Happy Birthday, Deacon John

Not that I plan to, but if ever I write a book about the people of New Orleans, the cover image should be Deacon John Moore. He, more than anyone, is representative of the 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. His career has spanned so long that there are people whose kids are getting married who remember Deacon John at their prom.

This June 23rd (fittingly St. John’s Eve) Deacon John will celebrate his 70th birthday. But he is not about age (that’s the enduring question for Chris Owens); the number that counts is the size of his repertoire, which is in the high hundreds.

John and his big band, Jump Blues, performed at a wedding Friday night and I can tell you he has lost none of his sound or versatility. During the first part of the reception he sang mostly classic R&B standards. After the 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.” Toward the end of the evening he had the wedding-like mix of grandmas, debs, who dats, school friends, aunts and uncles gyrating. Then came the closing. Many bands perform second lines nowadays, but Deacon John is the only person who seems like the music was created to be his.

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 running up to one of the out- of- town guests and saying, “This is why there will always be a New Orleans!"

During his break I asked John, what if, many, many, many years from now there would a eulogy for him, which song would be the most appropriate to play. 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 that, because there is divine protection for even a small bird, then we too should feel embraced. (There are several YouTube versions, including those by early gospel singer Ethel Waters and R&B- er Marvin Gay.) John’s answer linked the roots of gospel to rhythm and blues.

During the first season of the HBO series “Treme” John has a recurring part, although his character would eventually die. 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 as his birthday approaches, “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
                                                      — “His Eye is on the Sparrow"

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