On Saturday, Deacon John Moore will play his birthday bash at the Rock ’n’ Bowl in Mid-City, and he attributes his success to being available.
The blues and R&B guitarist and bandleader Deacon John has been a professional musician for more than 50 years, but he’s never been on national or international tours, unlike many of his peers. That meant he was always in New Orleans for recording or a gig.
This weekend he’ll turn 73, and he has outlived many of the greats of New Orleans R&B whose sessions he played on.
“I ain’t doing too bad for a guy who didn’t have any hit records,” Moore said, laughing.
Moore credits his career in music to Allen Toussaint, who saw the 20-year-old Deacon John leading a band at the famed Dew Drop Inn nightclub and asked him if he wanted to play on a session.
Moore jumped at the chance, and over the course of his career he played on sessions with Irma Thomas, Lee Dorsey, Ernie K-Doe, Chris Kenner and many more, and on such hits as “It Ain’t My Fault,” “Tell It Like It Is,” “Fortune Teller, and “Lipstick Traces.”
Some sessions gave him more freedom than others.
He says Toussaint composed all the parts for songs and was particular about how they were played, but arranger Wardell Quezergue gave him and guitarist George Davis Jr. room to invent the stinging, bluesy guitar lines on Robert Parker’s dance classic, “Barefootin’.”
“Wardell wasn’t the type of arranger who wrote everything out,” Moore said. “He wrote the horn parts, but he’d say, ‘I need something with a little blues feel’ and let us go for it.”
Deacon John only had one hit of his own, and it was a regional one.
His 1970 cover of the reggae gospel classic “Many Rivers To Cross” was prompted by Jimmy Cliff’s performance of it in the movie “The Harder They Come.”
His manager heard it and thought it would be perfect for Moore, and the movie would help create interest in the track.
The plan worked until Percy Sledge had the same idea and recorded the song as well. Soon, his version eclipsed Moore’s, but the song has found a second bittersweet life for Moore as he has been asked to sing it at the funerals of many of his peers.
Deacon John is best known for playing dances, balls, weddings, bar mitzvahs, benefits, and galas, crossing ethnic and economic lines.
He is one of the few artists to have played every Jazz Fest, and in the music room of his house Uptown are four music stands with charts for more than 500 songs — everything from Dave Brubeck’s “Take Five” to The Temptations’ “Ain’t Too Proud to Beg” to Professor Longhair’s “Big Chief” to “All I Want for Christmas.”
Moore takes pride in the fact that he has played for generations, and that he has changed with the times to be what people needed him to be.
He had his Hendrix-inspired psychedelic funk rock phase with the Electric Soul Train — “I started making more money doing that than traditional R&B” — and a few years later when disco was popular, he bought platform shoes and played that, too.
Ironically, Moore is one of the few New Orleans icons who didn’t perform on the HBO series “Treme.” He appeared as a music teacher who died, but because he was on the show as a character, he couldn’t also play with his band as himself.
His career as an actor is growing, and he will play a blind man in the upcoming “Pitch Perfect 2.” Moore also appeared in “The Last Exorcism Pt. II” and “Angel Heart,” as well as commercials for Capital One and Miller beer.
For the latter, he beat out fellow musicians Walter “Wolfman” Washington, Clarence ‘Gatemouth’ Brown and Sunpie Barnes because, he remembers the casting director saying, “ ‘We liked your smile.’ ”
Another role Deacon John has taken on is the president of the city’s musicians’ union. He’s the first African-American to do so and has held the position for the past eight years.
He sounds a little wistful when talking about the things he didn’t do — the tours he didn’t go on, the cities he didn’t visit and the festivals he didn’t play — but he also sees the upside.
“I never had a day job, and there aren’t many cats who can say that. Aaron Neville used to work as a longshoreman. Irma Thomas used to work as a cashier. Eddie Bo was fixing houses up and Tommy Ridgley drove a school bus. Lee Dorsey was a body mechanic. I’m blessed I was able to support myself by my art through my entire life.”