.

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