Flashback: Keith Richards, Elvis’ Sidemen and the Band Hit the Studio in 1996
One of the coolest gatherings in rock & roll history happened in July 1996. Over three days, Keith Richards, Elvis’ sidemen Scotty Moore and D.J. Fontana – plus Levon Helm, Garth Hudson and Rick Danko of the Band – all got together at Helm’s Woodstock, New York barn studio to record a track. The occasion was All the Kings Men, an LP honoring Presley on the 20th anniversary of his death. But it was not a typical tribute album; Elvis’ original band members oversaw and played on it. It also included strong new material; the song Richards played on, “Deuce and a Quarter,” by Gwil Owen and Kevin Gordon, was a completely fresh rockabilly classic.
For Richards, the day was forty years in the making. Moore’s playing on “Heartbreak Hotel” is the reason why he picked up the electric guitar in the first place. “Everyone wanted to be Elvis. I wanted to be Scotty,” he famously said. After Moore died in 2016, Richards recalled the magic of his guitar sounds: “There’s a little jazz in his playing, some great country licks and a grounding in the blues as well,” Richards told Rolling Stone. “It’s never been duplicated. I can’t copy it.”
The session came together fast. Helm wrote in his book that Richards decided to come at the last minute, once he heard Moore and Fontana were there. “He filled up a car with his dad and some friends, came right over and we all had a hell of a good time,” Helm wrote, “full of spirit and a lot of laughing, playing and partying all night… For me, just having [drummer] D.J. Fontana play in my barn was a privilege. He still played that wide-open barrelhouse, stripper style of drums I saw him play behind Elvis back home in Arkansas more than 40 years earlier. I mean, you almost could see those girls dancing when he played.”
In his 2010 memoir Life, Richards said he was nervous. “This was serious stuff. The Rolling Stones are one thing, but to hold your own with guys that turned you on is another. These cats are not necessarily very forgiving of other musicians. They expect the best and they’re going to have to get it – you really can’t go in there and flake.”
No one did. The song is full of swaggering interplay, especially between Helm and Richards, who trade verses. It wasn’t the only song they played. They jammed until 4 a.m., according to Moore’s website, tearing “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.” See some incredible photos from that session here.