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

Guitarist Scotty Moore, left, helped define Elvis Presley's early sound. Moore died June 28.
Michael Ochs Archives
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Guitarist Scotty Moore, left, helped define Elvis Presley's early sound. Moore died June 28.

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."

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Andrew Limbong is a reporter for NPR's Arts Desk, where he does pieces on anything remotely related to arts or culture, from streamers looking for mental health on Twitch to Britney Spears' fight over her conservatorship. He's also covered the near collapse of the live music industry during the coronavirus pandemic. He's the host of NPR's Book of the Day podcast and a frequent host on Life Kit.