Ironing Board Sam Renaissance: Interview with Tim Duffy of Music Maker Relief Foundation
The blues are no joke. That’s what eclectic-soul singer Ironing Board Sam found at the end of his rope, nearly broke and burned out after a lifetime spent running around the edges of the music industry track.
He’d lived in Nashville and Memphis, cut singles for major labels like Atlantic Records, appeared on Night Train in the 1960s, even played and performed with a young Jimi Hendrix. But success always passed him by. People were “too busy,” as he’s said.
Part of it might be that Sam has always worked outside the box. The “Ironing Board” in his name came from the unique keyboards he’d put together, mounted on actual ironing boards, and played standing up with a strap — perhaps the original keytar? He made his own costumes, created visually dazzling stage shows at a DIY level, and performed on the streets of New Orleans as a human jukebox accepting coins from passersby.
When disco hit, he even performed inside of a giant tank of water to drum up crowds. He’s an inventor, and a bit of a visionary, always thinking of better ways to improve humanity. That’s what made it even harder to hear that he had fallen on hard times and returned to his home state of South Carolina.
With a mind to help, the nonprofit Music Maker Relief Foundation connected with Sam in 2010, moved him to North Carolina, got him a new keyboard, and worked with him to release new albums and re-release old classics. It’s been a long road together, but Sam’s new album, Super Spirit, is a triumph. Produced by Bruce Watson of Big Legal Mess Records and iconoclastic Southern musician Jimbo Mathus, it’s a kind of grab-bag of chicken-fried Southern soul with a healthy dose of blues and electric keyboard thrown in, and Sam reigns over it all, his voice still powerful, strong and rich.
The vinyl for the new album is a glory too. Pressed on red vinyl, the record itself and the packaging reflect the zany folk art of Ironing Board Sam in a creative way. The music’s pressed deep on this one, and it rings out from the record player with a confidence that can only come from Sam’s new community.
I wanted to know more about the team behind the album and Sam’s renaissance, so I reached out to Tim Duffy, the head of Music Maker Relief Foundation. They’re really an amazing organization. Here’s what Tim had to say about the project, on vinyl’s return, and on Ironing Board Sam’s philosophy of life.
Devon Leger: I’d love to hear your thoughts on the vinyl resurgence. Did you get into music originally with vinyl? Why do you think it’s coming back, and what challenges and opportunities does that present now for independent record labels?
Tim Duffy: My father had a wonderful record collection; he was constantly bringing home records. I grew up with a firm grasp of blues, jazz, rock and roll, folk, and world music. When I was a kid, FM radio was mostly classical stations. Album stations were just coming into FM; radio stations often would play whole sides of a records, so that’s what I grew up with. I missed out on the 45 single thing, which was still going, but I just never was a part of that. I think it is coming back, because it was and always has been something authentic, something to hold in your hand, to admire the artwork, to put on the turntable and watch it spin. The record is a physical sound, created by real vibrations that can be felt emotionally in a deeper way. Many people I respect in the audio field have explained to me that digital sounds are actually harmful to your health and being. I’m not sure how that works, but there is probably something to it.
As for record labels, like anything in this music business, vinyl is not a cure. The biggest online music sellers right now are structuring things so small independent record labels net next to nothing. Anyone releasing an album right now as a small label is doing it for the love of the music, not for money.
I love how Sam taps into all these folk art elements with his keyboard design and his style and personal art. Did you want to tap into that too with the vinyl? The red vinyl was a splashy choice, and the album pops too! Did you think it was important to tap into Sam’s aesthetic a bit?
Sam’s personality is vibrant, large, colorful, he is known to legions of friends throughout the world as their favorite human they have ever met. Bruce [Watson] at Fat Possum was wonderful to work with. I sent him the photos from our collection that we thought represented Sam and he went along with it. Bruce is a very special record executive. I think the whole album is Sam, he was the leader and everyone involved did our best to live up to his dreams and expectations. Sam believes in creating peace throughout the world, ending world hunger, love; big issues are his focus, never anything less, so to be involved with Sam you want to join him in his unique vision of the universe, you want to be a part of it.
How did Sam pick the songs on the album? I loved that Bruce Watson suggested them, but did Sam really go for the process?
This is a great point. It is a testament on what a powerhouse Sam is and what a brave genius Bruce is. Many producers have a difficult time getting senior artists to learn new songs, and so they go in a new direction. I recently read an interview by T Bone Burnett expressing how hard this can be. Bruce picked songs after getting to know Sam and his music – he gave the songs to Sam I think about 6 months in advance. Sam took this quite seriously and began to listen to the songs over and over, closer to the session he learned the words. I was not in the studio, but I was told that Jimbo was genius and really connected with Sam. Though Sam knew the words, he wanted to know what the songs meant, and Jimbo would talk to Sam about them, what the poetry was about, what it meant to the world, and Sam got it, and then he said he could put the feeling into the words.
When I visited Sam soon after the record came out, he was just looking at the artwork and was thrilled. When the needle hit “Loose Diamonds,” he turned to me, and said “Tim, that song is really about me, I did not know it at first, but it is me, this album represents me, I do not know how you did it, Tim, the people you introduced me to, took me to another level, to another place in my career, the highest I have ever gone, at 75 years old! I really thought at one point I would give up, but I did not. Wow.”
How did Jimbo Mathus get involved? I’ve loved his work since Squirrel Nut Zippers. Was he originally a fan of Sam’s?
Jimbo is among the most qualified, knowledgeable musicians I have ever met. Bruce Watson brought Jimbo to the sessions, he and Sam connected deeply. Jimbo came up to NC to work on some of the vocal tracks with Sam. I saw them both together in Sam’s parking lot, it was something to see, how much they loved and trusted each other. You rarely witness such acute, focused devotion amongst musicians, I am proud to have seen it.
I really liked this quote from Sam on the back of the album sleeve: “Be fair to each other. True love, mean no harm. The human touch means so much.” Does it resonate for you in the work you do with Music Makers?
On the album there is a picture I took of Sam where he received the vision of what he called, “The Hibulon Poem.” He recited this poem and message to me countless times, and I was blessed that Sam took me to the spot in Louisiana where he received his vision. Music Makers is all about this, being fair, love, helping the overlooked musicians of our country reach music lovers throughout the world.
I thought of Sam as a blues musician more, but this album is so deep in R&B and soul. He came out of this world in Nashville, right, but do you think this album is a return to his R&B roots, or that he’s always had these roots front and center?
Sam to me is always an R&B musician. He has deep Carolina blues roots so that is in there. He learned to play the boogie woogie at a young age. But remember, Jimi Hendrix often cited Ironing Board Sam as one of his deep influences. Reflecting on that and spending so much time with Sam, I wonder what that could have been, his stage attire, his work ethic, his intense musicianship; Billy Cox is still alive, it would be good to ask him. They were just boys under Sam. Sam never was managed, and his career slipped through so many great opportunities; that he survived at all is a true testament to his strength. Sam is one of the great unsung pioneers of this genre. His influence is immeasurable in this field. So many future stars ran across him, studied everything about him and incorporated his being into their work. This was inevitable, Sam’s persona is and was just huge.
What kind of work has Music Maker done with Sam and how has he received the new attention to his music? I read that quote in Living Blues about how he never wanted to end up a broke blues musician, and has that been changed at all?
We met Sam in Rock Hill, SC. He was playing in a dive steak house, about to be evicted from an awful trailer. We moved him close to us, rented him an apartment, got him a car, keyboards, suits, dentures, glasses, made new records for him, found his old LP that was never issued and issued it, got his old 45s and issued them, actually found a few hundred of his old 45s and bought and gave them to him, got him gigs at Lincoln Center, Jazz Fest, Europe, Australia, booked him local shows, introduced him to Bruce Watson. We issued 5 records in five years with him. Sam became the official spokesperson for Faultless Starch. Sam truly got what Music Maker does when we partner with an artist, he embraced it, and he worked so hard with us. It has been a great honor of my life being his friend.
Did Sam ever come around to the “Ironing Board” part of his name? I remember reading he didn’t like it at first!
Sam invented the “Button Board,” one of the first portable electronic keyboards. He built a case around it with a curtain to make it look like a Hammond Organ. He was playing at a tent show and some kids pulled up the curtain and saw his keyboard sitting on an Ironing Board and called him Ironing Board Sam. He was ashamed at first, but then he became proud.
What were some seminal vinyl albums for you personally that you’d love to re-release, in an ideal world?
There is an old time mountain group called The Blue Ridge Mountain Entertainers that released 78s in 1930. Clarence Greene was on fiddle, Walter Davis on guitar, Will Abernathy played mouth harp, and there were others. They were out and about with Gid Tanner and the Skillet Lickers. They have never received much attention, even though they recorded the first hillbilly version of “Corine Corrina” that went on to be a huge national hit that others recorded, their version was the one that go it going. I always wished someone would reissue their albums and try to figure out who these amazing talents were. They laid the groundwork for so much music that followed.