The Doctor Is In
Dr. John's Crescent City Swamp-Funk Blues Are About To Flood Our Humble Town
By Ron Bally
OCTOBER 20, 1997: SWAMP-FUNK BLUES pianist Dr. John is synonymous with the rollicking good-time party vibes of Mardi Gras, the French Quarter and the annual New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival.
He's also a pioneer in the richly historic and vastly influential, elite Crescent City r&b/blues/pop music scene, a musical gumbo of talent which boasts such legendary performers as Fats Domino, Professor Longhair, Dave Bartholomew, and the Neville Brothers.
He and his three-piece combo will helm the nine-week tour, visiting 41 cities. They'll be supported by harp virtuoso Charlie Musselwhite and 1997 Grammy winning (for Best Contemporary Blues Album) steel guitarist-songwriter Keb' Mo'.
Dr. John returns in support of his latest album, Trippin' Live--his first "official" live recording--released last summer. "We played (Tucson) on a B.B. King tour when it was, like, 128 degrees or something," recalls Dr. John in his gruff, baritone-rich voice. Unlike the recent Trippin' Live document, which is bolstered by an eight-piece band featuring three horns and an extra percussionist, the pianist-vocalist has pared down his live line-up to include guitarist Bobby Brown, bassist David Barard and drummer Herman V. Ernest, III.
Asked if he considers himself a "legendary blues pianist," as his press release so proudly champions, he declares without a trace of cynicism, "I just consider myself a guy who plays the piano--I love to play the blues."
"I started off as a studio guitar player back in the '50s, and basically, I was wanting to be a T-Bone Walker--so that's the blues. If people ain't aware of the blues, they're missing the one thing American culture ever produced. I think if it wasn't for jazz, blues and gospel music, there wouldn't be too much culture in this country," he says.
According to his colorful, soul-baring 1994 autobiography Under A Hoodoo Moon (co-written with Jack Rummel), recently released in paperback, Dr. John was born Malcolm "Mac" Rebennack in the Third Ward district of New Orleans on November 21, 1940. His mother was a model and his father owned a record store. By his early teens he was an accomplished pianist and guitarist. He developed a relationship with many musicians from working at his father's store and hanging out at record producer Cosimo Matassa's J&M studio. By the mid-'50s, he was in high demand as a session guitarist for Professor Longhair, Frankie Ford, Joe Tex and Little Richard. In the '60s he began to produce and arrange for others (Lee Allen, Red Tyler, Earl Palmer, Eddie Bo and Paul Gayten) and to record songs on his own.
In 1961, he was forced to retire his six-string instrument when he was shot in the hand during a barroom brawl. Dr. John admits his life probably would've turned out differently as a guitarist if his left ring finger weren't disabled, but he's at peace with himself and indifferent about the outcome of his reconstructive surgery.
"Oh, I'm cool with it. It doesn't make a difference," he says. "I just love to play music. Oh, I'm sure it would've been different, but that's how it is."
He concentrated on the keyboard, moved to L.A. and became a session regular, working on numerous records for arranger/producer Harold Battiste, Sonny Bono, the O'Jays, and more notably, mega-producer Phil Spector. Although he cites Professor Longhair's native Caribbean-meets-Mardi Gras Indian music as having the biggest impact on his piano technique, he does acknowledge the influence of others. He specifically mentions Toussaint, James Booker and Huey "Piano" Smith as influencing his piano playing style.
He classifies his unique approach to banging on those 88 keys as "a combination of a lot of New Orleans piano players mixed with some guys like Ray Charles, Charles Brown and Lloyd Glenn."
According to The New Rolling Stone Encyclopedia of Rock & Roll, in 1964 Rebbenack fused the emergence of West Coast acid rock with New Orleans rhythm-and-blues to create his alter-ego, the mystical, voodoo-inspired frontman, Dr. John Creaux the Night Tripper (later shortened to Dr. John). His critically acclaimed debut, Gris Gris, released in 1968 on Atco Records, featured the oft-covered "I Walk On Guilded Splinters," recently sampled by rap group PM Dawn in 1992, and on Beck's 1994 Billboard Top 10 hit, "Loser."
Dr. John says he doesn't mind all the sampling that goes on today. "Music is freely created and freely out there for the taking," he says. "Yeah, Beck's cool...I saw him the other night with Willie Nelson singing an old Jimmie Rodgers song. And I used to love Jimmie Rodgers...."
The Gris Gris album was a unique mixture of traditional Creole chants, spooky voodoo imagery and traces of psychedelia, which coalesced with Mardi Gras excess in Dr. John's on-stage Indian costumes (vividly colored, ornamental robes and wildly feathered headdresses), and his troupe of exotic dancers and singers.
He acquired a rabid local following, which included Eric Clapton and Mick Jagger, who both performed on his London-recorded 1971 effort, The Sun, Moon and Herbs. He then headed toward the more accessible avenues of funk/r&b with In The Right Place in 1973. Produced by Toussaint, and backed by the Meters, the album spawned Dr. John's biggest hits: "Right Place, Wrong Time," which reached No. 9 on the Billboard singles charts; and "Such A Night," which topped off at No. 42. In The Right Place was also his highest charting album, peaking at No. 24 on the Billboard charts.
For nearly three decades, and well into the late-'80s, Dr. John was an out-of-control juke-joint hustling, whore-chasing, full-blown heroin addict. His notorious back-alley drug dealings and shady wheeling-and-dealing misadventures, which eventually landed him a stint in the Louisiana State penitentiary, are meticulously documented in Under The Hoodoo Moon. He's been drug-free now for "almost eight years."
Though he's hesitant to give advice on the subject, he offers that "there's other ways to live."
"Drugs always seem to have a way of being in people's faces. And I don't think my sayin' nothing is gonna have a lot of affect on nobody. My advice is if they wanna stop--go kick. Look, it's a weird thing. Doc (Pomus) used to tell me, 'Will you please quit shootin' that dope in my bathroom? You're gonna die in there. What can I do? I'm gonna be stuck in my goddamn wheelchair worrying about it.' I loved Doc. And it used to make me feel like shit to hear that. But on the other side of it, until I was ready to do something for me, it didn't matter with him or what anybody else said or did--it had to come from me."
Pomus, with partner Mort Shuman, co-wrote "Save The Last Dance For Me," "This Magic Moment," "Viva Las Vegas," and co-produced Jimmy Witherspoon's "Midnight Lady Calls The Blues" with Dr. John in 1987. Wheelchair-bound since childhood because of a crippling bout with polio, Pomus died in 1991. On the 1995 tribute album Till The Night Is Gone: A Tribute To Doc Pomus, Dr. John performs "I'm On A Roll."
"Doc was one of my favorite people," he says.
In 1989, Dr. John returned to his traditional New Orleans roots--while also craftily mainstreaming his down home funky appeal. He scored a huge hit, and his first Grammy, for his duet with Ricky Lee Jones on "Makin' Whoopee," a sophisticated, jazzy-pop gem featured on the album In A Sentimental Mood, an eclectic collection of old blues, jazz and romantic pop standards. Dr. John garnered his second Grammy--for Best Traditional Blues Album--in 1992 with Goin' Back To New Orleans, cataloguing selections from the 1850s to the 1950s. The all-star cast of New Orleans musicians who appeared on this recording included Al Hirt, Pete Fountain, Danny Barker and the Neville Brothers.
This past April, he accepted a third Grammy for his contribution to the star-studded Stevie Ray Vaughn tribute album featuring Clapton, Buddy Guy, Bonnie Rait and B.B. King.
In recent years, his distinctive voice has become familiar to millions through a number of TV commercial jingles and voice-over work. He makes some decent money recording them, but can't recall-- or, more likely, chooses not to remember--any of them. "I do them (jingles) and they're out of my head," he says succinctly.
His plans include getting married again ("very soon" is as specific as he'd get) and hitting the recording studio in December.
"I'm expecting to cut some funky stuff, and hopefully get Allen Toussaint to produce some of it," says Dr. John. "I don't intend to cut anymore large band stuff."
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