Elegy for a Rockabilly King

RIP Scotty Moore

Scotty Moore died today, and much as I wish I could talk about him on his own terms, like everybody else, I knew him as Elvis’s guitarist. But that’s not the worst thing to be.

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Argumentum Ad Populum at its finest.

Though I love Public Enemy’s “Fight The Power,” I have to admit that I’m one of the “50,000,000 Elvis Fans” who, according to Chuck D, were in fact wrong. (Although, according to this interview he’s dialed back some of his vitriol of late.)

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With cars this sexy, how did Pontiac ever go out of business?

One of my first musical memories is listening to the Elvis cassette tape my Grandma Marlene had in her white Pontiac Grand-Am. I literally learned how to snap to a beat (the backbeat, no less) listening to his cover of Peggy Lee’s song “Fever.”

The tape was a greatest hits compilation, encompassing the King’s entire career trajectory, from hungry rockabilly hellcat to his Dom-Deluise-sweating-behind-a-piano days. With the exception of a few songs on side two of the cassette, (“Kentucky Rain” is a fantastic piece of melodrama) I was into early Elvis. Which meant I was into Scotty Moore, his fantastic guitarist.

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“Hey, Elvis–do you think insufferable hipster douchebags will try to have hair this cool in like 60 years?”      “Probably, Scotty. Probably.”

The King of Rockabilly Guitar

There are plenty of other tributes that will list the details of Scotty Moore’s life, so I won’t do it here. I’m only concerned with his guitar skills–and fuck, did he have skills.

To me, Scotty Moore’s greatest asset was his subtlety and tastefulness. Listen to how he blends in with the rest of the band on “Heartbreak Hotel,” sitting back quietly, offering a few notes here and there until it’s time for his solo. (If you’ve ever played in a band, you know how rare that kind of reserve is in a guitarist.) And that solo. Goddamn. It’s only comprised of three fucking notes, bent to varying degrees, yet he does more with those three notes than most guitarists could do with a hundred.

 

His other assets were tone and technique. Precious few axe-slingers could make a half-step chromatic shift sound as ballsy and cool as Scotty Moore in the iconic intro to “Jailhouse Rock.” He smoothly transitions into staccato boogie and another blistering, simple solo, replete with gutsy bends.

 

The last song I’m gonna mention here (though far from the last Scotty Moore-backed Elvis song you should listen to) is my favorite Elvis song–one that inspired, IMHO, Jim Jarmusch’s second-best movie, “Mystery Train.” (Down By Law is his best, if you ask me.)

People often say that Johnny Cash’s guitarist Luther Perkins had a sound that was steady like a train, but Scotty Moore’s chugging, chicken-pickin’ pattern on Mystery Train makes Perkin’s work look like child’s play. The riff has a truly locomotive quality with its steady alternating bass pattern and little hiccups here and there that imply a sense of motion.

 

In Closing

Sure, there were fancier rockabilly guitarists than Scotty Moore–guitarists who preferred lightning-fast runs and fancy jazz-inflected chords, but nobody harnessed the same elegant simplicity that Scotty Moore did.

He’ll be missed.

 

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