John Moore, known to the world as “Deacon John,” was acknowledging a picture taken at an event he had attended recently. Pictured with him was Archbishop Gregory Aymond. Moore broke into his characteristic loud laugh, which punctuates nearly every sentence he speaks, and added that he had played at Aymond’s high school prom.
There were probably many in the audience for a WYES virtual fundraiser last week who remembered Deacon John from their prom – including me. The webcast was built around Moore’s 80th birthday. For most of those years, going back to his teen age times, he was already an established entertainer, best known for leading his bands at dances, parties and special events, including proms – even one with a bishop-to-be in attendance.
If ever a book is written about the people of New Orleans the cover image should be Deacon John Moore. He, more than most anyone, is representative of a New Orleanian. Black French Creole by birth, raised in a large family with a passion for music, Deacon John’s life has been about the sounds of the city.
Last Wednesday, June 23, (fittingly St. John’s Eve) Deacon John celebrated that birthday. But he is not about age (that’s the enduring questions for Chris Owens). The number that counts is the size of his repertoire, which is in the high hundreds.
I once attended a wedding where he performed at the reception. During the first part of the evening, he sang mostly classic R&B standards. After intermission he and the band became increasingly funky, changing pace occasionally such as for a belly rubbing version of The Righteous Brother’s “You’ve Lost that Loving Feeling.” Then came the closing. Many bands perform second lines nowadays, but Deacon John is the only person who seems like the music was created for him. Following the umbrella-waving bride and groom, Deacon John strummed a banjo and blew bursts from a silver whistle as his band segued from “Rampart Street Parade” to “The Saints.” The moment was so joyous I felt like turning to one of the out-of-town guests and sayings, “This is why there will always be a New Orleans!”
How versatile is he? For the last few years, he and his band have performed at the ball for Alexis, a social krewe named after the Russian Grand Duke Alexis who visited the city in 1872. The pageantry imitates a Russian royal court greeting the krewe’s maids and dukes. For each couple Deacon’s band plays a piece of classical music. To hear this group, which later in the evening would be stomping to Professor Longhair’s “Goin to the Mardi Gras,” perform Russian composer Modest Mussorgsky’s “Pictures at An Exhibition” reveals that more than a Deacon, John Moore is a Master.
Deacon John is also an outspoken fan of four British musicians named John, Paul, George and Ringo. He praises The Beatles for their creativity and fusion of sounds. When the group came to town in 1964, Deacon John was in the audience at City Park’s stadium. The crowd was united in its love of the music, though different in skin color: “I was like a fly in a milk bowl,” John says while breaking out in his big laugh.
Back to the wedding reception: During his break I asked John, what if, many years from now, there would a eulogy for him, which song would be the most appropriate? He thought a moment then answered, “His Eye is on the Sparrow.”
A vintage American gospel tune that has been a standard, particularly in Black congregations, “Sparrow” promises hope because since there is divine protection for even a small bird then we too should feel embraced.
During the first season of the HBO series “Treme” Deacon John had a recurring part tough his character would die by the season’s end. When the second season was starting one of the show’s producers regretted, in an interview, killing off the Deacon John role. He would have liked to have had Deacon back for more. That touches on a fundamental truth to be realized at the time of his birthday, “Deacon John should live forever.”
I sing because I’m happy
I sing because I’m free
For His eye is on the sparrow
And I know He watches me
BOOK ANNOUNCEMENT: Errol’s Laborde’s books, “New Orleans: The First 300 Years” and “Mardi Gras: Chronicles of the New Orleans Carnival” (Pelican Publishing Company, 2017 and 2013), are available at local bookstores and at book websites.
WATCH INFORMED SOURCES, FRIDAYS AT 7 P.M., REPEATED AT 9:30 A.M. SUNDAYS.WYES-TV, CH. 12.