Scotty Moore, Essential Rock 'N' Roll Sideman, Dies At 84

Jun 29, 2016
Originally published on June 29, 2016 7:44 pm

When Elvis Presley first appeared on TV in the mid-1950s, you saw the swinging hips and the cheering fans. But if you had looked just behind him, you'd have seen Scotty Moore, who played lead guitar on Presley's early recordings and helped define his sound. Moore died at his home in Nashville on Tuesday after a long illness. He was 84.

While he was an essential part of some of the most iconic moments in rock 'n' roll history, Moore wasn't one for music mythology.

"The thing about Scotty Moore is, he was a very humble man," says Peter Guralnick, who's written several books on Presley and the early years of rock 'n' roll. "He was somebody who would've liked to have been a jazz guitarist, but he recognized his own limitations. With Elvis, he provided a complement to the passionate expression that Elvis brought to the music."

Guralnick says this complement was there both in the music and in everyday life, and it's evident in how the down-to-earth Moore described his first time meeting the flamboyant star.

"[Presley] was dressed a little strange for the times," Moore told NPR in 2000. "He had on a — it was either a pair of pink pants or black pants with a white stripe up the leg, you know, and a lace, see-through shirt and, of course, his famous ducktail. But, you know, he was very clean, very polite, and we kind of, you know, just hit it off right from the start."

Scotty Moore was born in West Tennessee in 1931. He eventually moved to Memphis and began working at Sun Studio, which is where owner Sam Phillips asked him to audition the young unknown who became Elvis Presley. Together, along with bassist Bill Black and drummer D.J. Fontana, they recorded some of Presley's biggest early hits, like "Hound Dog" and "That's All Right."

Matt Ross-Spang is a Memphis-based music producer, engineer and friend of Moore's. He says that Moore "merged jazz and Chet Atkins-style fingerpicking and blues licks, but really made his own unique sound."

Ross-Spang says that all the work Moore did in the music industry — including producing and engineering — really touched a lot of people.

"When you would go to his house, you'd see pictures of him with Keith Richards and Paul McCartney. It wasn't like backstage at a show, 'Can I get a picture with you, Paul' — it was pictures Paul and Keith asked to get with Scotty," Ross-Spang says.

Moore was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2000, under the new "sideman" category. He told NPR he thought he and the rest of the rhythm section should've been inducted along with Presley, but that he wasn't too concerned about it.

"It's not a big thing for me," Moore said. "Like I say, I just stand back in the back and do my thing."

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(SOUNDBITE OF ELVIS PRESLEY SONG, "MYSTERY TRAIN")

ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

This is the opening of "Mystery Train" recorded by Elvis Presley in 1955. Scotty Moore is on guitar. He helped define Elvis's early sound. Moore died yesterday at his home in Nashville after a long illness. He was 84. NPR's Andrew Limbong has this appreciation.

ANDREW LIMBONG, BYLINE: When Elvis Presley first appeared on TV, you saw the swinging hips and cheering fans.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "HOUND DOG")

ELVIS PRESLEY: (Singing) You ain't nothin' but a hound dog.

LIMBONG: And Scotty Moore was standing right behind him.

(SOUNDBITE OF ELVIS PRESLEY SONG, "HOUND DOG")

LIMBONG: But Scotty Moore really wasn't one for music mythology.

PETER GURALNICK: And the thing about Scotty Moore was he was a very humble man.

LIMBONG: That's Peter Guralnick. He's written a couple books on Elvis and the early years of rock 'n' roll.

GURALNICK: He was somebody who would have liked to have been a jazz guitarist, but he recognized his own limitations. And with Elvis, he provided a complement to the passionate expression that Elvis brought to the music.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "HEARTBREAK HOTEL")

PRESLEY: (Singing) Take walk down lonely street to Heartbreak Hotel where you will be so lonely baby, where you will be lonely. You'll be so lonely you could die.

LIMBONG: Guralnick says this complement was there both in the music and in everyday life. They were like oil and water. This is how the down-to-earth Moore described meeting the flamboyant Elvis to NPR in 2000.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)

SCOTTY MOORE: He was dressed a little strange for the times. He had on a - he had a pair of pink pants or black pants with a white stripe up the leg, you know, and a, like, a lace, see-through shirt and of course his famous ducktail. But you know, he was very clean, very polite. And we kind of, you know, just hit it off really from the start.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "THAT'S ALL RIGHT")

PRESLEY: (Singing) Well, that's all right mama. That's all right for you. That's all right mama. Just any way you do it, that's all right.

LIMBONG: Scotty Moore was born in West Tennessee. He eventually moved to Memphis and began working at Sun Studio. That's where owner Sam Phillips asked him to audition the young unknown who became Elvis Presley. Together with bassist Bill Black and drummer D.J. Fontana, they recorded some of Elvis's biggest early hits like "Hound Dog" and "That's All Right."

MATT ROSS-SPANG: Scotty really merged jazz and Chet Atkins-style fingerpicking and blues licks but really made his own unique sound.

LIMBONG: That's Matt Ross-Spang, a Memphis-based music producer, engineer and friend of Moore's. He said all the work Moore did in the music industry, including producing and engineering, touched a lot of people.

ROSS-SPANG: When you would go to his house, you'd see all these pictures of him with Keith Richards or Paul McCartney. And it wasn't like backstage at a show - can I get a picture with you Paul? It was the pictures that Paul and Keith and those guys asked to get with Scotty (laughter).

LIMBONG: Moore made a handful of his own recordings like this 1958 rarity called "Have Guitar Will Travel."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "HAVE GUITAR WILL TRAVEL")

MOORE: (Singing) Have guitar, travelin'.

LIMBONG: Scotty Moore was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2000 under the new sideman category. He told NPR he thought he and the rest of the rhythm section should have been inducted along with Elvis, but he wasn't too concerned about it.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)

MOORE: It's not a big thing for me. Like I say, I just stand back in the back and do my thing.

LIMBONG: Scotty Moore, ever humble but definitely essential. Andrew Limbong, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.