Deacon John

Deacon John and the Ivories will lead an all star New Orleans RnB revue at the 4th Annual Ponderosa Stomp

Deacon John Interview
by Dan Gilbert for Where Y'at Magazine

There's nothing better than two exquisitely tasteful musical comrades getting together for a project that simply pulls out all the stops. If Deacon John's Jump Blues is any indication, there's no two better prospects for such a project than Deacon John Moore and Cyril Vetter. "Good things come to those who wait," laughs Deacon when speaking about the album that he's been waiting over forty years to make. Having played guitar on virtually every New Orleans R&B session of note during the sixties—from Ernie K. Doe's "Mother In Law" to Aaron Neville's "Tell It Like It Is"—it's downright baffling that the stars didn't align for Deacon earlier, but Deacon John's Jump Blues could well be described as justice being served on a silver platter. With a cast of musicians including Dr. John, Allen Toussaint and the Zion Harmonizers, sizzling arrangements by bandleader Wardell Quezergue, truckloads of vintage recording equipment and the simple urge to pay homage to the classic New Orleans R&B that they love, Baton Rouge producer, visionary and esteemed author of the frat rock classic "Double Shot (Of My Baby's Love)," Vetter—along with Deacon and Sista Teedy--recorded the album virtually in secret at Ultrasonic Studios, then taped a live performance that brought the entire project together onstage at the Orpheum Theatre. The resulting album and DVD are just two segments of a three pronged plan of attack that includes a work-in-progress documentary scheduled for a projected Jazz Fest 2004 release.

One of thirteen children raised in a musical family on Elysian Fields, Deacon initiated his musical career by singing solos in the church choir at Midnight Mass but it wasn't long before he armed himself with a pawn shop guitar and began his tuition under nearly every six string legend in town. He soon formed the Ivories, and then the Electric Soul Train, performing everything from R&B to rock 'n' roll and blues.

What was it like growing up in New Orleans during the heyday of R&B? As a guitar player I'm sure you had some unbelievable teachers.

The cats I've met coming up…I'd go by Roy Montrell's house, he'd show me a few things, Justin Adams, I'd watch him. Then I met up with George Davis. I'd just learned how to play guitar and I went on a pickup gig out at Cal's Bantam Club in Prairieville. George was playin' alto saxophone. We went on a break and he said "Lemme see your guitar." He was so bad I didn't want to play no more! So we became friends. He was one of the baddest musicians I ever met in my life. He and I were the ones swappin' licks on (Robert Parker's) 'Barefootin''. I just talked to George on the phone yesterday, we still talk all the time.

I've heard you talk a lot about Prince La La and his brother, as well as their father Papoose Nelson, who played with Professor Longhair.

They had a joint down in Treme where they'd sit around drinkin' black port and lemon juice. And I used to go hang out over there when I was a teenager. They'd all be swappin' the guitar. Papoose would say, "Gimme that guitar, ya'll ain't playin' that shit right, lemme show ya how it go." I'd be sittin' there watchin' him 'cause Papoose was a hell of a guitar player. He'd be showin' you how to make all those pretty chords that weren't in the book; all those things like flat fives and thirteenths. Jazz was his big thing. Even though Papoose played R&B, his heart and soul was in jazz, he was a hell of a jazz player. Later Prince La La cut "She Put The Hurt On Me" and I played on that.

You played on most of Chris Kenner's records too.

Chris Kenner, Benny Spellman, Irma Thomas… I played on ninety percent of everything on Minit Records. I was there at Allen's house on Earhart Boulevard one day when Chris came to his house on the bus. Chris walked in and he had a French bread wrapper all crumpled up in his pocket, took it out and had the words to "Land Of A Thousand Dances" written on it. Allen got on the piano and Chris had an introduction from an old Negro Spiritual that didn't end up on the 45: "Children go where I send you, I wanta send you to the land…the land of a thousand dances." Allen played the pickup, doon doon doon doon, "You gotta know how to pony…" Allen was grinnin' from ear to ear, he had his little Wollensak reel-to-reel tape recorder on the top of the piano tapin' all that stuff. Then Chris pulled out another one: "Somethin' you got babe, make me work all day…" He was a genius, man, for writing lyrics. He was one of the only cats that Allen didn't write for. Everything Chris did, Allen would just gobble it up.

Speaking of Allen Toussaint, between he and Wardell Quezergue, Deacon John's Jump Blues reunites you with two producers that you've done many recording sessions for. What can you tell me about working with them back in the sixties?

Allen would have two or three guitars on the records but he'd always say "Turn the piano up guys, turn the piano up." In the early sixties the guitar was a rhythm instrument and was used to compliment the drum rhythm pattern. And he wouldn't let you improvise or anything; you played the riffs on the page and that was it. Wardell was a little different, he'd let you play. He might give you a structure, the chord changes and you'd go in there and play what you felt. Toussaint was more rigid 'cause he patterned himself after Dave Bartholomew.

You also used to back a lot of people on live gigs. You've probably got more wild stories than you can remember.

At the College Inn in Thibodaux, I was the backup band and we played behind a different artist every Sunday. They used to throw these twist contests, man you couldn't get in that place, people'd come from miles around, parking all along the highway. I played out there with all the local artists like Huey Smith and the Clowns, and also the national acts like the Chubby Checker, the Midnighters—who had the original "Twist" out…that's how I got to meet all these people. I played with Marvin Gaye out there when he had the "Hitchhike." He'd come by himself, play a little drums, play a little piano...Wilson Pickett was out there when he was with the Falcons, and I played behind them, that's when they had "I Found A Love." They'd tear the joint down with "You're So Fine." Little Esther came out there when she had "Release Me," I played behind her. And you know the thing about Little Esther; that's who James Booker used to try to sound like. (Like Booker) she was a junkie too. If you listen to James Booker and the way he's singing, he's actually trying to sound like Little Esther, the way she would phrase it.

I just keep thinking about Booker going out on the road with the Clowns and impersonating Huey "Piano" Smith. That type of thing went on a lot back then didn't it?

In those days, not too many people had television sets so you could send a phony person out on the road, ain't nobody knew what they looked like. When Little Eva had "The Locomotion," there was a little chick down in New Orleans used to call herself Little Eva and Al White would book her into all these fraternities, people didn't know no better. They had a cat in Baton Rouge, they used to call him Lyin' Frank. He'd go around and book all these fraternities, he'd get the deposit, keep it and the band would never even go to the gig; they didn't even know about it! When people started getting TV sets, you couldn't pull it off too much. The same thing as when Guitar Slim got sick, they sent Earl King out in his place.

Speaking of Earl, I know you guys were good friends. How did you first meet him?

When I first met Earl, I think he was supposed to be Chuck Berry that night! I remember that gig just like it was yesterday, I told this story at Earl's funeral. He was sittin' up there in the beauty shop, getting his nails done. Earl had a white Supro guitar back then, with the three pickups on it, he had a green and black checkerboard suit on with a long coat down to his knees, he had that hair done up. Earl came out there, he had like a two-hundred foot extension chord on his guitar so he had a trail-rider comin' behind him so the wires didn't get tangled up! In them times walkin' the bar was the hot thing: you'd get on the bar and walk on the bar, the saxophone player would have people stuffing money is his horn, cats be kockin' over drinks…Earl went behind the bar, got him a drink, was playin' with one hand, jumped on top of the bar, walked the bar, then he went out in the parking lot! That shit blew me away, I had never seen nothing like that and I was in the backup band! I couldn't have been more than sixteen or seventeen but I'll never forget that as long as I live.

And now that we're talking about Earl King, I've gotta ask you about leading the house band at the Dew Drop Inn. How did that all happen?

I was doing some spot gigs at the Drop and that led me to being the house band. You'd get to be the house band for so many weeks and you'd back up all the people that were playing there. Everybody used to go hang out there because it was the premiere black club; we couldn't go to the white clubs. Tons of entertainers and musicians, everybody just hung out there, they'd jam 'til the sun came up. It was famous because it was the only black club in town that had a floor show; they had an exotic dancer, a comedian, cats juggling stuff, different acts coming in every week.

They had all the big names because the Dew Drop was a place, where, if you got stranded on the road you could call up (owner) Frank (Painia) and boom, you had a place to stay in the hotel, his brother had a kitchen in the back where you could get something to eat and he'd give you a gig at the club. You could go next door, his brother had a barber shop and he'd fix your hair, so it was a one-stop place. Cats get stranded on the road, he'd give you a place to stay and he'd get everybody to play cheap. He'd give you a room, a little money and you was playin' at the most famous club in New Orleans. Little Willie John used to hang out there when he had "Fever." He was a prankster. Willie'd come in there, "Set up the bar! Everybody's drinkin' on me!" He'd set up the bar, show 'em all this big money he had, then slip out the club without payin' and jump in a taxi! He'd be laughin' his ass off!

The assortment of characters at the Dew Drop was just unbelievable. They had Sissy-Bo, he used to tap dance, dressed up like a cowboy. The bartender was named Blondie, he had peroxide blond hair. Cat Man used to be the MC, he used to come on, "Drink hearty and stick with your party; show time is your time for a lovely time. This is your boy, playing o-euv-re and bon sois!"

Even with all this experience, it was when you formed Deacon John and the Ivories that your reputation was truly established. Tell me about that.

When we got Deacon John and the Ivories together what we would do to build up our reputation with the clubs, we'd go sit in, we were the head cutters. The Pimlico on Broad Street was the hot joint then, Irma Thomas was a waitress there when I started playing there. But the way we got our reputation, 'cause we were playing all the Frats and the white circuit, but with black clubs, we'd find out where a hot joint was and call up everybody in the band: "Put on the red coats, meet me by the Pimlico." All the bands wore uniforms then and we had about five, six sets of uniforms, all different colors. "What we wearin' tonight?" "The blue coats." Cats say, "Let's go sit in on Eddie Bo. We goin' head-cuttin, gonna chop some heads". When the band would take a break, we'd sit in. Pretty soon we'd get hired at the same clubs. That's how we started playing at all the black clubs and from there we started playing at the Social Aid and Pleasure Clubs 'cause the members used to hang out at the clubs we were playing at. So we started playing on both sides of the fence.

It must have been around then that you first met Cyril Vetter.

I've known Cyril Vetter since back in the mid-sixties when we used to play gigs together. The Greek Fountains were the hottest hair band here, then came John Fred and the Playboys, the Basement Wall, the Glory Rhodes and the Paper Steamboat. Cyril was the drummer in the Greek Fountains. We were the hottest R&B band in town back then. I'd play the F&M Patio and there'd be all these people hangin' out outside. I put that place on the map!

Tell me about the F&M, back then. People don't realize its legacy in the history of local music.

I started doing high school dances there and it was B.Y.O.L., no I.D. checks or nothin', cats comin' in there with ice chests. You could rent the hall for ninety dollars and they'd give you the bar and everything; you had the bar with the concessions and all for ninety dollars. Cats would be makin' a killing by throwin' these dances, a lot of them were paying their way through college like that, guys like (garage band producer) Frank Uddo. The dances over there always had a theme like "Splendor" or "Wild Cherry" or "Shipwreck Dance." Shipwreck meant that everybody would come in sailor suits, white pants, like they'd been on a ship and were stranded on a desert island; it meant you could dress down. Then we had themes like "Madras Madness," everybody'd come with their madras shirts on. They had one called "Lights Out Part 1 and Part 2."

So how did you re-connect with Cyril?

I hadn't seen him in years and years. We met up at the Big Easy Awards and we played the after party with Wardell's big band; me and Sista Teedy. I was doing "Jumpin' In The Morning" and "Nobody Knows You When You're Down And Out" and Sista Teedy was doin' "Let The Good Times Roll" and some of her stuff. We got to talking after the show and come to find out that was one of his favorite periods of music, the jump blues period. I had an interest in it at the time 'cause I was startin' to do a lot of jump blues material in my repertoire. He called me up and said "Let's get together" and he came down here and laid it all out to me. He had a script written out and the whole thing evolved from a CD to a live concert to a documentary film. He was gonna go all the way out on this 'cause this is the biggest thing he's ever done.

It's great to see someone not only as committed to this as Cyril is, but using their money to actually do something good and really do it right.

Cyril's done a first class job. What really impressed me about him is that he didn't have these motives like these other record producers who wanna make a quick buck off you and use you and exploit you. He was just honest with me, he said, "John, I'm not interested in making a whole lot of money off this thing, I'm interested in my legacy as a producer." It was all about getting the whole project together, doing a period piece and then incorporating that concept into kind of a Buena Vista Social Club of New Orleans. Dave Bartholomew was doing jump blues a long time ago, back in the forties. So was Roy Brown, Smiley Lewis, Mr. Google Eyes, Lloyd Price, all these people were the pioneers of jump blues; it started down in New Orleans, it came from here. Jump blues, you've gotta remember, was the transition period between big band swing and early rhythm and blues. We wanted to highlight and pay homage to all the great producers, artists and trailblazers, like Dave Bartholomew and Cosimo Matassa, all these people who played an integral part in bringing this music out.

You're the perfect person to front a band like this because you've been championing this kind of music for years and taking the care to perform it properly.

All my life I've wanted to do something with a big band. But I can tell you one thing: this whole production, it's like that's the way God planned it. If I told you about all the stuff that happened and the stuff that just fell into place, you know? When we got in the studio after we had hand picked all these musicians, they all proved to be the right choice. Cyril wanted Branford Marsalis to be the saxophone player but he was unavailable and Amadee Castanoff proved to be perfect even though he didn't have the big name recognition. Eddie Bo was supposed to be on the session, and he couldn't make it so then along comes Davell Crawford. Davell comes in there and man, he did a better job than anyone could think of. The whole time we were in the studio Cyril never raised his voice. Everybody got along, no arguments, everything just went down smooth.

Now that the CD and DVD are out, tell me about the forthcoming documentary.

There's still some footage that needs to be shot, but I'll give you an idea of some of the stuff that's gonna be in it. They filmed Dave Bartholomew and Bunchy Johnson discussing the history of second line drumming in New Orleans. I interviewed the Zion Harmonizers about the relationship between gospel and rhythm and blues. And of course, me and Cosimo walked down Governor Nicholls Street where the old studio used to be. They took me by where I was born and raised, I was sitting on the my Mama's front porch talking to Chuck Carbo about the Spiders. They did some footage at the old church where I used to sing in the choir and in the old neighborhood in some of the old haunts I used to go to. And at the end I sing 'Stagger Lee" on an acoustic guitar while the credits roll.

And the story is told through your experiences?

It's based around my life coming up. My life provides the background and the continuity to tell the story through my history in playing on recording sessions, which hardly anyone knows about. I've largely been ignored by record companies and the media because they all consider me to be a high society band leader. (They'll say) "He had no connection to the culture of New Orleans," but it's just the opposite. They say I don't represent the tradition of New Orleans rhythm and blues.

It's coincidental because now you're the only guy standing whose keeping it alive!

It seems that nobody knew that you were doing this during the time it was being recorded. That's rare in this town.

Well, we kept it all a secret, we kept it under wraps until it was ready to come out. It's better that way because when it does come out it makes a bigger impact. Cyril told me "This is the best thing I've ever done in my life." And I just feel blessed because he picked me out of all the other people around here, he picked me to be the star of the show. Why me? I guess all the rest of the cats are dead, I outlived the competition!

You're the one guy who deserved it more than anyone else.

For once I made all the right moves. I knew if I waited long enough the right guy would come along. It's the best project I've ever been involved with 'cause you couldn't ask for a better producer. And I went all the way out on it too. Every day of the session I had on a different vintage suit. I'd come in there and crack up the whole band with black and white shoes, brown and white shoes, a different sport coat, a different vintage tie, every day I'd walk in there with something different on.

The vintage suits were perfect for this project but they're nothing new to you.

I've been collecting vintage clothes for years, man, and I knew one day they'd come in handy. It was the perfect thing because we didn't have to go out and pick out the clothes, I've got all of 'em. Like I said, it was like it was the way God planned it. Like predestination, everything just fell into place. I just have no explanation for it.

Everything about this project is just so first class.

One of the reasons I got involved in this project is that it's been done with a lot of class and good taste instead of a bunch of cats dancing with umbrellas and second linin', shoe shine boys, strippes; none of that stuff is in here. It's gonna set a new standard of excellence for New Orleans and it'll put us on a higher level than we're accustomed to with all this Dixieland and tap dancin', Bourbon Street, people throwin' pennies at Flambeaux carriers. All that stuff is done under the guise of "Preserving our heritage" but there's two sides to that. I like brass bands, I like the Mardi Gras Indians, I like all that stuff, but some of these elements I don't like. Seeing grown men picking up pennies out of the street that people toss at 'em during Mardi Gras parades? Hey man, if you like that there ain't nothin' I can do. If ya'll wanna preserve that go ahead, but I don't like it. Not to say I don't like my own culture and heritage but there are certain elements that are just a throwback to slavery. It's just perpetuating a negative stereotype in the black people by keeping these things going. But this project, I hope that it will change the perception that people have about New Orleans. What I'd like to see it accomplish is that people will see New Orleans in a different light.

I liked rock 'n' roll. I was the only black guy at the Beatles concert at City Park, it was like a fly in a bowl of soup. All the opening acts got booed. The Bill Black Combo came out first, playing "White Silver Sands" and all their this; everybody booed 'em. Frogman Henry came out doing his thing, they booed him off the stage. Then when the Beatles were getting ready to come out, everyone kept looking for where they were coming from. They had a dummy car come out, and everybody broke out 'cause they thought they were in the dummy car; really they were in another van. When they finally did come out, everybody got out of their seats and rushed out to the field to try and touch them. The Police had to form a ring around the infield.

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