John Moore, 74, was 'best baritone' Juneau ever saw

Posted: Thursday, February 27, 2003

On a morning not too long ago, a thin, white-haired woman named Mary Moore put on a cassette in the small den where her husband used to pass his days. All at once that old honey voice came spilling out of the speakers.

"Georgia, no peace I find, an old sweet song keeps Georgia on my mind."

Her eyes twinkled with the memory. It was a recording of her husband, John Moore, singing with jazz guitarist Herb Ellis at Mike's Place in Douglas. It must have been more than 20 years ago now, she said. They all had been sitting on the floor listening to Ellis when someone suggested John sing. He'd picked up the microphone, no doubt grinning a bit, and crooned that song like he was Nat King Cole or Louis Armstrong.

"If they can play, you don't need to rehearse," Ellis said after Moore sang. "If they can't play, you can rehearse all night, and it wouldn't help." Everyone howled and clapped.

Moore, one of Alaska's most gifted vocalists, who once sang with jazz legends Percy Mayfield and Billie Holiday, died Feb. 19 in Seattle of complications from kidney disease. He was 74.

"John was like that, he had such a mastery of music, if there was a gig going on, he'd just go and they would play," said his close friend and neighbor Tom Perkins. "I always marveled that he knew the words to hundreds of songs."

Moore lived in Juneau since the late 1960s, singing over the years with the Juneau Lyric Opera, the St. Paul Singers, the choir at Holy Trinity Episcopal Church and the Mel Flood Big Band, a predecessor to the Thunder Mountain Big Band.

Moore started singing in high school in Jacksonville, Fla. His group became popular quickly and started touring the South, bringing their school books along. In preparation for his funeral service, Mary Moore set the album cover from John's high school days on her kitchen table. In the battered sepia cover photo, a teen-aged Moore poses regally, wearing a tuxedo with a white tie and tails.

"I will always remember John in this scene in "Merry Widow" where the men were all in tuxes. He was so distinguished," said Lena Simmons, who sang with him for 20 years. "Without a doubt he was the best baritone Juneau has ever seen."

John Moore's connection to the world of famous jazz musicians began in the 1940s when he was hired as a bus driver, taking a jazz group on tour through Florida.

"I would sing to myself as I drove along at night and after a while the guitar player came up and started to play. He liked how I played and told Percy Mayfield about me and I joined his group," Moore told the Empire in a 1998 interview.

In the early 1940s, Mayfield jetted to fame with the growing popularity of his song "Oh Please Send Me Someone to Love." Moore went to New York and worked with Mayfield for a few months. One night, at a party, Moore ran into jazz diva Billie Holiday. Holiday was singing at that piano, and during a break he introduced himself. Soon they were scatting up and down the jazz scale.

"She was a really neat professional and we sang a couple of tunes," John Moore said.

Around that time, the height of World War II, Moore felt the military had greater pull than music. After three years in the Army, he married his first wife, Charlie Mae Moore, and the couple had two children. In 1955, Moore took a job with the Bureau of Indian Affairs as a teacher in Chevak. When he got off the plane in the tiny village in southwestern Alaska, the village children who crowded around the plane ran away in fear.

"John couldn't figure out what he had done to offend them, then he realized they had never seen a black man before," said Perkins.

Moore eventually gained the trust of the villagers by showing his skills at igloo-building, which he had learned from the Steffansson's survival manual for Arctic pilots. Legend also has it that Moore once delivered a baby in the village by following the instructions of a doctor over the radio.

"It was breech birth, too," Perkins said.

Moore spent 12 years in rural Alaska, earned a master's degree in special education, and became an officer in the Alaska Army National Guard. He was promoted by the BIA to the position of special education director and he moved to Juneau, where he found music again. He started singing at the Baranof Hotel's Bubble Room with a small group of musicians, including Ron Maas, a trumpet player and founder of the Juneau Symphony.

"John was a prince among vocalists," Maas said. "He never missed a gig, never."

Divorced by the late 1970s, John Moore married Mary Sundberg. The two met when she asked him to sing in the Holy Trinity church choir. Moore also developed a reputation as a tremendous practical joker. He, Mary Moore and Tom Perkins once planted a Christmas tree in an old toilet and left it on the porch at the home of Dixie Belcher, the director of the St. Paul Singers.

"It stayed there for two months, too, because she was out of town," Mary Moore said, laughing.

John Moore leaves five children, three stepchildren and nine grandchildren.

"John was both a gentleman and a gentle man, a tremendous flirt, and unfailingly polite. He was old fashioned in that way," Simmons said. "His voice? Oh, it was like chocolate, deep, luscious chocolate."

Services will be held at 2 p.m. Saturday at Holy Trinity church with a reception from 3-5 p.m. at Mike's Place. In lieu of flowers, donations may be made to the Northwest Kidney Center, 700 Broadway, Seattle, Wash., 98122.

Julia O'Malley can be reached at

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