Making Film and Music History Simultaneously
by Jim RidleyFrom Nashville Scene, August 1, 1996.
Copyright © 1996, CityPress Publishing, Inc.
On Tuesday, July 9, at a small recording studio in upstate New York, a Nashville film crew was on hand as musical history was made. As video and audio tape rolled into the wee, wee hours, five decades of rock 'n' roll greats, including members of the Band, the Rolling Stones, the Rock 'n' Roll Trio, and Tom Petty's Heartbreakers, gathered at Band drummer Levon Helm's studio in Woodstock, N.Y., for an all-night jam session of epic proportions.
The occasion was the visit of two of rock 'n' roll's most influential players, Scotty Moore and D.J. Fontana, who are recording tracks for an upcoming album and accompanying documentary. As guitarist and drummer for Elvis Presley's 1950s backing band, the Blue Moon Boys, Moore and Fontana helped ignite a revolution in pop music that has never been quelled. Since 1968, when they reunited to back Elvis in his dramatic '68 comeback TV special, they've largely remained outside the spotlight, focusing on session work and side careers.
That will change next year with the release of a feature-length documentary on the Blue Moon Boys, which coincides with Moore and Fontana's new album and the publication of Moore's long-awaited autobiography. (It also coincides with the 20th anniversary of Elvis' death in 1977.) The album is being recorded in sessions around the country with an all-star guest list, which so far includes the Mavericks, Tracy Nelson, the Tractors, Cheap Trick, Joe Ely, the BoDeans, Chet Atkins, and the reformed Bill Black Combo--whose founder, the late bassist Bill Black, rounded out the Blue Moon Boys. The sessions are being filmed by Nashville director Thom Oliphant, who has followed Moore and Fontana on a sentimental journey through the Memphis, Louisiana, and Arkansas of rock 'n' roll's infancy.
"We wanted to tell the story from their point of view," says Dan Griffin, who is coproducing the documentary with Philip Cheney, a member (with Oliphant) of the local film-production group known as the Collective. "They're probably the only people in the Elvis world that haven't cashed in on it." The model for the documentary, he says, is Let's Get Lost, Bruce Weber's haunting 1989 portrait of the late jazz trumpeter Chet Baker.
Where the musical footage in that film was somber, however, the raucous atmosphere at Helm's Woodstock studio sounds anything but. Keith Richards, who has called Moore "the man who made me want to play," brought his 82-year-old father Bert. Helm brought longtime Bandmates Rick Danko and Garth Hudson, along with relative newcomers Jim Weider, Richard Bell, and Randy Cairlante. Former Heartbreakers drummer Stan Lynch produced. (Other tracks have been produced by D'Ville Records impresario Garry Tallent.) After laying down a guitar track with Moore, Richards swapped vocals with Helm on a sweltering number called "Deuce and a Quarter," which was penned by Nashvillians Gwil Owen and Kevin Gordon.
The evening only got hotter, as Graham Parker, Marshall Crenshaw, and Rock 'n' Roll Trio guitarist Paul Burlison joined the group for a jam session that was still going strong at 4 a.m. The roomful of legends tore through cover after cover, including a hair-raising version of "Willie and the Hand Jive" that found Richards playing a floor tom while Fontana and Helm dueled on their kits. (The gifted Nashville photographer Jim Herrington, who has ably chronicled the Lower Broadway honky-tonk scene, was snapping pictures all the while.) In total, Moore and Fontana spent three days in Woodstock, thus giving the moviemakers 24 solid hours of High-8 studio footage. "It was the most incredible musical moment of my life," Griffin says.
The documentary promises other treats as well. Rare footage taken in 1969, during sessions for the album Mother Earth Country, shows Moore, Fontana, and Tracy Nelson performing in Moore's Nashville studio with the Jordanaires, Charlie McCoy, and Pete Drake. The footage was shot, intriguingly enough, by noted underground filmmaker Robert Frank, director of the often-bootlegged Rolling Stones documentary Cocksucker Blues.
Griffin says the film has been in the works for nearly five years, but it gathered steam with the participation of Moore, who in the past had understandably shied away from the deluge of Elvis-related projects. "I've never seen Scotty happier," Griffin said after the Woodstock sessions. As dawn approached after hours of jamming, Moore was seen passing Burlison in the hall on the way to his room. "Paul, don't you steal any of my licks," joked Moore to the man whose fuzzbomb technique on "Train Kept A Rollin' " is considered a milestone in rock 'n' roll guitar. Burlison is said to have laughed. Watch for the documentary early in the fall of 1997 and the LP next spring.