A Hero At Home, Deacon John Moore Is New Orleans' Best-Kept Secret

Mar 4, 2015
Originally published on February 15, 2015 1:04 pm

Deacon John does it all. The veteran New Orleans bandleader plays weddings, birthdays, proms, debutante parties. He holds his own at Jazz Fest and at carnival balls. He'll play 1950s R&B, rock, jazz, gospel, soul and disco — whatever the people want to hear. But when it's up to him, he chooses the blues.

John Moore formed his first dance band in 1960, and adopted the pious nickname Deacon on the suggestion of a mischievous drummer. Moore probably could have put together a band of family members: His mother played piano, grandfather Popee was on banjo, and his brothers and sisters played guitar, drums, trombone and viola.

"Growing up, man, there was never a dull moment," Moore says. "I came from a family of 13. My mother was a very devout Catholic and she said she'd have as many children as God sends, and he kept sendin' em." He laughs and adds, "My poor papa."

Growing up in the family house on Tonti Street, young Moore would turn his crystal radio low when his brothers and sisters went to bed, to hear the music that whispered to his soul — and that his mother forbade.

"Bo Diddley and Etta James and Bill Doggett and Big Maybelle, Hound Dog and Howlin' Wolf, and Del Rio, Texas with the big Wolfman Jack. I would be up at night listening to all that stuff," he says.

Part of Deacon John's mythos is that he was present at the creation of the rhythm and blues that became early rock 'n' roll. In the late 1950s, he played in the house band of the legendary Dew Drop Inn on LaSalle Street. Later, he worked as a session player in the storied French Quarter studio run by Cosimo Matassa, where he played under the tutelage of renowned producer Allen Toussaint. And he backed up R&B superstars Ernie K. Doe, Irma Thomas, Aaron and Art Neville, and Lee Dorsey.

Moore, now 73, always includes one of the hits from that era when he performs around town. Over time, his group The Ivories has become a sort of home team for rising talents.

"A lot of them have left my band and started careers of their own," Moore says, "Like, James Booker played with me, James Rivers, the Nevilles, all of them played with me at one time or another. And all the musicians who have worked for me through the years, they've all said it was a good gig."

Moore also works for the musicians. Nine years ago, he became the first African-American president of the regional musician's union.

At a recent rehearsal inside Deacon John's shotgun house in Uptown New Orleans, the horn section is working out an arrangement for an upcoming show. The narrow room is crammed with guitar cases and sound equipment, and the players' notebooks bulge with 600 music charts. Danon Smith, who has been been singing backup with The Ivories for 26 years, says the band has provided the soundtrack for entire families.

"Deac is so known to where as he's played for the father and the mother's wedding, or the grandmother's wedding, and now we're playing for their children's children's wedding — like, three and four generations," Smith says.

"So many people in this town grew up going to dances where Deacon John and The Ivories were playing," says journalist Jason Berry, coauthor of the book Up From the Cradle of Jazz: New Orleans Music Since World War II. "You go to a prom when you're 16 or 17, and then you go to a college dance when you're 19 or 20, you go to a wedding reception when you're 24, you go to a concert at a place like Rock 'n' Bowl when you're in your 30s and 40s — and when you keep seeing the same band, and you have all those memories, and he's such a grand showman, you want more."

Berry even asked Deacon John to sing at the funeral of his daughter, Ariel, in 2009. Moore is frequently invited to perform his singular rendition of "Ave Maria" at burial services in this deeply Catholic city.

Moore has played at the White House and for inaugurations. He's been inducted into the Louisiana Music Hall of Fame. But you have to ask, with all the artists who broke out of the Big Easy — Fats Domino, Dr. John, the Neville Brothers, the Rebirth Brass Band and many others — why didn't Deacon John?

"Well, yes, I always wanted to," he chuckles, "but somehow or other it hasn't happened yet."

Today, Deacon John Moore has learned to laugh at himself, as well as the world, and stop worrying about the elusive fame game.

"I never had a hit record," he says, "and I never been on tour, and I never played in all these foreign countries. Many of my contemporaries have. I'm just one of the guys who stayed around here and made a living playing music."

He's made a good living at that: singing songs for half a century, in the city that lives with the benign conceit that this is where all American music was born.

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SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

Mardi Gras is just a couple of days away, and one of the most sought-after band leaders in New Orleans right now is Deacon John Moore. Now, despite that clerical name, he's got nothing to do with the church. He has everything to do with the city's rhythmic soul. Moore is one of New Orleans' best-kept musical secrets, and as NPR's John Burnett reports, he's busy all year long.

JOHN BURNETT, BYLINE: Deacon John does it all. He plays weddings, birthdays, proms, debutante parties, carnival balls. He'll play '50s R&B, rock, jazz, gospel, soul and disco - whatever the people want to hear. But when it's up to him, Deacon John chooses jump blues.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "JUMPIN' IN THE MORNING")

DEACON JOHN MOORE: (Singing) Well now baby, tell me, how do you do? Ooh Lord baby, tell me how do you do? Well, I want to say baby, I really got news for you.

BURNETT: John Moore formed his first dance band in 1960 and adopted the pious nickname Deacon on the suggestion of a mischievous drummer. He probably could have put together a band of Moore family members. His mother played piano, grandfather, Popee, was on banjo, and his brothers and sisters played guitars, drums, trombone and viola.

DEACON JOHN MOORE: Growing up, man, there was never a dull moment. I came from a family of 13. My mother was a very devout Catholic and she said she'd have as many children as God sends. And he kept sending them. (Laughter). My poor papa. (Laughter).

BURNETT: Growing up in their house on Conti Street, young John would turn his crystal radio low when his brothers and sisters went to bed to hear the music that whispered to his soul and that his mother forbade.

DEACON JOHN MOORE: Bo Diddley and Etta James and Bill Doggett and Big Maybelle, Hound Dog and Howlin' Wolf and Del Rio, Texas with Wolfman Jack. And I would be up at night listening to all those stuff.

BURNETT: Part of Deacon's mythos is that he was present at the creation of the rhythm and blues that became early rock 'n' roll. In the late 1950s he played in the house band at the legendary Dew Drop Inn on LaSalle Street. Later, he worked as a session player in the storied French Quarter studio run by Cosimo Matassa, where he played under the tutelage of renowned producer Allen Toussaint. Deacon backed-up R&B superstars Ernie K. Doe, Irma Thomas, Aaron and Art Neville and Lee Dorsey.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "WORKIN' IN A COAL MINE")

LEE DORSEY: (Singing) Workin' in a coal mine. Going down, down, down. Workin' in a coal mine. Whoop - about to slip down.

BURNETT: When Deacon John, who's now 73, performs around town he always includes one of the hits from that era, like this one by the great composer and band leader Dave Bartholomew.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SOMEDAY")

DAVE BARTHOLOMEW: (Singing) Someday you'll want me like I want you, but I'll be gone with somebody new.

BURNETT: Over time, Deacon's group, The Ivories, has become a sort of home team for rising talents.

DEACON JOHN MOORE: A lot of them have left my band and started careers of their own. Like, James Booker played with me, James Rivers, the Nevilles - all of them have played with me at one time or the other. Art Neville played in my band. And all the musicians that had worked for me through the years, they've all said it was a good gig.

BURNETT: Deacon John also works for the musicians. Nine years ago, he became the first African-American president of the regional musicians' union. At a recent rehearsal inside Deacon's shotgun house in Uptown New Orleans, the horn section is working out an arrangement for an upcoming show. The narrow room is crammed with guitar cases and sound equipment, and the players' notebooks bulge with 600 music charts. Danon Smith has been singing backup with The Ivories for 26 years. She says the band has provided the soundtrack for entire families.

DANON SMITH: Deac is so known, to where he's played for the father and the mother's wedding or the grandmother's wedding, and now we're playing for their children's children's wedding. Like, three and four generations, you know?

JASON BERRY: So many people in this town grew up going to dances where Deacon John and The Ivories were playing.

BURNETT: Jason Berry is a New Orleans native, journalist and co-author of "Up From The Cradle Of Jazz: New Orleans Music Since World War II."

BERRY: You go to a prom when you're 16 or 17 and then you go to a college dance when you're 19 or 20. You go to a wedding reception when you're 24. You go to a concert at a place like Rock 'n' Bowl when you're in your 30s or 40s. And when you keep seeing the same band and you have all those memories and he's such a grand showman, you want more.

BURNETT: Jason Berry even asked Deacon John to sing at the funeral of his daughter, Ariel, in 2009. Moore is frequently invited to sing his singular rendition of "Ave Maria" at burial services in this deeply Catholic city.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "AVE MARIA")

DEACON JOHN MOORE: (Singing) Ave Maria, gratia plena. Maria, gratia plena.

BURNETT: Deacon John has played at the White House and for inaugurations. He's been inducted into the Louisiana Music Hall of Fame. But you have to ask, with all the artists who broke out of the Big Easy - Fats Domino, Dr. John, the Neville Brothers and the Rebirth Brass Band, among many others - why didn't Deacon John?

DEACON JOHN MOORE: Well, yes I always wanted to, but somehow or the other, it hasn't happened yet. (Laughter).

BURNETT: John Moore has learned to laugh at himself, as well as the world, and stop worrying about the elusive fame game.

DEACON JOHN MOORE: I never had a hit record. (Laughter). And I've never been on tour and I never played in all these foreign countries. Many of my contemporaries have, you know? And I'm just one of the guys who stayed around here and made a living playing music.

BURNETT: Deacon John has made a good living singing songs for half a century in the city that lives with the benign conceit that this is where all American music was born. John Burnett, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "GOIN' BACK TO NEW ORLEANS")

DEACON JOHN MOORE: (Singing) Going back home, tee-na-nay, to the land of the beautiful queens. I'm going back home.

SIMON: This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Scott Simon. POST-BROADCAST CORRECTION: In the audio of this story, as in a previous Web version, we incorrectly identify the street on which Moore grew up as Conti Street. It is Tonti Street. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.