July 29, 2008

Deacon John: The Show Goes On

UPDATED 3/10/2012

Having mentioned
Deacon John Moore's bands several times in the Willie West post just past, I thought it was time to dust off a couple of Moore's singles, which surprisingly comprise exactly 2/3 of his entire vinyl output. For a New Orleans bandleader, vocalist and active session guitarist whose career spans at least four decades, Moore recorded a scant three singles, all of which had been virtually forgotten until Tuff City/Night Train revived two of them on a compilation, Best of Chase Records, Vol 2: Gotta Have Love, which is where I first heard them. Unable to translate his success as a showman into his recording projects, until late in life, he is probably best known these days for the CD and live concert DVD that producer Cyril Vetter built around him a few years back, Deacon John's Jump Blues
, which pays musical tribute to the early days of R&B that New Orleans so hugely influenced, and which was the popular music Moore came up listening to and first playing.

Deacon John (top left) & the Ivories

Called 'Deacon' by a member of his first band, not for his religious lifestyle, but because of his clean-cut, straight and narrow look, Moore first recorded as a featured artist in 1962, waxing "I Can't Wait" b/w "When I'm With You" for Rip Records in New Orleans. He had already been playing guitar on various sessions for the Minit and Alon labels produced by Allen Toussaint, who recruited the guitarist after seeing him at the Dew Drop Inn, where Deacon John and the Ivories became the house band in 1960. Three years earlier, the teenaged Moore had formed the group with his friend, Roger Lewis, a saxophonist who would help found the monumental Dirty Dozen Bass Band some two decades later. From the beginning, the Ivories were a hot, in-demand group of rotating sidemen with Moore at the lead, playing the hits of the day at clubs, high school dances, and fraternity parties in and around New Orleans.

Besides using Deacon John on sessions, Toussaint expressed interest in doing a record with him as a vocalist, but nothing ever developed. So, Moore instead cut some sides with another local producer and label owner, Rip Roberts, who released his debut record and also placed at least one other Deacon John tune with Frisco Records that never saw the light of day. Although the Rip single (which I have not heard) had songs written by Al Reed and Earl King, with Wardell Quezergue arranging, it didn't take off. Fortunately for Moore, even without a popular record, the Ivories' bookings remained strong for the next several years. He also continued to play sessions for Toussaint (until the producer got drafted), and, to a lesser extent, for Harold Batiste (AFO), and Dave Bartholomew (Imperial).

Deacon John seems to have always been an adaptable entertainer with the ability and willingness to adopt new musical styles as needed to keep working. New Orleans music authority Jeff Hannusch has called him the Creole Chameleon for just that reason. So, when English rock and pop groups invaded the US airwaves and record charts in the mid-1960s, making the local R&B scene suddenly passe to young audiences, Moore was able to sill appeal to those crowds by playing just what they wanted - the music of the invaders. That must have been a trip to hear from a band with both seasoned and up-and-coming R&B players that even included for a time a young drummer named Zigaboo Modeliste! In 1967, while playing on a recording session for a local pop duo,
the Aubrey Twins, Deacon John came to the attention of their manager and producer, Stanley Chaisson, who also owned the Chase Records label. Chaisson soon signed Moore to a long term recording deal that would prove to be a mixed blessing at best.

At first, things looked promising, as Chaisson produced two sides for a single on Moore, "Haven't I Been Good To You", co-written by the singer and tunesmith Allen Orange, and "A Dollar Ninety Eight" by the team of George Davis and
Lee Diamond, who had already struck gold with Aaron Neville singing their "Tell It Like It Is". Even Allen Toussaint came aboard to help with the arrangements, likely for the horns. Chaisson got the record released nationally on the Wand label, although for some strange reason it appeared under the name of 'Johnny Moore', ensuring that virtually nobody in his hometown would know who he was. Besides that mis-step, the record also had technical flaws, and did not succeed in advancing the career of Deacon John....or Johnny Moore.

Speaking of flaws, I've had to work on the sound of my copy of Wand 1165 to make it presentable. It seems to have suffered from either poor engineering or bad mastering/pressing, and possibly both. On top of all that, it acquired some groove damage before it got to me. I suppressed some of the noise, re-EQ-ed the audio and adjusted levels to compensate for some tape distortion on the A-side and a murky, low-level mix on the B. The Night Train vinyl transfers of these songs to CD don't sound much better either.

"Haven't I Been Good To You" (J. Moore-Alan Orange)
Johnny Moore, Wand 1165, 1967

"Haven't I Been Good To You" was an interesting, uncommon record for 1967 New Orleans, with the singer delivering the R&B vocal goods over a track that mixed rock guitar changes on the verses with a chorus that reminds me of Motown, and a Memphis/Muscle Shoals-type horn chart throughout. Still, this is such a hooky, uptempo dance groove, goosed up even more by the punchy horns, you'd think the tune might have had some commercial impact; but the competition on the airwaves was enormous: the Beatles, Stones, Doors, Aretha, Otis, Sam & Dave - and that's just part of the Top Ten back then. Beyond that, I'm sure poor sound quality didn't help its chances, either.

"A Dollar Ninety Eight" (Diamond-Davis)
Johnny Moore, Wand 1165, 1967

Dragging this side up out of its audio ooze, and trying to minimize the scrapes and scratches, has been worth the effort to me, because in doing so I realized what a fascinatingly quirky little New Orleans novelty song it really is. There's the sad sack lover's tale of the perils of giving cheap bling to your woman that is a throwback to the earlier days of New Orleans R&B. Structurally, there's nothing much to the tune; but what really grabs me is its spasmo groove: a ramshacked, not quite funk syncopation of guitar chops and beats on drums, cymbals and congas, that lurches and sputters along like an old junker with misfiring pistons. New Orleans drummers can mess with the beat like no others, as these unknown percussionists certainly showed. Then, there's the tasty guitar soloing. Although it had George Davis' style, very likely it was rendered by Deacon John himself, who was influenced early on by Davis' playing. For more evidence of their similarities, listen to Robert Parker's classic, "Barefoottin'", which, according to Moore, sports the fretwork of both guitarists. 

Add it all up, and "A Dollar Ninety Eight" turns out to have been an off-the-wall little gem buried under an aural mattress on the back side of a record pretty much nobody heard at the time. Cool, but not the stuff showbidniz dreams are made of. 

Soon after this single tanked, Deacon John had a revelation upon hearing Jimi Henrix live, and turned on, amped up, and hit the stage with a new band, the Electric Soul Train. It was a stripped-down four-piece rhythm section with Moore and, for a while, Willie West on vocals, which soon became one of the most popular groups in town with a heavy, psychedelicizied show that still retained a New Orleans flavor. Meanwhile, Stanley Chaisson had other ideas about how Moore's recording career should proceed and encouraged him to co-write material with Paul Varisco, who fronted his own pop/rock group, the Milestones, also signed with Chaisson. But, other than a couple of finished songs, very little came of their collaborations at the time; and the Electric Soul Train remained Moore's main focus for the next several years.

"Many Rivers To Cross" (Jimmy Cliff)
Deacon John Moore, Bell 868, 1970

Around 1970, Chaisson heard Jimmy Cliff's recording of his inspirational masterpiece, "Many Rivers To Cross", and decided it would be a good showcase for Deacon John, even though the singer was not doing that kind of material live. Due to the lack of recording facilities in New Orleans at that point, the producer booked time at Deep South Recording Studio in Baton Rouge and took Moore and, I assume, at least some of the session musicians up there to cut tracks. The arrangement and vocal followed Cilff's version closely, adding a sting section to support Deacon John's capable delivery. In essence, though very well done, it was still a cover version, but new to those unfamiliar with the original. Released nationally on Bell, the song got regional airplay and definitely was the singer's most well-known and best selling record; but it never got much of an airing beyond the Gulf Coast and wasn't likely supported by fans of the Electric Soul Train, who expected much more bang for their bucks.


"You Don't Know How (To Turn Me On)"
(S. Chaisson-P. Varisco-J. Moore)
Deacon John Moore, Bell 868, 1970

Deacon John's band fans should have flipped the record over and checked out "You Don't Know How (To Turn Me On)", one of the tunes that Moore wrote with Varisco (with Chaisson also getting a cut of the potential action). It definitely had more of a rock attack to it's Southern soul vibe and churning funk groove and was surely closer to what Moore had to offer as a live performer. He already had strong elements of funk in his live band, with players like Bobby Love, and even Art Neville briefly, on keys, and Cyril Neville or Dwight Richards, among others, on drums. Considering the hometown popularity of Sam and the Soul Machine and national success of the Meters, this side showed the direction Deacon John should have further pursued in recording, had it not been his last single release.

In fact, he did not get back into the studio for a project of his own for many years. Chaisson had him under contract well into the 1970s, but did not produce any records on him. In recent [2012] remarks in the comments section of this post, Stan Chaisson pointed out that he had been open to Deacon John recording for other companies; but neither the artist nor anyone else ever contacted him about doing so. Thus, Moore's record-making was sidelined in his prime by lack of opportunity. 

The recording scene in 1970s New Orleans was far more restricted than it had been a decade before; but I'm surprised that not even the ever-enterprising Senator Jones tried to work out a deal to put something out on Deacon John. As it was, it took many more years for Moore to gain some name recognition beyond metropolitan New Orleans.
Still, as a live act, he continued to work, following the trends into disco and beyond. When demand for classic R&B revived, he was there with the Ivories again at college parties and reunions for all the people who had danced to the band when they were in high school. He also explored electric blues and released a straight blues CD, mainly covering the classics. Later, he put out a more smooth, urban contemporary sounding CD, co-produced with his old friend, George Davis. As mentioned earlier, Moore's talents may have reached their best expression with his participation in the Deacon John's Jump Blues project, which reunited him with Quezergue as arranger, and had a host of outstanding local players in the big band that accompanied him. I've seen the DVD, plus live versions of the show several times and found his guitar chops, vocals and showmanship to be right on the money. After all those years roaming a large musical landscape, riding the musical trends, his energetic ability to breath fresh life into the music he came up with may be Deacon John Moore's most impressive feat yet - at least until the next transformation comes along.

[For more background on Deacon John, I suggest you try some of my sources: Jeff Hannusch' feature on him in The Soul of New Orleans; the outstanding interview with Moore available online from the folks at the Ponderosa Stomp; and the useful information to be found in Michael Hurtt's well-done notes to Night Train's Chase compilations.]


Blogger Unknown said...

Dan, I like to pop in now and then. sorry I haven't been here in a while. I just want you to know that I was lucky enough to be in one of the incarnations of Deacon John's bands. When Art Neville was on keys, I played briefly with the Electric Soul train. Art was on keys, Cyril Neville on vocals, myself on drums. I felt like I was in an advanced class of musicianship.........actually I WAS!!!! You couldn't help but learn quickly surrounded by talent like that. that was also pre-Chocolate Milk. if you still have my number call me, if not email me and I'll give u the number.

6:00 PM, July 31, 2008  
Blogger Dan Phillips said...

Great to hear from you, Dwight. I had a vague recollection of you telling me this at some point, but it must have been in a conversation, as I could find nothing you wrote about it. We'll have to discuss this some more and catch up in general. I left a voice mail and will shoot ya email, too. Thanks for getting back in touch.

To readers out there, see my posts on Chocolate Milk in the archives for more about and from Dwight.

8:06 PM, July 31, 2008  
Blogger Funky Old Man said...

Dan, thanks for the Deacon John and Willie West stories. I really have a new appreciation for New Orleans soul and funk thanks to your wonderful blog. Richard Duvigneaud

6:40 AM, August 01, 2008  
Blogger Dan Phillips said...

Thank you, Richard. Keep up the good work on your online discographies.

10:02 AM, August 01, 2008  
Blogger Lisa C. Moore said...

stumbled across this on the Net; thanks for the great write-up about my dad. I appreciate it.

10:45 PM, September 10, 2008  
Blogger Dan Phillips said...

Hi, Ms Lisa. Glad you liked the piece on your dad. HOTG is an attempt to be an online resource for music and information about New Orleans R&B, soul and funk artists, mainly those who were active in the 1950s through 1970s, some of whom are well-known outside of their hometown, most of whom are not - sometimes not even at home! I do what I can with what I've got (limited time and resouces!). If your dad has any additions, corrections or comments, I welcome them. My email address is shown on the left sidebar of the main blog page.

9:04 AM, September 11, 2008  
Blogger Lake Fred said...

I saw Deacon John over the years and was surprised to see him playing at a wedding on May 8, 2010. He was great. I remember him as a good guitar player, but at the wedding, it was his vocals, sort of like Aaron Neville sings Stevie Wonder. Good stuff.

5:25 PM, May 11, 2010  
Blogger Stan said...

Dan, for the record, I had informed Deacon that if anyone was interested in recording him I would be open to allowing that to happen. I was never contacted by Deacon or any other label that was interested at the time. The thinking of the labels at that time was either a joint venture or a buy out The national labels of which I made a deal with, used their and or/my expertise and influence to create a successful regional to national campaign. This was to get Deacon's or my other artist music exposed. In closing, for the record, I have received 6 Gold and 2 Platinum records for my work with sales exceeding 10M. My work ethic and doing the right thing helped me to achieve those rewards, I do appreciate what music has given to me. My worldwide travels and experience have truly made me a complete,happy and content person. Sincerely Stanley Chaisson

8:02 PM, March 09, 2012  
Blogger Dan Phillips said...

Mr. Stan, I greatly appreciate your comments. As I have noted, most of my information for these posts comes from my archives of music, liner notes, books, and my own meager experience in the music biz. If I am lucky, I sometimes get interviews with or information directly from the people who made the music. Being a still working stiff, I lack time and resources to do all the research these topics deserve. But I hope to give at least some background and context to the music and props to the people that made it happen.

That's the disclaimer before saying that my take on Deacon John's contractual dealings with you comes through information from several print sources, but far down the line from even secondhand. If you tell me that there were no other takers for what he had to offer, I can accept that - the music business can be cold. I will certainly update the post to reflect the gist of your comment and refer readers to it.

Should you ever wish to speak in more detail about your music business career (and straighten me out some more!), feel free to contact me via email: hotg(at)gmail(dot)com

I wish you the best and thank you for your contributions to the music
heritage of New Olreans.

9:17 PM, March 09, 2012  

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