Lessons in American music

Ironing Board Sam doing residency at local charter school
Feb. 26, 2013 @ 07:18 PM

This is not your parents’ school music class – or perhaps not the one you remember from school days, either.

Samuel Moore, better known as “Ironing Board Sam,” leads a group of students in Karen Millin’s fourth-grade class at Orange Charter School in a version of Carl Perkins’ song “Blue Suede Shoes.”

“Are you ready for all these ukuleles?” William Dawson, the music teacher at the school, asks Sam. Dawson accompanies Sam on bass while the students play crashing chords on ukulele. Dawson urges the fourth-graders to sing out as well as play chords. Sam, playing an electric keyboard, also leads the students through rehearsals of “I’m Walkin’,” “Cupid,” “Monster Mash” and other classics of rock ‘n’ roll and rhythm and blues.

Since January, Ironing Board Sam, an artist with Hillsborough-based Music Maker Relief Foundation, has been giving monthly master classes and rehearsals for the students in kindergarten through fifth grade. He will continue the visits in March and April, culminating in a May concert in which Sam, Dawson and the students will perform songs for parents and teachers at the school.

The fourth-graders played ukuleles. Other elementary grade students will play glockenspiel, and the middle school jazz band also will perform in what Dawson anticipates will be “a joyful noise.”

Ironing Board Sam, now 72, lives in Chapel Hill, where Music Maker took him on as one of their artists. Under the Music Maker label, he released the CD “Going Up” in 2011. He also has performed with the N.C. Youth Tap Ensemble. He was born in Rock Hill, S.C., and his career in rhythm and blues has taken him to Chicago, Miami, Memphis and even European cities.

At the class he led last week, Sam told the students the story about how he got his stage moniker, and how he made his own electric keyboard decades ago. When he was playing music in Miami, his organ burned and was destroyed. He returned to his Rock Hill home where he took a two-by-four board, some thumb tacks and telephone wire and made an electric keyboard. He called the instrument “the button board.” When he was playing music in Memphis later, he would put the keyboard atop an ironing board, and the name stuck.

“I didn’t like the nickname at first,” he told the students, but he made the name part of his career – along with his sharp, colorful clothes.

He began playing a pump organ in his home at around age 4. When he was 14, “I went to have lessons, but [the teacher] wouldn’t teach me because I already knew the boogie-woogie” style, he said. His teacher did not want to take on a student who had played in that style.

“I decided to play anyway,” Sam told the students.

Music Maker and the Jazz Foundation of America’s Jazz in the Schools Initiative are supporting these sessions. Dawson said his connection to Sam came from his association with Music Maker, where Dawson worked going through audio tapes after he played on a tour with the re-formed Squirrel Nut Zippers. Dawson said he saw a connection with Music Maker’s mission to put music in the hands of people, and the master classes came to be.

In his teaching, he tries to emphasize live, rather than recorded, music.

“All these kids, they can look at a chord chart. They may be 7-years-old, [but] they can play the tune,” Dawson said.

Having Ironing Board Sam teach the class also exposes young students to different forms of American music. “It’s amazing to have a kid playing a Robert Johnson song … Woody Guthrie – American music by American children,” Dawson said.

After the class, Sam shared some of his teaching techniques with a reporter.

Instead of teaching a student a scale, or example, he teaches them how to play thirds on a piano, which become the basis of chords. They learn to move about the keyboard and make music, he said. Being able to play an instrument and sing has helped him keep making a living as a musician, he said.

He complimented Dawson on encouraging the students to play their ukuleles and sing out as well.

“I like what [Dawson] was doing, making them sing,” because it gives students who want to be musicians a “better chance to make a living for themselves,” he said.

Sam has worked with young students before in his career, and said “I never say no” when the chance to share music with children comes along. “Music is so universal. It’s something they want, and I can give it.”