Who in the World is Ironing Board Sam?

John Morthland

By John Morthland

on 09.11.12 in Spotlights

With the recent release of his new-old Ninth Wonder of the World of Music, Ironing Board Sam is back with a vengeance. This will doubtless come as a surprise to those of you who’d never heard of him and thus didn’t know he’d ever been gone. But relax: You are, by far, in the majority. Even in his heyday, Ironing Board Sam was nearly a total obscurity – working primarily in local scenes around the South with only minimal touring, and recording sporadic singles, all for different labels and none approaching hitdom. But those who got to see him, whether in person or on the R&B television program Night Train, remember him well, for Sam could put on a show. Ninth Wonder is a superb album for anyone interested in hearing a true maverick at work.

Born Samuel Moore in Rock Hill, South Carolina, in 1939, he began gigging locally on piano and organ at age 14. By the late ’50s he was on the scene in Miami where, lacking a stand for his electric organ, he mounted it on an ironing board. When he moved to Memphis around 1959, his instrument earned Sammy Moore the new moniker Ironing Board Sam, which he resented (whoever gave him that handle proved prescient, however, as the ultra-hot Sam & Dave soon emerged from Memphis, and the former’s surname was Moore; the who’s-who confusion caused by having two Sam Moores in the same music scene would likely have killed Ironing Board Sam’s already-meager career). By the mid ’60s, Sam was based in Nashville – I picture him down on Jefferson Street showing the young, unknown Jimi Hendrix what showmanship was all about.

Because make no mistake, Sam was already a showman – a slightly mellower Little Richard crossed with a slightly saner Screaming Jay Hawkins and a slightly less churchy Ray Charles – as he moved back to Memphis, then to Chicago, Iowa, Los Angeles, Memphis once more. Somewhere in there – history is woefully imprecise – Sam invented his “button board,” which was actually two keyboards. The main one looked like a Hammond B3 but underneath the keys were guitar strings that were fed through a wah-wah pedal and into an amp. Not only could he make it sound something like a B3, he could also make it sound like a piano, a guitar and all three combined. The lower keyboard, which provided bass, consisted of 60 upholstery tacks connected to electronic sensors. Under his coat sleeve, a wire ran down Sam’s arm to his fingers, conducting electricity to the buttons. It was just one of his many inventions – among other he claims to have built a machine with just five moving parts that could provide electricity to an entire apartment complex at no cost – and Sam never had to worry about anyone else playing his ax; nobody else could figure out how it worked.

In the mid ’70s Sam moved to New Orleans, where he was in residence, billed as “The Eighth Wonder of the World” and backed only by drummer Kerry Brown, at Mason’s VIP Lounge on South Clairborne. There, he’d lift his keyboard off its stand and strap it onto his shoulder as he strolled the club and sidewalk playing his late-night, lowdown blues; Brown played with the tips of his drumsticks on fire, and sometimes ended the set by burning the whole damn kit. When Sam got booked into Jazzfest in 1979, he did his entire show underwater in a 1500-gallon aquarium. Later, he busked on the streets backed by a wind-up monkey toy that kept time, as it were, on drums. When Sam concluded from the disco trend that audiences would now only listen to jukeboxes or deejays, he built an eight-foot high wooden jukebox, put himself and his keyboard inside it, and played that on French Quarter sidewalks; it had a coin slot that you fed money if you wanted him to take your request. In 1991, playing a vintage Wurlitzer piano, he cut demos for a local Orleans Records album called Human Touch; though unavailable on eMusic, it was finally released in 1996.

And then Sam’s button keyboard was vanquished. Before going on the road, he gave it to an electronics tech to have it transistorized and the guy found the whole project so ludicrous he up and threw it out. Sam claims he’s simply never had time to build a new one. Some of his aura consequently faded in New Orleans and he’d been retired for some time when Katrina savaged the city in 2005. He moved back to his South Carolina birthplace and began gigging again; eventually rediscovered by the Music Makers Relief Organization, a charitable group that helps get Southern roots musicians back on their feet, he recorded and released the solo piano album Going Up, which defines blues broadly enough to include a mellow but tortured version of the Roy Hawkins/B.B. King standard “Why I Sing the Blues,” the eternal ’50s doo-wop “Cherry Pie,” New Orleans parade and party fare like “Orleans Party” and “Come to Mardi Gras,” an aching take on “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” and a somewhat less successful one on the scat-jazz “In the Mood for Love,” even “Ode to Billie Joe,” which he calls “Tallahassee Bridge (Billy Joe),” and which plays funereal vocals off against chipper boogie piano.

But Ninth Wonder is the Ironing Board Sam album you simply can’t miss, because it was originally recorded in the late ’60s/early ’70s as part of a promo packet to get Sam gigs; only 100 were pressed and sent to agencies, and none were released. And though it uses conventional instruments, it catches the man at his jumpin’, jivin’ and carryin’-on peak. His keyboard work is deep, soulful and playful; his vocals laced with jazz and gospel as well as blues. This version of “Cherry Pie,” even with its staccato rhythm and vocals, is a powerful argument for the axiom that Simple is Best; “The Island Song” features semi-scat vocals, while “Do the Ironing Board” is utter, delightful nonsense, with Sam eventually creaking up into a comical falsetto. “Danny Boy,” of all things, gets taken to church by the organ/guitar tandem. Sam’s version of “Boogie on Reggae Woman,” another unlikely choice, is in its own way every bit as insistent as Stevie Wonder’s original. “Going Up-Going Down” is his woozy interpretation of Jimmy Reed’s “Baby What You Want Me to Do,” while “Purple Raindrops” rides organ lines as invincible as the most formidable Ray Charles. “Bye Bye Blackbird,” the finale, transforms the decimated loser of the Tin Pan Alley standard into something more like a bat out of hell. Here’s the most entertaining eight tracks and nearly 22 minutes of blues-based music likely to be released this year, and it should leave you longing for more. Hopefully, the 73-year-old Sam, Living Blues Magazine’s comeback artist of the year, will be able to provide it.