By Cliff Bellamy
CHAPEL HILL – Samuel Moore, better known as Ironing Board Sam, takes a notepad from a reporter and draws a diagram of a keyboard he created years ago, after his Hammond B3 burned up in a fire.
Over coffee, Sam explains how he took some telephone wire, a board and some thumbtacks, soldered the wire to the thumbtacks, then connected them to a tube technology amplifier. Because of the instant response the keyboard (which he calls the “button board”) offered, the instrument allowed him to play technically fast passages, Sam said. “It was non-action. I invented the non-action keyboard. They use them everywhere now on computers and everything. That’s my invention,” he said.
Later, he began playing in rhythm and blues clubs in Miami, Fla., where he mounted his keyboard on a folding ironing board. From that time, his stage name became Ironing Board Sam. He still uses an ironing board in performance, but plays modern keyboards.
He recently relocated to Chapel Hill, where he has recorded a new CD, “Going Up,” released by Music Maker Relief Foundation. Sam will perform one of the tunes from that CD, “Life is Like a Seesaw,” with The North Carolina Tap Ensemble today, in a concert called “Tap the Blues.” Other Music Maker artists who will perform with the dancers are John Dee Holeman, Pat “Mother Blues” Cohen and Big Ron Hunter.
His keyboard inventions reflect the importance he places on originality in his music and performance, a lesson he said he learned early in his career. He began by imitating what he heard on records, but a musician told him to create music that reflected his sound. “If you want to make it, you can’t sing like Nat King Cole, you can’t sing like James Brown, you’ve got to be original, you’ve got to sing like you.” Sam said of his friend’s advice.
He later went to Memphis, where he began to put that advice into practice. “I began to alter my scales,” he said. He would make a major chord a minor chord, and “I began to add sixths” and augmented chords. His approach to playing and the name Ironing Board Sam, “made me unique, and that’s what has helped me survive these 45 or 50 years, being different. Even if I sing somebody’s song, I’m going to do it different.”
His experience in Miami also was crucial to his musical development in other ways. He played with a band called The Five Men of Rhythm. “In the band they had a teacher who had a piano, so he began to teach me the correct way of playing piano,” Sam said. “They had a book they called the bible—classic tunes in it like ‘Stella by Starlight,’ ‘Moonlight in Vermont,’ all that—and they took me through that whole book. So they helped me get started.”
He was born in 1939 in Rock Hill, S.C., and first played an old pump organ that was in his family’s home. He got his first paying job at age 14, playing piano, and later began learning and playing in Winston-Salem’s R&B clubs. “I started playing the boogie woogie on the piano,” Sam said, “and a grown lady sat on my lap. I said, I know I want to be a musician now,” he laughs.
His journey has taken him to Miami, Chicago, Memphis, and Nashville, where he and Jimi Hendrix respectively performed in the upstairs and downstairs spaces of a club. An expressway eventually took the club. “Before we left, though, a guy named Noah Blackwell was putting together a show called ‘The Night Train.’ That was before ‘Soul Train,” and Sam became a regular on the show, broadcast throughout the Southeast. In the mid-1970s he settled in New Orleans, where he became one of the most popular of musicians in that city.
He toured Europe later, and when he returned to the States, he was separating from his wife. “Going through a separation, that’s not too easy, so I kind of got out of contact with people,” he said. “So with me being out of touch with people and kind of out of the limelight, as time passed by, people thought I was dead.”
He got back into the limelight when his sister contacted him, and he returned to Rock Hill and played a festival there. Living Blues magazine got in touch with him to interview him for a story, and they told him about Tim Duffy, who heads Music Maker in Hillsborough. He came to Chapel Hill, played for Duffy, and that’s how the relationship with Music Maker began.
Sam sings and plays an upright piano on “Going Up,” which includes some standards (“Over the Rainbow,” “In the Mood for Love”) as well as blues originals, like “Orleans Party” and “Come to Mardi Gras.”
The record happened almost serendipitously. He had not played an upright in many years, but one was available in the studio. “So when I saw the upright piano I got excited… and started playing it and Tim started recording. I didn’t know it,” he said of the recording process.
Since meeting Duffy, “I [have] met a lot of old musicians. … I appreciate his company because he is giving the older musicians [who play the blues] a second chance. Most time they get old, their music fades out… So he’s giving them a chance, booking them, listening to them, recording them … and that’s what I like about him.”
The Tap Ensemble took right to his music in rehearsal, he said. “This is great,” he said. “I enjoy them so much because they are young and they know my music,” he said. “They’re just great little dancers, and I’m just so anxious to play the gig and see them do it again.”
He has recorded for many labels, including the legendary Chess Records, which still has some of his unissued recordings.
“I’m still a poor black blues musician out here scuffling to make a living” he said, without any hint of bitterness. He said his prosperous days as a musician, when he was more flush with cash, did not make him happy. “But I would still like to have my royalties,” he laughs.
The lyrics to the song he will perform today, “Life is Like a Seesaw” “came from looking at my life,” Sam said. “You might go up, but something in life is down. Once a person understands that, you don’t take it so hard when you’re down. … I’m up on the seesaw. I’m going up. … I’m controlling my own seesaw,” he said.
Read more: The Herald-Sun – ‘Going Up’