IN THE MIDDLE OF A SET AT THE DEW DROP INN, Deacon John Moore felt a tug on his arm and looked down to see Allen Toussaint, who Moore says had likely double-parked a tomato-red Cadillac outside the club. That was the night Moore jokes he was "discovered."
"He just walks in the joint one night while I was playing and came right up to the stage," Moore says. "'Hey, man, I really like the way you play that guitar. You want to play some sessions with me?' Of course I said yeah."
The next day, Moore entered Cosimo Matassa's J&M Studios for his first of many sessions lending his guitar to the canon of New Orleans rhythm and blues, from work with Toussaint and Dave Bartholomew to Wardell Quezergue and Harold Batiste, among others. Moore jokes he can't brag about having a hit record of his own, but his guitar electrifies hits like Ernie K-Doe's "Mother-in-Law," Irma Thomas' "Ruler of My Heart," Aaron Neville's "Tell It Like It Is," Robert Parker's "Barefootin'" and Lee Dorsey's "Working in the Coal Mine."
He waxed his versatile session work into his enduring role as a chameleon-like performer, from a baby-faced R&B bandleader beginning in the late 1950s to a bearded soul man and psychedelic rock star in the late 1960s and '70s. These days, he's likely to pull from his expansive repertoire while wearing a suit, a bow tie, a straw fedora and his mischievous grin.
Celebrating 60 years as a professional musician who has never held a day job, Moore last week was awarded 2017's Big Easy award for lifetime achievement in music.
"Sixty years later, and I'm still here," Moore says. "It couldn't come at a better point in my life, to be out here, celebrating longevity."
- Photo courtesy Deacon John Moore
MOORE GREW UP IN NEW ORLEANS' 8th WARD as one of 13 children (Moore says he was the loudest). He sang in a church choir, and his mother listened to classical music and country, but his ear turned to the rock 'n' roll discreetly blasting from headphones plugged into a radio broadcasting Howlin' Wolf and Chuck Berry. He borrowed guitars until he could afford one from a pawn shop on Canal Street.
Nicknamed for his clean-cut look — or his church background and possible gospel aspirations, depending on the version of the story he tells — "Deacon" Moore played alongside several groups at ballrooms, school dances, pic-nics and block parties before he joined the Ivories, whose alums include Roger Lewis of the Dirty Dozen Brass Band, James Booker, several Nevilles, James Rivers, Smokey Johnson and Joseph "Zigaboo" Modeliste.
The band gigged around New Orleans clubs, including the Robin Hood, The Hurricane, The Chateau and social aid and pleasure clubs, as well as on the chitlin circuit on an old school bus. Early shows took the band to a country club off a dirt road in Mississippi for a high school dance, where the band were the first black musicians to play for the school. As the band loaded up after the gig, Moore discovered his car's tires were slashed. On the windshield was a business card with two pink eyes and the inscription "the eyes of the Klan are on you."
Moore and his Ivories secured a slot as a house band for the Dew Drop in the late '50s, when the club's legendary floor show formulas mixed vocal groups, comedians, ventriloquists, exotic dancers and "a cat who would tap dance dressed up as a cowboy on the sidewalk," Moore says.
"It was a cultural mecca of New Orleans. Everybody hung out there because they couldn't go to the white joints," he says, laughing. "It was a catalyst for indigenous culture. All kinds of people hanging out. Everybody went — a one-stop place."
Toussaint's invitation introduced Moore to the inner circle of New Orleans hit makers. Moore recorded "I Can't Wait" and "When I'm With You" for Rip Records in 1962, and Toussaint arranged a few singles Moore cut in 1967, including "Haven't I Been Good To You" and "A Dollar Ninety Eight."
Moore performed a raw, moving rendition of "Any Day Now" at Toussaint's memorial after the artist's abrupt death in 2015.
"I thanked him all the time," Moore said. "'Allen, you've done something for me I could never thank you enough for. You made me a part of New Orleans rhythm and blues history. Something they can't take away from me.'"
Though his singles failed to chart, Moore pushed himself to reinvent his sound and look, fitting his spin on Beatles and British Invasion pop into his band's constant gigs. In 1970, he released his cover of "Many Rivers to Cross."
"You're only as hot as your last record," says Moore, who often turns a maudlin moment into a self-deprecating joke and fit of giggles. "In order to keep your career sustained you gotta keep putting out hit records, or fade into obscurity. I never had that problem because I never was faced with putting out hit records after hit records."
Moore frequently rented out an organ to the Allman Brothers during their many visits to A Warehouse on Tchoupitoulas, where Moore also performed with his Jimi Hendrix-inspired rock band Electric Soul Train. "Once I heard him, I thought, man, I've been wanting to do that shit all my life," Moore says. "I was scared to turn up the amplifier. He was playing electric blues. He turned up the volume and started improvising and taking it to a whole other level."
In 1970, Moore also was the first rock 'n' roll musician to perform with the New Orleans Symphony. He also squeezed in some acting gigs and political ones — he was voted president of the New Orleans Musicians Union in 2007.
"All my life I've been hard to put a label on," Moore says. "Maybe it's best they don't have a label on me ... I was blessed with talent. I can sing my ass off, I can play guitar, I play the banjo. I'm an entertainer, and I've been able to sustain myself being an entertainer."
- Photo courtesy Deacon John Moore
- Deacon John Moore (left) and the Ivories.
AMONG THE HANDFUL OF MOORE'S RECORDINGS are his 1990 album Singer of Song, a live album from 1994, and his 2003 revue Deacon John's Jump Blues, arranged by Wardell Quezergue and featuring an all-star lineup of New Orleans artists revisiting the heyday of R&B.
Moore says he hopes to release more albums to showcase his versatility and a "legacy to leave behind so future generations can come along and know I wasn't just a one-trick pony." But rather than studio time and album sales, Moore relies on bookings. And they don't stop coming.
"If it wasn't for the people who have demonstrated unwavering support for my talent over the years, there wouldn't be no Deacon John," he says. "For me to make a success of myself, it took a lot of hard work and dedication and a lot of gigs — all kinds of gigs. But the people kept calling me back. I never really had a booking agent and managers and all that. I depended on my reputation to sustain me."
His gigs are largely "single, miscellaneous engagements," he says, with the exception of the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival, at which he has performed every year since it started in 1970. "Black, white, social aid and pleasure clubs, debutante balls, weddings — all kinds of stuff," Moore says. "I must be doing something right. All these people keep calling me back ... The ones I played the proms and high schools, they call me back to play for their children's weddings."
Moore boasts he can lead a band through Tchaikovsky at a Russian-themed Carnival ball, Earth, Wind and Fire at a birthday party or "Hava Nagila" at a Jewish wedding reception.
"I dunno what it is," he says. "I hate to say it, but I guess it's just the fact that I'm good, and that's all there is to it."