Andrew Dys

'Ironing Board' tickles the ivories for the home crowd

MAY -- Ironing Board Sam Moore plays a blues tune. The veteran bluesman returned home to his native Rock Hill after years of traveling and performing (Photo by Andy Burriss).
MAY -- Ironing Board Sam Moore plays a blues tune. The veteran bluesman returned home to his native Rock Hill after years of traveling and performing (Photo by Andy Burriss).

CHESTER -- The smoke in the bar whirled in an embrace. The clink of bottles and ice made lovely percussion. The smell of barbecue filled the rest of Legends, a private club in Chester.

A packed house listened a week ago on a Saturday night, enraptured by a 69-year-old keyboard player and singer wearing a shiny suit named "Ironing Board" Sam Moore.

Moore, who has traveled the world playing the blues, banged the keys for the first time before a crowd near home.

Couples danced on the hardwood dance floor near two orange Halloween buckets filled with fivers and singles and even a couple ten spots. When an ironing board is covered with a keyboard, there's no room for a tip jar.

The club owner, Ken Rowsam, wandered around with a smile that didn't quit and basked among stunned, thrilled, club members.

"What a night!" Rowsam said.

The crowd asked for Sam Cooke. Ironing Board Sam sang "Bring it on home to me," and the crowd sang back "Yeah, yeah, yeah." Sam stood and the ironing board wobbled as he pounded those keys. Slow songs, ballads, blues so deep that kisses at the bar between couples who have loved each other for decades sparked lightning.

More than four hours he played. Three little breaks, a sip of something cold for Sam, then back at it.

"Play it, Sam!" called out someone in the crowd, in a take on the famous "Casablanca" line.

He did so with no cue cards, or cheat sheets with lyrics scribbled on drink coasters.

Every song, every melody, from memory.

In early May, I wrote about Ironing Board Sam. He hadn't been home to Rock Hill, his birthplace, for 43 years. He'd been on the road for more than 50 years, playing gigs small and large, dingy bars and grand nightclubs. He's made records, played with greats and nobodies.

Rowsam saw the story and wanted Sam. He got in touch, negotiated a deal and booked the show.

But others got in touch with Sam afterward, too.

The story was on The Herald's Web site, which means almost anybody with a computer could read it. A woman from California named Tammy called relatives in Rock Hill and got in touch with Sam.

"My daughter," Sam told me. "I hadn't talked to her in 10 years, at least. She's coming to see me this summer."

Word got up into North Carolina to Winston-Salem, where Sam played after he left Rock Hill at 16. A man in his 80s called; he was born in Rock Hill.

"My brother, Robert," Sam said. "He thought I was dead; I thought he was dead, too. Well, I know I ain't dead, and now I know, neither is he. I'm going up to see him July the Fourth."

So many in Sam's family in Rock Hill have found him since May. Nephew Darryl Miller, a mechanic who has been a guitarist most of his life, brought Sam in to work at the shop he has with brother Larry Miller, DL Automotive. Nights, Darryl and Sam rehearse. They have a couple of new songs and hope to record.

Darryl Miller set up Sam's equipment at the club in Chester and sat nearby through the whole show. He listened to a guy from England tell Sam the show was the best he'd ever seen, and he'd seen plenty.

Miller told me a line that night I will never forget: "I've been waiting all my life to hear him play a show," he said. "I'm sure not disappointed. Doesn't look like anybody else is, either."