Dr. John was my favorite piano player in the world. He made it to age 77. This interview originally appeared in Tower Records’ Pulse! magazine in 2001, then was reprinted in my book, Tell the Truth Until They Bleed.
With each passing year, it becomes more evident that Mac Rebennack, aka Dr. John, is America’s premier roots musician. This is not negotiable. He is the national treasure trove of New Orleans music history. An artist whose physical constitution is so strong, he appears, at fifty-nine, indestructible. Misunderstood? That too, but so are all great artists. The gris-gris Night Tripper act of the Woodstock era was no act. Dr. John is a true-blue holy man of music, and the Mardi Gras outfits were mistaken for psychedelia. “We presented a show that was a New Orleans traditional thing,” says Mac. “That added to some confusement. And you’re so far removed from what you do on a gig to what is reality. People adds mystique in their head. But I’m just some regulation kind of guy.”
The Dr. John namesake was an admired, though much-feared, nineteenth-century New Orleans hoodoo conjurer. And these folks were no joke. A lot of modern medicine is based upon the once-dubious root and herbal cures of witchcraft and voodoo. Thus, the cover of Dr. John’s album at this moment in 2001, Creole Moon, is a painting of the original Dr. John of the 1850s. For a song concerning one local witch doctor, his liner notes proclaim she’s there “to cure your sorry ass from all that ails you. She knows about herbs, costs less than a croaker, and is sorta like your local HMO without all the forms to fill out.”
Four of the tracks were cowritten with Doc Pomus, who partnered up with Mac for almost fifteen years. Their collaboration yielded some four hundred songs, many of which lie in a trunk, yet to see the light of day. Mac is demoing them up. Some consider the finest Pomus/Rebennack composition to be “There Must Be a Better World Somewhere.” A blues standard now, the 1981 record copped a Best Blues Record Grammy for B. B. King. It was based upon an old hymn, “This Earth Ain’t No Place I’m Proud to Call Home.”
Dr. John puts his own embellishments upon the Queen’s English every time he opens his jaw. On page two of Under a Hoodoo Moon, he describes his 1994 autobiography as “a testament to New Orleans funk—to funksterators, tricknologists, mu-jicians, who got music burning in their brains and no holes in their souls. . . . You can’t shut the fonk up. No, the fonk got a mind of its own.”
He also speaks in “gumbo-izms”—vines are clothing, squares are cigarettes, screens are sunglasses, and legalizers are lawyers. However, when Jerry Leiber first heard that N’awlins-Brooklyn accent, he thought Mac was Jewish and that his father was a tailor.
During the making of Gumbo, Dr. John’s 1972 classic, Atlantic producer Jerry Wexler couldn’t get the drummer to play a proper second line. “This was Mac’s favorite second-line drummer, Freddie Staehle, and he was rollin’ around on Mac’s favorite number,” recalls Wex today. “I just wanted a backbeat on the two and four. So I went out on the drum kit to demonstrate.”
Mac walked up to Wex and said: “I don’t know what wrong wid the motherfucker. The motherfucker used to be some kind of all right, but since he join Scientology, he won’t play right no how.”
Even more to the point, Wexler remembers a moment at Duane Allman’s funeral: “We gave some cub reporter from Rolling Stone a lift on the [Atlantic Records] company plane. We’re all standing around in Phil Walden’s backyard, and the kid explains to me and Ahmet, ‘Look, Mac has his own talk, you see. You have to learn to understand Mac talk.’ So Mac walks up to him and says, ‘Man, can you lay a square on me, I wanna cocktail my doobie.’ The reporter stood there apoplectic.”
Under A Hoodoo Moon was written with Jack Rummel at a time when Dr. John was under duress. He never read the finished book: “I went into rehab, came out, the IRS reneged on a deal with me, I couldn’t make damn payroll. The only way I could make my nut was come up with this book. Three doctors put me on lithium. While I’m writing this book, and for about a year after that, I’m suffering from lithium poisoning. Three doctors, and each one thinks the other one is monitoring my dosage. I coulda sued all three. I had rehab-itis in the brain.”
Under a Hoodoo Moon should probably be taught in college music curriculums. It would scare some kids away from a music career, thus saving them a lifetime of pain and paying dues. Its also bears witness to New Orleans’ “tragic magic” dope scene of Mac’s youth. Back when he ran a bullshit pimping operation, boosted from stores, and got the shit kicked out of him by cops. He did hard time in Lexington and Angola. At one off-the-charts gig, he worked for an abortionist, dumping fetuses (wrapped up, natch) into the Seventeenth Street drainage canal. Years of nightmares followed, in which he saw babies floating to the surface. During his stretch in Fort Worth—in which he missed the original British invasion—he volunteered for jailhouse medical experiments. There he saw one of his jailhouse partners stone dead on a morgue table, his body still trembling like a leaf. All part of a musical education.
The book, whether fact or fiction, is a powerful memoir of one musician’s journey through life, so I recommend his own book to the Doctor. He says maybe he’ll check it out someday. He only has a Japanese edition.
When he was twenty-two, Dr. John remembers hearing the Beatles when the 1963 Vee-Jay disc was released in advance of their huge Capitol Records debut: “I tell you what, I was in New Orleans when Wayne Shuller [Vee-Jay Records] walked into Joe Assunto’s One-Stop Record Shop on South Rampart Street in New Orleans. Me and Earl King and some guys was hanging out. He put this record on the turntable and said, ‘This is gonna be the next number one record in the United States.’ Me and Senator Jones, Whirley Burley, Earl King, started rolling on the floor. We said, ‘Nobody dances to nuttin’ like dis, whataya crazy?’ That was my first impression. The groove, everything about it sounded outdated to us. . . . But then, he was right.”
On the Stones, Mac says, “It didn’t connect early on, ’cause they were coverin’ a lot of songs of friends of mine that was goin’ down the terlit behind it. Like Benny Spellman’s ‘Fortune Teller,’ that went down the drain with the Stones cover. Bobby Womack’s record ‘It’s All Over Now’ went down the terlit with the Stones cover, on and on.”
Mac revised his opinions, having played with various Beatles and Stones over the years. “Those weren’t my first miscalls. I thought Elvis Presley’d never make it either. I got a track record of callin’ ’em bad.”
It’s easy to see how a musical repository like Dr. John might hear things differently than the rest of the world. In the 1950s, while still in high school, Mac Rebennack hustled his own tunes to the New Orleans office of Specialty Records, and had some recorded by Little Richard, and Art Neville’s group, the Hawkettes. He doesn’t particularly remember which songs, or what they may have been retitled. It just represented pocket money, and thirty or forty bucks per song wasn’t bad for a high school kid. He played in a local group called the Spades. They once did a talent show at Jesuit High, when the band was loaded, and their R&B material enraged the priests. His next band was a “loose tribe of musicians” that changed its name weekly, but was mainly known as the Night Trains. They adapted their style for any occasion. Juke joints, tourist dives, roadhouse grocery and hardware stores. At strip joints, the girls danced with customers between sets. The Night Trains provided a groove for every dry hump or belly rub.
At Cosimo Matassa’s legendary R&B studio in New Orleans in the 1950s, young Mac Rebennack began to get hired as a session guitarist—before taking a bullet in the hand, ending his guitar career: “All of my guitar teachers had different influences that affect my piano playing. When Papoose [Fats Domino’s guitarist] early on sent me to sub on some sessions with Paul Gayten, he said, ‘Watch the piano guy’s left hand, and the chords he’s playin’ so you don’t mess up on the date and make me look bad.’ Well, I got in the habit of sittin’ right next to the piano player at Cosimo’s studio for years on all the dates. I got to watch all of them piano players, whoever was on the session. I wound up playin’ with wrong fingerings, but that’s the way it was.”
Mac’s switch to piano was one of the better things to ever happen to piano. Dr. John has the mightiest left-hand rhythm I’ve ever heard: “In New Orleans in the ’50s,” he recalls, “until electric basses came in, a lot of bands didn’t use a bass ’cause you couldn’t hear a standup—the piano player played the bass with his left hand. We’d rather put a baritone sax or horn in there—adding a bass was dead weight. Until electric bass came in.”
Dr. John may be too hip for the room, but he makes his case on piano perfectly. In twenty albums under his own name, he personifies all the great New Orleans pianists mixed to perfection, and then some.
“Alla what I do,” says Dr. John, “is some mish-mosh of Longhair, Huey Smith, Allen Toussaint, Art Neville, Tuts Washington, Charles Brown, Lloyd Glenn, Ray Charles, James Booker. My shit is a huge mixture of alla that. But Booker’s separate, because those other guys were strictly piano. But Booker, when he was with me, was a killer organ player and arranger with the band.”
Among hundreds of too-good-to-be-real hustlers in the Crescent City musical underworld, the late James Booker was probably the most eccentric, if not respected, of all New Orleans piano men. His style seemed to defy classification, an enviable trait mainly to musicians.
Once, Jerry Leiber obtained the services of James Booker to give his then nine-year-old son Jed some piano lessons. Booker arrived at Jerry’s front door straight from the hospital. He had a patch over his newly lost eye.
“Hey, man, what happened to you?” asked Jerry.
He put out his hand and presented himself: “James Carol Booker the Third . . . one eye later.”
Considering his rep as a nut job-junkie-faggot, Booker inquired, “You trust me with Jed sittin’ in my lap?” Jerry did. He had Jed lay his hands over Booker’s hands on the piano while Booker played “Good Night Irene.” He remembers seeing his son light up while getting a unique ride on top of New Orleans stride. Jed’s hands danced over the keys on top of Booker’s long skinny fingers, feeling the rhythm and the groove like no one else ever did.
One masterpiece of radiatin’ the 88s is Dr. John Plays Mac Rebennack, a 1981 collection of instrumentals on Clean Cuts. Then there’s “Fess Up,” the Professor Longhair tribute off 1992’s Goin’ Back to New Orleans. A pianistic mindblower, “Fess Up” is the meanest, cleanest gumbo of New Orleans barrelhouse and boogie-woogie one could ever imagine. The jazziest piano Dr. John ever recorded—another side of the coin—is best demonstrated on the track “Bye-Ya,” from producer Hal Willner’s 1984 Thelonious Monk tribute album, That’s the Way I Feel Now.
“Hal [Willner] says he’s got thirty takes of me doin’ that song in different bags. Me, Ed Blackwell, Steve Swallow, and Steve Slagle. When my father sold records in New Orleans when I was a kid, I always thought ‘Bye-Ya’ was done by a New Orleans band, with Art Blakey’s drumming.” He hadn’t known it was a Monk tune, and followed advice of one of the elder jazz players on the date: “He said we oughta cut this the way the Indians woulda did it. I’d like to recut that song and do a tribute to Monk one day, a completely other take on anything Monk did.”
Dr. John just about hit the high point of his career with the concept albums In a Sentimental Mood and Goin’ Back to New Orleans, in the ’90s. He also produced Dreams Come True for the Antone’s label in Austin. An instant classic in Texas, the album was a natural union of Austin’s three blues divas, Angela Strehli, Marcia Ball, and the great Lou Ann Barton. It took years: “I liked them girls,” says Mac. “Listen, you throw that many bitches together, you’re gonna have some ups and downs. Almost slapped Lou Ann’s ass a couple times, she come off to me with some smart-aleck shit. Fathead [Newman] had to call me down after I said, ‘I’m gonna take this motherfucker out in the hall and kick her ass in a minute.’”
Dr. John’s first release in the twenty-first century, previous to Creole Moon, was Duke Elegant, a funky tribute to Ellington. Some of the melodies are scaled down to mere blues progressions, quite unlike his Monk interpretations. You imagine the composer wondering, ‘Where’s my song at in there?’ His current backup band, on both albums, is called the Lower 9-11—a seemingly cryptic reference to Lower Manhattan on September 11—but the name was in place long before.
Dr. John, uniquely American himself, recorded a single with that 1940's symbol of over-the-top patriotism, Kate Smith. The old chestnut “Smile, Smile, Smile.” Atlantic jazz producer, Joel Dorn, had the bright idea to record a duet between Smith and John Lennon.
"I couldn't get Lennon," says Dorn today, "so I got Mac instead. I think Mac is America's premier musician. If you just think of him as Dr. John, you're missing the whole trip. He knows how to adapt to any island you drop him on."
“I remember meetin’ Kate and her bodyguard,” says Dr. John. “I’m thinkin’, ‘This three-hundred-pound bitch needs a fuckin’ bodyguard?’ They should bring Kate Smith back right now, let her sing ‘God Bless America’ in her own inimitable style. That was her shit, man. She was ahead of the times.”
--Josh Alan Friedman