At some point this year, Deacon John Moore will celebrate his 50th anniversary as the bandleader of Deacon John and the Ivories. Over the years, Deacon John established himself as the most sought-after performer for private parties in the city; built a shadow career as a session guitarist on a series of recordings that reads like a greatest hits of classic New Orleans R&B and pop; been in the lineup for every renewal of the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival; led some of the most interesting New Orleans music revues ever assembled; starred in the great tribute to New Orleans R&B, Deacon’s John’s Jump Blues; and served as the first African-American president of the New Orleans chapter of the Musicians’ Union.
He’s also a good storyteller. His small frame and well-defined features add a dapper insouciance to his high-end haberdashery, all of it in service of a mouth that regularly explodes into an impossibly great grin. And then come the stories, long shaggy dog tales that veer off the road into wonderfully improbable interludes, all eventually leading back to the main theme, which he can continue to expound upon inexhaustibly until you have to interrupt him to get him to move on to another lengthy tale. The story starts innocently enough:
“I have a lot of birds,” he says. “They’re love birds. I was playing a wedding and they had these love birds as part of the setting. As we were packing up, I could see nobody had taken them so I asked, ‘What are you going to do with those birds?’ The lady said, ‘I don’t know. You can have ’em.’ So I took the birds home.” John delivers the punctuated laugh that ends a lot of his observations and says, “I met the birds on a gig.”
That story about one gig leads to another, this one on how he got his nickname:
“I was organizing my own bands around 1960,” Moore recalls. “We had a band called the Ivories and I was the front man. The drummer in the band, his name was Al Miller, he had played with Professor Longhair on his first recording, ‘Bald Head,’ and he played trumpet with Roy Brown. He’s the one that came up with the name. At the time I was entertaining in the styles of James Brown and Ray Charles, all those people who were preaching the blues.
“You get into all this screaming and hollering, all that singing came out of the church. So the name stuck and the guys in the band were saying, ‘Well, he look like a Deacon.’ I’m going, ‘Don’t say that. Don’t call me Deacon John. They’ll think I’m a gospel person. We won’t get no gigs around town. Nobody will play us on the radio because they’ll think we’re a gospel group.’
“I couldn’t get rid of it. Once somebody tags you with a name, it’s hard to get rid of. I became identified with the name. Later on when I reflected back on my career, I thought it was a God-given name. I find myself bringing comfort to people in times of sorrow. I play a lot of funerals. A lot of my fallen comrades in the music business, I get called to sing at their funerals. On the other hand, I bring a lot of joy to people when I entertain them as a musician. So Deacon John is a good name for me—I comfort people in times of sorrow and I bring joy to people when they celebrate life. I like that. I play a whole lot of weddings, too.”
Soon, his story’s not just a story but a series of stories, or simply his story: “I started out singing in the church choirs when I was a boy,” he says. “My mother was a musician. She played the piano, my grandfather played the banjo, my sister played the viola, so music runs in the family. I’ve got a niece singing in the band now, and my brother plays bass, so music always came naturally to me. It was a God-given talent. I sing with a lot of power and a passion and I got that from singing in the church. Soul music and blues all came from the church originally. It’s just a thin line between gospel music and blues.
“When I first started I was playing pickup gigs,” he says, cracking himself up as he prepares to digress, “I played with a lot of those, what they call pickup bands. You know why they call them pickup bands? A cat calls you up on the night of the gig and says, ‘What’ you doin’? I got a gig for you down in Sebastopol. I’ll pick you up at 7 o’clock!’ It’s a pickup band ’cause they just pick everybody up on the way to the gig!”
The story drifts from gigs to good gigs at the legendary Dew Drop Inn, when Moore was discovered by Allen Toussaint:
“I was the house band, but they didn’t keep the same band all the time. The bands were on rotation, but I was drawing a crowd. I had a little built-in floor show with the members of the band. We would back up the exotic dancers and the magicians. There was a guy who used to walk on hot coals, another guy on a bed of nails. Ventriloquists. We’d back them up and a lot of famous singers would come through there who we backed up—Arthur Prysock, Bobby “Blue” Bland, Junior Parker, James Brown, as well as some of the lesser-knowns that were making their way up.
“That was the place to go, the Dew Drop. Ray Charles, Little Willie John, they would come in there and have jam sessions until the sun comes up. They would line up to play in the jam at the Dew Drop. All the big name musicians who would be in town on the weekend, they would all come over there and do this jam session to see who could play the best, shake up the house.
“Growing up in New Orleans, you have to be a versatile musician in order to make a living. On these types of engagements, your repertoire needed to satisfy the audiences. I just had a certain knack for that. When you play a wedding reception, it’s not the same as a night club. You’ve got to play these big social aid and pleasure clubs where they want you to play waltzes and second lines on the same night. There are debutante parties where you’ve got to play a different song for each debutante. You have to have a wide range of music to select from in order to play all those different kinds of gigs. I would play a night club one night and a wedding the next day, and the next day it was backing up at a big concert, or opening at the Municipal Auditorium for acts like Sam Cooke, Lou Rawls, Ray Charles, the Impressions, Jerry Butler, Major Lance, all of the artists that were popular at the time.
“I’ve just been blessed in my career. I’ve never had to get a day job. I’ve been able to support myself just by playing music. Of course, I didn’t just play gigs. I got involved in a lot of other things that are music-related like playing recording sessions.
“I happened to be in the right place at the right time when Allen Toussaint walked into the Dew Drop and asked me to play on a recording session. I played on a whole lot of them, hit records that he wrote for Lee Dorsey, Ernie K-Doe, Irma Thomas. I played on a lot of hit records like ‘Barefootin’,’ ‘It Ain’t My Fault,’ ‘Ride Your Pony,’ ‘Working in the Coal Mine,’ ‘Land of 1000 Dances,’ ‘Something You Got,’ ‘Ruler of My Heart,’ ‘Tell It Like It Is.’ I played on a lot of hits as a guitar player, but I didn’t have much of a career as an artist. I didn’t put out my first CD until 1990. I had a few unsuccessful 45 rpm records. The only success I had was with ‘Many Rivers to Cross,’ the Jimmy Cliff song that I recorded in 1970.
“Earl King told me that he wrote ‘Trick Bag’ for me, but Allen Toussaint told him, ‘Earl it’s time for you. You record it yourself, don’t give it away,’ and that’s what he did. I was good friends with Earl. I knew Earl back from the Dew Drop days. My first gig I played with Earl King, I played out in Hammond, Louisiana at a night club. At that time, they were sending people out to impersonate other people. I was supposed to be Guitar Slim but Earl was there that night! They had a beauty parlor in the night club, and there was Earl sitting in the chair getting his hair done with all them waves. Earl had on that checkerboard suit. He had a 200-foot extension cord on his guitar so he could walk all through the crowd, walk the bar, go outside in the parking lot. He would play with his teeth and behind his back. I saw that shit and it just blew me away. I had never seen no shit like that.
“Throughout my career I’ve been able to play any situation that comes along, music for all occasions. We had the most popular band in town. We would play 22 dates in December alone with a six piece band. I was playing the white functions and I was playing the black functions, and I was hot in both markets. I’ve lived through all kinds of changes in music and been able to adapt to all the different kind of stuff that happened during the course of my career. I must be doing something right because fans I had in the 1960s and 1970s are all calling me up now to do gigs for their daughters’ weddings.”
Every story has to come to an end, or at least a stopping point—the place where he is now:
“I was the first African American elected to be president of the musicians’ union. When I was coming up, the unions were segregated into the white union and the black union. They merged in the ’80s, but they never had an African American president until I was elected. It was a forced merger. The white union didn’t want to merger with us and they put up a big fight. They tried not to, but in the end the government told them they had to. That’s why they acquiesced. It’s pretty amicable now; there’s still a little backlash from the old guys who refuse to accept somebody like me being their president. I know that feeling is out there, though it’s hard to put my finger on it. But y’know, it’s changing. I’m the first celebrity president they’ve ever had, so I’ve been able to accomplish a lot of things because of that, and because of all the contacts I have in the political scene.
“I try to give example to young musicians, and to give them advice on how to negotiate contracts, do their taxes and deal with these unscrupulous music business purveyors. As the president of the union, I get a lot of chances to answer people’s questions and help them out. I’ve given out hundreds of jobs to musicians, helped them to promote their careers and things like that. I’ve come to the conclusion that my life would be in vain if I didn’t help somebody.”