Long before Donald Fagen, Herbie Hancock and Jan Hammer rocked out with their keytars, a performer was strapping his legless keyboard on top of an ironing board when performing. This marked the birth of stand up keys and so became the legend of Ironing Board Sam.
Born Samuel Moore, the musician later to be known as “Ironing Board Sam” started 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.
Yes, a feature film could be made on Sam’s life, in fact in 1962, a young Jimi Hendix sat in with his ban. He moved around the United States trying to get a recording contract, eventually issuing a handful of singles with Atlantic, Styletone and Holiday Inn in the late 1960s and early 1970s. He invented his own ‘button keyboard’, which had a regular keyboard arrangement underneath which was fitted guitar strings.
In the late 1970s, with the advent of disco, he decided to compete using new inventions. In 1979, he performed at New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival from inside of a tank of water. Later, he became a New Orleans street performer, later playing with a toy monkey rigged to play with a drum machine. But despite all the critical acclaim it wasn’t until 1996 where his debut album Human Touch was released.
Among Ironing Board Sam’s many triumphs of the past few years – returning several times to New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival, playing Newport Folk Festival, performing at Lincoln Center, appearing on the PBS News Hour, and signing with Big Legal Mess for his new album Super Spirit (due 10/2/15) co-produced by Bruce Watson and Jimbo Mathus. Now 76 years old and calling Durham, NC his home, Ironing Board is gearing up a round of October shows and perhaps his finest album yet.
Glide is premiering the track “I’m Looking for Woman” from Super Spirit and received some great answers about his career in the interview that follows.
Congratulations on your new album Super Spirit – can you talk about these songs some and how you decided upon the covers and how you wrote the originals?
The songs on this album are classic songs that Bruce Watson and Jimbo Mathus chose for me. I liked the songs because they spoke to my life experiences. I could relate to what they were saying. Especially the first song “baby you got it/ you know that I want it.” When you go to a party and you see somebody you like and you want it -people of all ages know that feeling.
Another tune that spoke to me is “Hold on”, a tune like that is pretty wide open. If a man is in the service or out on the road, the lyrics “Hold on, cause I’m coming home” really speak. My specialty, number ten on the record “Super Spirit” is a poem I wrote that explains who I am and my purpose on earth and why I am still here. It started in 1995 when I received the poem from the Super Spirit (the supreme being who created the big bang and everything) as a gift to make everlasting world peace. Another tune, “I’m Gone” – sometimes in life things get hard for you, and if you’re not treating me right, I got to go.
“Loose Diamonds” tells the story of a poor guy whose mind’s messed up and he leaves home and then time passes and he comes back home. That’s sort of my story, I left home at 14 on my bicycle and came back home when I was 71. I wasn’t sure what was going to happen until I met the Music Maker Relief Foundation and they got me working again, and here I am now putting out a record with Big Legal Mess. I thank the Super Spirit and everybody who’s helped me through the years building up my confidence and telling me to keep on. A woman once told me “not everybody who’s good is gonna make it.” I quit her right then and there.
What three songs on the new album do you feel are the strongest and why?
Number ten – I was in the McDonalds and I met a school teacher. He started asking me who I was, he started questioning me so much, I ran out of words. So I gave him a CD. He said he wanted his daughter to hear it, I told him to pay close attention to number ten. Number ten, “Super Spirit” features my Hibilon Poem. That poem will explain how to be a good person and if we get enough good people, we will bring everlasting world peace. That was a good thing. I planted a seed. The rest of the record will show you I’m a survivor who taught himself to play and sing and brought himself to this point.
How many more albums do you think you have in you for your career and do you hope to make up for lost time now that there has been a revitalized interest in you?
I’ll be making records for the rest of my life as long as I have energy. As long as I have energy, I’m gonna keep on. At 77, I got about 25 more years on earth, I’ll record my last session when I’m about 101 and then I’ll probably retire.
Looking back are your recordings, you have a relatively small amount of records considering the length of your career and your debut didn’t come out till 1996. Why was it so difficult to get a recording contract for you?
Everybody was busy, Chess was busy with Chuck Berry, Stax was busy with Booker T, and Al Green. When I went out eest and got to LA, I recorded “Purple Raindrops” and they told me “We don’t play no blues here”. I came back South and I recorded in Memphis with Sam Philips, but that ended with his death. It just took this long, you know.
In 2014 you returned to the New Orleans Jazz Festival. What was that experience for you like and what about the festival did you most miss?
It was actually 2011 that I went back to Jazzfest, and have returned three out of the past four years. Going back was awesome. I appreciate Quint so much for giving me a chance on the first Jazzfest and every one since – I’ve played it probably at least 10 times.
Your creativity with your music presentation has been that of legend. Between the ‘button keyboard’ and the human jukebox, the ideas are novel and ahead of its time.Do you remember some of the things people would say about your ‘button keyboard’ and ‘ironing board’ stand – both good and bad throughout your career?
You know, one club owner saw me set up my boat wench keyboard with my lights all around it, that could pick me up and the keyboard and take me all the way to the ceiling while I was playing standing on top of the keyboard, he said “That’s the show!” The Jukebox, they just took it away from me, I don’t know what happened to it. My underwater show, they said “You can’t do that” so I had to prove to them that I could, it cost me a lot of money. I had to compete with disco so I did what I could to stand out.
How has your piano technique changed over the years and do you still practice?
I know more about what I’m playing now and can play more how I feel.
How did you originally develop your playing style?
From Mamae, my stepmother, she put me up on the pump organ and I wasn’t tall enough, I could only get one foot down to peddle. She showed me the boogie woogie, and that’s what got me started.
Were your ideas more out of desperation or do you really enjoy the process of doing something nobody else is doing?
I went a year and a half to college and I wanted to be a scientist, the reason was I thought a person shouldn’t age or grow old. I thought that if I could come up with this, being a black man it would be taken from me, so I decided to be a musician. They seemed to accept me in a higher class because of my music.
What other ideas did you have along the way that you’d like to share?
I always wanted to invent things to help people, I thought about how a car could be run on springs instead of the engines we have now. That way, we’d be free of gasoline.
You probably have more stories than most musicians, is there anything you’d like to share with our readers that you remember about playing with a very young Jimi Hendrix?
I remember Jimi standing on top of the jukebox in the club, playing with the guitar behind his head. In those days there were no wireless systems and the guitar cords were only about 6 feet long. Jimi strung a bunch of them together and would walk out the front door of the Del Morocco and played for the cars going by on the street. Jimi walked around all the time with his guitar, he had it on his back wherever he went. He was just a true musician.
Do you listen to any new music today and if so what artists do you most enjoy listening to?
I listen all over the radio to see what everybody got. I haven’t found anything to match what we did on this last record or the one before that.