It's 3 o'clock on a Sunday afternoon, and Ironing Board Sam is being presented like a relic.
The stage lights of The North Carolina Museum of History's Daniels Auditorium are bright and tawny, and their glow over the seated audience—a motley collection of nearly 300 curiosity-seekers that spans generations—never fades. The flags of the United States and North Carolina flank the hall's stage, suggesting a grade-school assembly.
But Ironing Board Sam strolls on stage in a pink three-piece suit, pinstriped with black, with a shirt and tie to match. His thin mustache curls when he grins, which happens with noticeable frequency. This 74-year-old bluesman is not yet ready for relic status.
It's tempting to project too much importance on the components of music—to analyze its subtexts and structures and intentions, to attach a greater significance to its melodies and lyrics and production choices. Music is meaningful, powerful, creative; we all know this can be true. But it is also entertainment. Overthinking it risks missing that point entirely.
The blues are especially prone to this sort of excessive analysis and cultural deference. "It feels good to position the blues as a singularly raw, marginalized expression, to champion its so-called strangeness," critic Amanda Petrusich recently wrote. "The magnetism of those narratives can blind a listener to everything else."
Those words came in a review of a set of reissues from Third Man Records, the label owned by rock 'n' roll crusader Jack White. Indeed, preserving pop music's past has become a big if not always profitable business. Labels such as Raleigh's Grammy-nominated Old Hat Records exist with the sole intention of reissuing obscure, ancient releases. Organizations including the Piedmont Council of Traditional Music, better known as PineCone, have made a mission of "preserving, presenting and promoting all forms of traditional music, dance and other folk performing arts." Based in Hillsborough, The Music Maker Relief Foundation goes a step further, serving not only as a record label but also as a musicians' assistance outpost.
Born Samuel Moore in 1939, Ironing Board Sam has spent a half-century making his living by writing, performing and recording songs, but mostly by entertaining. He's occasionally enjoyed commercial success, though his peripatetic career has often sent him across America for decades on end, chasing vanishing opportunities.
When Music Maker located him in South Carolina in 2010, the organization offered to provide assistance with medical care, vehicle repairs and a move north. Moore has entered a remarkably productive and entirely unlikely new era of his musical career: Since moving to Hillsborough, he has performed at international blues festivals in Australia and the Caribbean, at schools and in bars. His Sunday afternoon show served as part of PineCone's Music of the Carolinas series, in which historians, enthusiasts and performers revivify the region's traditions on stage every month.
Most Thursdays, he holds a residency at Chapel Hill bar The Crunkleton, where he leads informal sets backed by The Bright Mines, a trio comprising Jennyanykind's twin founders Mark and Michael Holland and The Veldt drummer Marvin Levi. Originally, the bands were meant to perform separately, but when bar owner Gary Crunkleton suggested they play together between sets, the spark was apparent.
"The first time we did it," remembers Mark Holland, "we ended up playing two hours with him because it just felt so good."
When Moore took to the History Museum stage on Sunday afternoon, then, he was as an artist emboldened by new opportunities. His confidence showed in the playing: His left hand provided the steady boogie-woogie comp to the right hand's melody. Even when Moore performs alone, as he did that day, the songs sound full. His voice showed the inevitable signs of age—less resonant, more weathered—while it seemed to have only gained expressiveness.
But for all of his musical prowess, Moore is first and foremost an entertainer whose performances balance old-school professionalism with whimsy and bravado. In a set list that spanned Moore's career, decades-old songs such as "Child Support" and "Cherry Pie" shed none of their mischievous delight. During "Self-Rising Flour," a song with a jealous protagonist who sprinkles flour around his gate for surveillance, Moore opened a bag of the powder and spread it around the stage, singing off-mic through clouds of setting white.
"He's a great musician, but he's a great entertainer," reckons Holland, three decades Moore's junior. "He has some excellent moves and it's really incredible to see."
A month later, when I knock at the door of his modest Hillsborough duplex, Moore is surprised to see me. I'd interrupted what seemed like a rather idyllic lazy Sunday. The TV is on the kitchen table, and fragrant smoke hangs in the air. He's surprised, but not bothered: Ironing Board Sam is always ready to entertain.
There's an electric keyboard claiming most of the kitchen counter, and another leans against an amplifier near the front door. I assure him I won't be taking any photos, but he pardons himself, anyway. Ironing Board Sam returns in pressed jeans, a short-sleeved button-up with a subdued Hawaiian-style print and a tan Kangol golf cap. It's showtime.
In Rock Hill, where he was born, the Moore family— "country folk," he calls them—had few luxuries, but they had a piano. Sam's mother liked to set the toddler on the bench and let him bang on the keys. Years later, Moore remembers his brother telling him, "One day you were banging on the piano and you heard a scream in the back room, so you jumped off the stool and went back there, and your mother was dying." Sam was three years old. "That must have had something to do with you playing the piano," his brother suggested.
His father remarried, and his stepmother initially taught Sam how to play boogie-woogie, despite his father's wishes. "If I wasn't playing gospel, I'd get a whoopin'," Moore says. "But she taught me the boogie-woogie, then I'd sneak behind his back."
As a teenager, Moore moved to Winston-Salem to pursue music. He found work washing dishes and backing a female preacher, Rev. Vincent. But it wasn't the church that set him on the career that continues now. No, he began moonlighting in bars. "I was playing the piano and a grown woman sits on my lap. I was 14," he says, laughing. "I said, 'I want to be a musician from now on.'"
He spent the next several decades following any lead he could find, looking for a good manager, a record label or a club that could make an adequate offer. "There were no books on it, there were no guidelines, there were no computers, so there wasn't much in a library to tell you how to get started, except going to school to study music," he says.
But school wasn't in his future, so he took his muse to the road. He moved to Miami first, then Memphis, Nashville, back to Memphis, then on to Chicago, Iowa, Los Angeles and New Orleans. He earned his handle during that first Memphis stint.
Having grown up without much money, Moore learned to be resourceful. "If you don't have it and you can't buy it, make it," his father used to tell him. After seeing a picture of a snow-sled, Moore once tried to build one from scraps and used it to slide around on the snow-barren South Carolina dirt. "I thought that was the way you were supposed to do it," he says, grinning at the memory.
When he moved to Memphis, he built himself an electric keyboard, the "button-board" that would become his trademark. He mounted it on an ironing board. The name came almost immediately. He started draping the ironing board in red velvet to hide the device, but that didn't help. "They would just pull up the drape and say, 'It's an ironing board, hee hee hee,'" he says. "And then people would see it, people would pull up my dress on my ironing board all night long."
The results varied, just like the surroundings. In Nashville, a young guitarist named Jimi Hendrix briefly joined the backing band of Ironing Board Sam. That's where he also earned a gig on the influential television show Night Train, which boasted what's believed to be Hendrix's first television appearance and predated Soul Train by half a decade. "I was on for two years, and I still felt the impact for at least ten more years, and really for a lifetime because it started my career," Moore says.
New Orleans offered a mixed experience. At the Jazz & Heritage Festival in 1979, he performed inside a tank of water. A few years later, he caused a commotion on Bourbon Street by performing as the "Human Jukebox" inside a structure he'd built himself, complete with a slot where people dropped their money. He'd snap the curtain shut between songs. The stunt soon started pulling crowds away from the bars, he says; when the police came, they didn't know what to make of the act, so they arrested Ironing Board Sam for a noise violation. They confiscated his contraption. "They never gave it back to me," he says.
Along the way, he recorded a number of singles and albums for labels such as Holiday Inn and Atlantic. In the early '70s, he went into a Gary, Ind., studio and recorded The Ninth Wonder of the World of Music. A vibrant and varied collection, Ninth Wonder volleys between smirking electric blues and funky exotica, progressive funk and spare ballads. While rooted in blues and soul traditions, Moore's keyboard sounds also hint at the more prevalent use of synthesizers that would come a decade later. The record was manufactured in a tiny batch of 100 albums and sent to prospective agents and managers, but very little came of it.
That is, at least, until 2011, when Music Maker reissued Ninth Wonder; when they found Moore a year earlier, he'd returned to Rock Hill to visit an ailing sister and, he thought, retire. But some things are hard to shake loose. Now, Moore admits, he'll probably play music until he dies. Music Maker has afforded him the opportunity to gig regularly, travel the world and release his albums. This summer, they'll issue Double Bang!, a two-disc collection that combines new recordings with 10 of Moore's long-lost singles. Ironing Board Sam, the consummate entertainer, is back at the hustle.
"He's totally consumed with it," Holland observes. "During breaks, he'll be chatting it up with different people at different times, just working his way around the room, like a New Orleans style of working it. You can watch him crawl around like a king snake just talking to people, and people love him."
Leaning back into his sofa, feet propped up on the coffee table, Moore makes it all seem suddenly so obvious, like we've been missing the point by trying to figure out why certain songs make us feel the way they do.
"I like to make people happy. That's one thing I like about music: It's an occupation where people come out to be happy," he says. "I get to see people at their human best. The best of a human is when they laugh and smile and have a good time. That's what I want for the world."
This article appeared in print with the headline "The Entertainer."