Artist Spotlight: Ironing Board Sam

inTheir Adventureson December 17, 2017

Ironing Board Sam’s sudden stroke in October of 2015 pulled him away from the stage just as his career was taking a turn towards stardom. But even if things have gotten a bit quiet in his life lately, he remains an integral part of the Music Maker community. We worked hard with him through the boom times, and we’re there with him still.

It was seven years ago this November when Tim Duffy first invited Sam to join Music Maker. At the time, Sam had almost called it quits on his musical career and had gone home to South Carolina to semi-retire. He had an eye-popping show that traversed the genres of blues, R&B and soul, and he’d built a name around New Orleans, where he’d played the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival in the ‘70s—once from inside a 1,500-gallon aquarium. But Sam had been going it alone in the cut-throat music industry, and without good management taking care of business, the bottom was falling out.

It would have been a tragically obscure end to his career. Sam had been brushing shoulders with fame for his entire life, playing in the backing band for the Night Train live music show out of Nashville from 1965 to 1967. Sam sometimes played as a featured guest—a spot also occupied by B.B. King, Aretha Franklin, Little Richard, Etta James and Fats Domino. Working in the trenches of the backing band were Ironing Board Sam on his proto-electric button-board keyboard and a young guitarist named Jimi Hendrix. Together, Sam and Jimi regularly headlined the Del Morocco R&B club in those years.

While Sam had all the raw talent and innovation of his more famous colleagues, he went on to spend the next 40 years on the hard end of the music industry. Sam was in his 70s and on the verge of eviction when he joined Music Maker in 2010, and although he was calling it quits, he still had all the makings of a brilliant showman. Music Maker helped him move to a new home, and put the wheels in motion to help rebuild his career with new gigs and recordings. The first order of business was to call Quint Davis, founder of Jazzfest, and tell him Sam was alive. What followed was a triumphant return to the Jazzfest stage, before a crowd so packed that the fire marshal had to turn people away.

Within two years, Music Maker released Sam’s solo album “Going Up,” and relocated him to Chapel Hill, NC to work on his next album. There was a lot of work to do to get things back on track for Sam—a new car, a new home, dentures, glasses, and, most importantly, a keyboard. In 2012, Sam was back at Jazzfest and the talk of the festival. In August of that year, Living Blues named Sam as Comeback Artist of the Year, as Sam went to headline the Blues To Bop Festival in Lugano, Switzerland.

The momentum of Sam’s comeback seemed unstoppable. Record releases, international tours, documentary features, and awards rolled in. Sam’s 2013 album “Double Bang” was hailed as “deliriously un-self conscious and funky as hell,” and that year he was named Living Blues’ Most Outstanding Musician. Just four years after the music had almost ended, he was appearing on PBS Newshour, playing the Newport Folk Festival, and hamming it up in commercials as the spokesperson for Faultless Spray Starch. Sam was back on top. At the 2015 Jazzfest, Quint Davis came to personally greet Sam before the show. The gesture meant the world to Sam, and when he took the stage he put on one of the best shows of his life.

Then, just as Big Legal Mess was preparing to release “Super Spirit” in October 2015, Sam suffered a debilitating stroke. Music Maker leapt into action, canceling his upcoming tour and rushing to visit Sam in the hospital. He listened to “Super Spirit” for the first time from his hospital bed. Sam was hospitalized for two months, before moving to Montgomery, AL to be in his daughter’s care as he underwent rehab.

Sam has always embodied what it means to be a Music Maker partner artist. It’s been a journey of mutual commitment and deep friendship. “It’s been a great honor of my life being his friend,” Tim says. As Sam recovers, Music Maker’s sustenance program support helps him stay afloat despite the loss of his touring career. As Sam put it: “A stroke ain’t no joke, and with Music Maker, I won’t go broke.” Sustained commitments like these are the core of Music Maker’s work.

As Sam focuses on his health, Music Maker continues to back him on his journey. But that journey isn’t over yet: In 2020, Jazzfest is celebrating its 50th anniversary. Sam will be there in style.

— Zoe Van Buren

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