Dr. John: The Doctor Is In

Dr. John has left the stage for the last time, but nothing can dim the beauty of his music and his love affair with the wild, dangerous New Orleans that once was.

by Marshall Bowden

They call me Dr. John,
I’m known as the Night Tripper,
Got a satchel of gris-gris in my hand,
Got many clients that come from miles around
Runnin’ down my prescriptions.
I got medicines, cure all y’all’s ills,
I got remedies of every description

“Gris-Gris Gumbo Ya-Ya” from the album Gris-Gris, 1968–

Back in 1973 when Dr. John hit the charts with the Allen Toussaint produced, Meters backed “Right Place, Wrong Time”, I was 11 years old and had already developed a feel for pop music oddities. If it was weird or different or just plain didn’t sound like it belonged with the rest of the stuff on the radio, I was down with it. “Right Place, Wrong Time” drew my attention, not because the song itself was odd (it’s not) but because the performer, one Dr. John, was definitely not your standard Top 40 performer.

Iko Iko” with Ringo Starr, Nils Lofgren, Rick Danko, Joe Walsh, and BIlly Preston, Clarence Clemons & Levon Helm

In ’73 he appeared on Don Kirshner’s “Rock Concert” and “The Midnight Special”. Dressed resplendently in a long robe, adorned with bones and crosses, trailing brightly colored feathers and glitter dust wherever he went, the Doctor cut a singular figure. To me (and a good many others), raised in the Midwest with no exposure to the music or culture of New Orleans, he seemed like a novelty act. This perception of Dr. John persisted into my 20’s, when I was listening to jazz and began to listen to R&B and other forms of music that had influenced the rock performers of the 1960s and 1970s. Somehow, I couldn’t see Dr. John as an authentic representative of the New Orleans music scene. Though his music was intriguing and solid, his outward appearance and Night Tripper persona just seemed like a gimmick.

Of course, nothing could be farther from the truth. Though Dr. John the Night Tripper was a persona and found some degree of commercial success by being in the right place at the right time (the height of psychedelia), Mac Rebennack the musician was a complete product of New Orleans’ post-World War II music scene and its history-steeped mystique. Dr. John conjured images of a New Orleans that, even in 1967, no longer existed — Bourbon Street was already known as a tourist trap by then. But the persona went deeper than that, deep into the history and the myth of the city with its African and Caribbean influences that resulted in the Mardi Gras Indians, Congo Square, and authentic voodoo culture.

The music that Rebennack performed as Dr. John completed the magic because it was as serious and authentic as it could be. Rebennack had paid his dues in the clubs and recording studios of New Orleans in the mid-1950s and early 60s, and it showed in his piano playing, his deportment, and even his speech patterns.

When personal difficulties and a lack of work exiled him, along with many other New Orleans session men and producers, to the West coast, he found a way to reconnect with the music and the city that had nurtured him. Dr. John the Night Tripper, far from being a gimmick or a novelty, was a way for Mac Rebennack to earn a living as a musician while honoring and coming to terms with both his own past and that of his hometown.

THE NEW ORLEANS YEARS

Malcolm John Rebennack, Jr. was born on November 20, 1941. His mother, Dorothy, came from Mobile, Alabama and was of Irish and French ancestry, while his father, John Rebennack, Sr. was born in New Orleans. John Sr. owned a radio and electronics shop. By the time he was three Mac was already playing around with the family piano.

As he grew, his father nurtured his interest in music, allowing him to listen to the 78 rpm records that he sold in his store. The music Mac heard at his father’s store was primarily country and blues, including Hank Williams, Gene Autry, Champion Jack Dupree, and Memphis Minnie. When Mac reached his teens his mother took him downtown to Werleins’s Music where he picked out a guitar, and soon he was playing along with records by Lightning Hopkins and other blues artists. He spent hours practicing guitar and piano, learning to play blues and, as he entered high school, rock and roll, which was making inroads into New Orleans.

Dr. John plays “When the Saints Go Marching In” solo piano

His father was friends with Cosimo Matassa, owner of the only recording studio in town and the man who engineered every New Orleans R&B or rock & roll session cut during the 1950s. Matassa let young Mac hang out in the studio and watch recording sessions as well as running errands. Mac talked to and became friends with many of the musicians, including Red Tyler and Lee Allen. At this same time, Mac was attending Jesuit High, a prestigious school with a reputation for academic excellence. Rock & roll music was in full swing, and Mac formed his first band, the Dominos. Still playing the guitar, Mac was popular with his fellow students and soon was thinking about playing music fulltime. He left school during his junior year, playing with the Dominos, taking session work at Matassa’s studio, and finishing high school via correspondence course.

Mac’s band changed names frequently depending on the singer they might be backing, but under any name they were in frequent demand. Soon they were out on the road: “We use to work like forty, fifty days on the road…Baton Rouge, Alexandria, Monroe, Shreveport, go up in Arkansas, work all the cities there. Then we’d go through Oklahoma, come back through Texas, work the Gulf Coast into Florida, and come back home. Just workin’ one nighters, except in those days we was drivin’ to all them gigs” recalls Rebennack.

Come 1958 and Mac, now seventeen, joined the musicians’ union local and started to write songs. He and a friend, Seth David, started writing songs together and were able to place a few with Specialty Records through Harold Battiste. In fact, during the period between 1956 and 1963 more than fifty of Mac’s compositions were recorded in New Orleans. While many of these weren’t heard outside the Crescent City, some were hits throughout the South.

Rebennack didn’t earn much money for these since the small record companies that released the records often didn’t bother paying writers’ royalties; sometimes the songs would be credited to the artist or producer. Mac worked like a fiend, though, playing guitar and writing songs, earning mostly union wages. He worked with anyone, black or white, who he thought might have talent. His language became studded with black slang and his guitar playing closely resembled the style of many black players at the time. As the 1960s came along, things looked great for Mac Rebennack’s future.

Two things happened in 1961 that interrupted the career path that Mac was on. The first was a shooting that occurred at a hotel in Jacksonville, Florida. Ronnie Barron got into an argument with the hotel manager, and Mac sought to intervene. Somehow the gun was fired and Mac’s left index finger was struck and damaged. Though doctors were able to do reconstructive surgery on the finger, it took a year to heal, and he was never again able to play guitar as he had before. Mac played bass in some Dixieland clubs on Bourbon Street, but found the music and the tourists hard to take. He began to play the piano again and learned to play the organ with the help of New Orleans great James Booker. He also became a heroin addict, a habit that dogged him until he was finally able to kick it for good in 1989.

The second thing that happened to disturb not only Rebennack’s career but also the careers and livelihoods of many in the New Orleans music business was the election in 1961 of Earling Carothers “Jim” Garrison as District Attorney for the City of New Orleans. Garrison put the screws to club owners, cracking down on gambling and prostitution and revoking licenses. Clubs began to close down because their owners couldn’t afford or didn’t want the trouble.

Mac recalls that “The club work that used to be so plentiful evaporated between ’61 and ’63. It seems to me mosta the clubs he was padlockin’ was the joints that were somewhat available for gigs.” In a 1998 interview, Mac called Garrison “A real asshole…they fucked up whole chunks of the city to make some money, they tore down half of the clubs to put up the hotel we’re sitting in right now.” The result was a diaspora of studio musicians and producers, most of who ended up in California. After a stint in a Fort Worth hospital for drug rehabilitation, Mac went there as well.

Professor Longhair’s “Tipitina” at Montreux Jazz Festival, 1986

Mac’s old buddy Harold Battiste was now working in Los Angeles as a producer for Sonny and Cher, and he hired Mac to play with the duo on the road as well as getting him session work. Rebennack worked with a number of high-profile L.A. producers, including Leon Russell and Phil Spector. By 1967, when Jim Garrison was arresting and prosecuting Clay Shaw for conspiracy to kill President Kennedy, Mac Rebennack was constructing the new persona that would take him from session musician and producer to psychedelic rock icon: Dr. John.

DR. JOHN, THE NIGHT TRIPPER

There was a real Dr. John. Dr. John Montaine was a 19th century Bambarra prince (or so he claimed) who lived in New Orleans, selling gris-gris spells and specializing in healing. Montaine would place or lift a hex, fortell the future, or offer healing herbs for a fee. Rebennack found out about Montaine while rummaging through a bunch of old books on Haitian voodoo that were shipped to the antique store where his sister worked. Mac had read these books, attended voodoo sessions, and purchased candles and potions at the Cracker Jax Drug Store back in New Orleans.

The idea of creating an alter ego who would perform music based on the voodoo myths of New Orleans had percolated in Mac’s mind for a while, and now the chance to do it presented itself in Los Angeles. Harold Battiste was given the opportunity to work up some of his own projects through the Atco record label. Atco, Sonny and Cher’s label, was a subsidiary of Atlantic Records, and Ahmet Ertegun felt Battiste could develop some interesting acts with his New Orleans connections.

Battiste and Rebennack assembled a group of New Orleans exiles in the studio, and the result was the ‘voodoo rock’ album Gris-Gris, a recording unlike anything recorded either before or since. The record utilized layered percussion and, on some tracks, two basses as well as guitar. There wasn’t a lot of keyboard on the album, although Mac did do some organ work. It featured weird and spooky songs, with chanting, that created images of an imaginary New Orleans and put Dr. John out front as a hip medicine show barker selling his philosophy and potions.

Especially strange was the final track, “Walk On Guilded Splinters”, an incantation that was simultaneously exhilarating and scary. Weirdly enough, Cher covered this track on the sessions for her 3614 Jackson Highway album. When Ahmet Ertegun heard Gris-Gris, an album recorded on the sly that he hadn’t even known about and seemingly with no commercial potential, he went crazy and said he would not release the album, but changed his mind and released it to an unsuspecting public. What no one knew was that the psychedelic music happening at the time had prepared people for just this type of thing, and Gris-Gris managed to become an underground hit.

A couple more faux voodoo albums followed. Babylon‘s cover featured the Doctor with a mop helmet and a table leg scepter and sold poorly. The third album, Remedies went deeper into New Orleans musical styles but was delivered by John’s manager to the record company before it was completed. Mac fired his manager in London as they were about to begin recording a new album, and he was left with nothing but a drummer. The rock community rallied around him as Mick Jagger, Eric Clapton, and a plethora of studio hands arrived to assist in the sessions. A pretty good album, titled The Sun, the Moon and Herbs resulted. Unfortunately, it was not a commercial success and left Dr. John deeply in dept with a career that was sputtering.

Dr. John at the 2007 New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival
Derek Bridges New Orleans, LA

GUMBO & THE METERMEN

With assistance from Jerry Wexler from Atlantic Records, Dr. John moved in a more traditional direction, performing a number of the down-home songs that he remembered from his early life in the Crescent City. The result was the album Gumbo, which charted in Billboard and included renditions of “Tipitina”, Earl King’s “Those Lonely Nights”, “Iko Iko” and a Huey Smith medley. Mac dropped the exotic trappings of the Dr. John hoodoo persona and embarked on a major tour of Europe and the United States, his career at an all-time high.

Mac had always worked with authentic New Orleans musicians and saw no reason to change things now, so he called in the best — Allen Toussaint. They decided to work with Toussaint’s Sea-Saint Studio house band, The Meters. Comprised of guitarist Leo Nocentelli, Art Neville (of the Neville Brothers) on organ, George Porter Jr. on bass, and drummer Joseph “Zigaboo” Modeliste.

The Meters backed up nearly every major R&B recording artist to work at Sea-Saint Studio, much as Booker T. and the MG’s did at Muscle Shoals. The Meters recorded their own numbers, mostly instrumentals (though there are some great vocal sides) in the time between sessions. They released a number of successful 45 rpm sides and heavily influenced a number of soul, R&B, and rock groups through the late ’60s and early ’70s. Though they recorded some great LPs as well, many of these have been unavailable for some time due to legal wrangling. The group continues to work today as the Funky Meters.

Right Place, Wrong Time

The first album released as a result of this collaboration was 1973’s In The Right Place, which spawned the top ten hit “Right Place, Wrong Time”. Mac toured with the Meters and Professor Longhair, playing sold out shows in London and Paris as appearing at the Montreux Jazz Festival. The following year Dr. John, Toussaint, and The Meters returned to the studio to record the followup album, Desitively Bonaroo. Despite the lack of a hit along the lines of “Right Place, Wrong Time”, Bonaroo is actually a stronger album, a real classic that stands the test of time. It has even been said that Desitively Bonaroo is the best Meters album ever released, and they do play a crucial role in defining the album’s sound and feel.

Mac was writing very well at this time, penning most of the tracks for In the Right Place and Desitively Bonaroo. Having made his name originally as a songwriter, it must have been gratifying for Rebennack to finally have the opportunity to record his music himself just the way he had seen others recording in the glory days of Cosmo’s studio. The New Orleans Mac had known growing up and learning the ropes of the music business may have been gone, but Mac had succeeded in recreating much of the feel and sound of that time and place with his band of exiles in Los Angeles.

UNDER A HOODOO MOON

Although Bonaroo didn’t sell well and Dr. John only recorded one LP between 1974 and 1978 (Hollywood Be Thy Name, a live album which sank without much trace), he was a very busy man, working on tracks by Aretha Franklin (“Spanish Harlem”) and Carly Simon & James Taylor (“Mockingbird”). He produced Van Morrison’s A Period of Transition album as well as Levon Helm’s RCO All-Stars. He also made an appearance at the Band’s farewell concert, The Last Waltz, playing a relaxed, beautiful version of his song “Such a Night”. No longer under contract with a major label, he recorded the gorgeous LP City Lights for Horizon Records in 1978.

The 1980s were a time of regrouping for Dr. John, but he continued to work, writing with Jerome “Doc” Pomus (with whom he had worked on City Lights) and appearing in commercials for Wendy’s and Popeye’s Fried Chicken. He recorded back to back solo piano albums for Baltimore’s small Clean Cuts label, Dr. John Plays Mac Rebennack and The Brightest Smile In Town. These are extremely important documents of Rebennack’s oft-ignored piano chops as well as offering a chance to hear him perform both old N’awlins favorites as well as unexpected delights like Jimmy Rodger’s “Waiting For a Train”. In his 1994 book Under a Hoodoo Moon, Mac says: “The thing I enjoyed most about these sessions was that they confirmed a turn I had been taking in my music-mainly, that I was on to doing more sophisticated music, not just the same old Mardi Gras or Gris-Gris stuff that I had been doing before. The audiences loved these earlier songs, but I found they were also ready for music on a higher plane, sounds that appealed to a spiritual awareness, not just that low-down meat level.”

Indeed, the recordings that followed these solo piano forays saw Rebennack heading farther into a jazz groove. In a Sentimental Mood featured Cole Porter and Duke Ellington numbers, and Bluesiana Triangle/Blusiana Triangle II saw him working with jazz greats Art Blakey and Fathead Newman. This new sophistication and seriousness with his music reflected something else that happened to Dr. John in the few years from 1989 into the early ’90s: he managed to kick his drug habit for good. “The whole turnaround thing was nothing I planned on” he says, “it just happened when it happened. God looks out for chumps and assholes. That’s what makes life interesting.”

In 1992 Dr. John returned, trying to incorporate his newfound sense of spirituality with the “meat” of his earlier recordings. Goin’ Back to New Orleans is a history of New Orleans music, from Buddy Bolden and Jelly Roll Morton, the Mardi Gras Indians, right up to the funky music of Allan Toussaint and the Meters, not to mention Dr. John himself. The album was a critical and commercial success, and it put Dr. John back on the recording map.

With Etta James on Soundstage 1982

He spent the rest of the ’90s recording prolifically, releasing the albums Television, Afterglow, Trippin’ Live, Anutha Zone, and Duke Elegant. Though occasionally one of his albums may suffer from overuse of studio musicians or an attempt to inject a too-trendy concept into his sound, the songs are always good (how can they not be when most are written by Rebennack himself, often with collaborators like Doc Pomus), the arrangements are pure New Orleans classic R&B (again, Rebennack does many of these himself), and the core group of musicians continues to be a group of exiles from the 1950s New Orleans studio days. In short, some Dr. John albums are better than others, but you’ll never really have a bad time with any of them.

On most later recordings Dr. John’s got a little of everything in store: a bit of gris-gris, some funk, a little soft shoe, a bit of R&B crooning, some Caribbean carnival, a dash of jazz, and a lot of great songwriting, piano playing, and singing. A denizen of New York since the 1980s, Mac Rebennack has been able to incorporate all of these influences into his Dr. John persona and give us all a taste of New Orleans the way we know it should be — not the touristy, frat party town of the Superbowl and Mardi Gras, but the dangerous, exotic place of our imaginations. A place that, like the mystic Isle of Avalon, has receded far into the mists of memory but which can be conjured back for those who believe.

As Dr. John himself said: “No matter how far away from New Orleans I’ve gone and what I’ve done, sooner or later I always want to come back to my hometown for a roots recharge. LA and New York are cool, but neither holds the spell for me that New Orleans still does…for better or worse, New Orleans remains its own strange self, and more than a little bit out of sync with other places in the United States. This is one of its charms, but it’s also a curse.”

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