Deacon John – a name, if you’re from New England – that instills an aura of Puritan like piety. However, if a person is from New Orleans, there’s only one Deacon John – the bandleader, vocalist and guitarist who has entertained generations. As native New Orleanian Marcelle Saussy says, “Ask Deacon John how long he has been playing, and that’s how long I have been listening. His music is always good-time music – it’s tonight’s party and memories of past parties, and jazz fests, songs and dances.” Definitely not the stern or foreboding Yankee church officer as the word “Deacon” may suggest.
Born John Moore, as one of 13 children his family has a long history in Louisiana’s and New Orleans’ Creole communities – his mother’s family is from central Louisiana (father from New Roads, mother from Marksville). His father and grandfather – both from New Orleans – owned an ice and charcoal business that was wiped out with the invention of the refrigerator and Deacon’s father was forced into a life of day labor.
Music and religion were two influential aspects of Moore’s life. His grandfather, Frank Moore, as well as Moore’s father, Frank Peter Moore, played the banjo (Moore inherited his grandfather’s banjo), and his mother Rilda Augustine (who went by her middle name), played the piano. A devout Catholic – and a graduate of Xavier Prep and valedictorian of the first graduating class of Xavier University – Mrs. Moore, who stayed home to raise the children, sent John and his siblings to Catholic schools. She wouldn’t allow her children to listen to the emerging musical sounds of the era – such as rhythm and blues. Entering his teen years, his mother had him act as his sisters’ chaperone to dances, where he was drawn “like a magnet to the bands,” he says. “I enjoyed watching the musicians, especially the guitar players.” It was then that he picked up the guitar (he had also tried out the ukulele) and picked out melodies. He learned how to play from the greats of local guitarists, and performed with them, as well as for Fats Domino and Allen Toussaint. Since 1959, Moore’s band, the Ivories, has been a mainstay of weddings, dances, parties, fundraisers, funerals and festivals (including New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival and the Voodoo Festival) – as Moore says, “joyful occasions.” No doubt due to his busy schedule, he hasn’t played in a festival or a club overseas.
Moore’s style is a mélange of gospel, jazz, rhythm and blues and jump blues – a particular New Orleans sound. As a bandleader – well, there’s no comparison. Guitarist and vocalist? The proof is listening to him live and on recordings. A New Orleans legend? Of course, and he has been inducted into the Louisiana Blues Hall of Fame, as well as the Louisiana Music Hall of Fame.
Not too bad for a self-taught guitarist from the 8th Ward.
Real Name: John Moore
Age: 67 (June, 23 1941 – born on St. John’s Eve)
Profession: Bandleader and vocalist; plays slide guitar, bass and banjo
Family: Married; three children – two deceased, including his son Keith, who was the founder of Noizefest, an alternative to Jazz Fest, who was murdered in 2007; daughter Lisa lives in Washington D.C. and runs a book publishing company, Red Bone Press. His brother Charles Moore plays bass in his band, his niece, Kathleen Moore, is a vocalist in his band.
Born: New Orleans, in the 8th Ward, in the kitchen of his family home (on the border with the 7th Ward, on Tonti Street, just along Elysian Fields Avenue).
Education: Corpus Christi Elementary School, St. Augustine High School and Southern University in New Orleans, where he got a degree in business administration.
Favorite book: The Fire Next Time by James Baldwin
Favorite movie: Do The Right Thing
Favorite TV show: The Cosby Show
Favorite restaurant: “My favorite no longer exists, Uglesich’s. Now, my favorite is Dooky Chase. Another favorite is Joe’s Dreyfus Store Restaurant, just outside of Baton Rouge.”
Favorite music/musicians: Jazz: be-bop to modern; blues; R&B; swing. I like Wes Montgomery (the best guitarist there is); John Coltrane; Dizzie Gillepsie; Robert Johnson – the king of Delta blues; Charlie Parker; vocalists such as Sara Vaughn and Bessie Smith. Of today’s musicians: John Legend, Brian McKnight and Joni Mitchell. Overall, just too many to mention!
Favorite vacation spot: Island hopping in the Caribbean. I particularly like Martinique.
Hobby: Raising lovebirds
Tell me about becoming the “Deacon”
It’s a look – a mythological creature – and it’s not all of me. When I first started performing, I thought the group I was in was more of a gospel group. When I complained, my band mates laughed at me and one of them tagged me with the name. “Deacon John” is also from the Roy Brown’s song, “Good Rockin’ Tonight.”
What did you start first – singing or playing an instrument?
I was a singer first. I started at age 5. I had the loudest voice – and mother said I was the loudest crier of all her children as a baby.
Your mother had a big influence on you musically.
Music was all around the house. She listened to classical music and opera on the radio. My mother would play the piano and she would make me sing for friends she had over, including priests, as she was a devout Catholic. I sang in the church choir. Then, one day a friend of hers gave me a dime for singing and I thought, “I can make money!” She would also enter me in talent contests and I would win.
And she was strict about what you listened to on the radio.
If we were listening [to rhythm and blues on the radio] my mother would come in and turn it off. So, what I did is that I got a Crystal radio set with headphones and would tune into WLAC in Nashville where they were playing all the hot rhythm and blues songs of the day by Howin’ Wolf, Sonny Boy Williamson, Chuck Berry. I would wait until my parents went to bed and turn it on.
When did you get your first guitar?
I borrowed guitars, but I had to have my own. I got a job after school as a stock clerk and delivering pharmaceuticals. Then I went down to a pawnshop on Canal Street and bought an electric guitar – I couldn’t get an acoustic to be loud enough.
How did you learn to play?
I taught myself how to play guitar. Primarily listening to recordings, trying to figure out how to play from music books, ones that showed the chords, then chord changes and patterns.
As a teenager I would go and visit other guitar players – who were also really good singers. I couldn’t afford music lessons, so I would go by their houses and watch them, and get them to show me this, show me that. Most were the top session musicians: Roy Montrell, who was Fats Domino’s guitar player, Papoose Nelson, Edgar Blanchard, Justin Adams – these were top-flight guitarists of the day, who played on most of the recordings – with the big bands, like Dave Bartholomew and Fats Domino, Little Richard. And they would show me. There was something about New Orleans musicians having no qualms about showing other musicians how to do something. [And], they were more apt to show me something because they knew I would catch on quick.
I remember going over to Papoose Nelson’s house, who was from a family of guitar players, and they were all winos and junkies, and they would sit around the bar and passing the guitar around, and they would say, “Give me that man. You don’t know how to play that.” And I would just watch them. They also turned me on to the hip method books, such as by Mickey Baker.
When was your first show?
In the 1950s, when I was in high school. Some neighborhood kids formed a band called the Original Echoes. I played guitar. We played house parties, yard parties, fish frys, house rent parties. They were popular back then to raise money to pay the rent, buy groceries.
You and what eventually became your band, the Ivories, started out playing black clubs.
Dew Drop Inn, Robin Hood Club and Bar, Hurricane, Blue Eagle Dance Hall… we played bars, saloons and Social Aid and Pleasure Clubs.
Yet, you are also known for playing at white events and clubs during segregation (in late 1950s, early ’60s); how did this happen?
Solomon Spencer, who played with Ray Charles, was a bandleader and a booking agent. He was black but he also had a white clientele and would book acts for college fraternity, parties, other parties and Valencia in New Orleans. They liked what we were doing and would call to book us again.
In addition to playing at parties, you’re also known for your session work as a guitarist playing on several popular songs.
I played in a number of recording sessions that resulted in hit records out of New Orleans. In the 1950s, I was part of Allen Toussaint’s studio band and played on 90 percent of his hit records. I played for Wardell Querzergue and Fats Domino, Little Richard when they recorded at Cosimo Matassa’s studio. All of Ernie K-Doe’s songs, including “Mother-In-Law” and “Get Out of My House”; Irma Thomas’, “Ruler of My Heart” and “It’s Raining”; Leo Dorsey’s “Working in A Coal Mine.” I played on Aaron Neville’s “Tell It Like It Is.”
And some songs are a style of music called “jump blues.” What is that?
It started just when I got out of high school, late 40s, early ’50s. It is a bridge between big band swing and early rhythm and blues. Some examples are Ray Charles’ “Jumpin’ the Morning,” and BJ [Big Joe] Turner’s “Shake, Rattle and Roll.”
You have had a long and prolific career as a musician and performer – what albums have you put out?
There are hardly any recordings of just my work. My albums are “Singer of Song” , “Live at the 1994 New Orleans Jazz Fest,” and “Deacon John’s Jump Blues,” which was produced in 2003 and is a CD and DVD.
You used to teach local students about blues music.
Before the storm, I used to go into elementary and high schools, through a grant, in a program called “Blues in the Schools,” which was a history of the music. I taught them how blues started in the cotton fields with the chants and how it evolved. How other elements, such as gospel, jazz and country, influenced musicians. Chuck Berry’s “Maybelline” is almost a country/blues song. Little Richard brought gospel into blues. I also tell them about the blind blues singers and Delta blues musicians, such as Richard Johnson. I also play the different styles so they can hear it.
So tell me about the lovebirds you’re raising.
About five years ago, I was performing at a wedding and at either side of the entrance there were two cages, each with a lovebird. After the wedding, I asked whoever was in charge what they were going to do with them and they said they didn’t know, so I took them home. I didn’t know that one was a male, the other a female – and they started laying eggs. I give them to relatives and friends. I currently have six lovebirds – and they’re still laying eggs.
They’re great pets. But unless you separate them, they won’t bond with you but with each other. I gave one to my sister and it will play with her and follow her around.
You are known for your style, and love, for vintage clothing, including hats.
I have too many hats. I own more than 40 vintage suits, Hawaiian shirts, vintage tuxedos and more. I just can’t pay full price. And, I’m a thrift store junkie. (My favorite is: Red White and Blue)
True confession: I’m a hopeless romantic.