Dr John Interviewed: “Art Blakey pulled a gun on me…’”

30 years of MOJO: Dr John, the night tripping, voodoo king of New Orleans takes MOJO on a guided tour of his hometown.

Dr John MOJO 30

by Michael Simmons |
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From his 1968 debut onwards, the music of Dr John was marinated in the psychedelic voodoo of New Orleans. In 2014, with a tribute to fellow Nola resident Louis Armstrong in the bag, the Doc, aka Mac Rebennack, took MOJO’s Michael Simmons on a guided tour of his hometown. As part of MOJO's 30th birthday celebrations you can read their adventures in full..

Portrait: Bruce Weber

If you make a left on St Charles,” Dr. John says to our driver, “I can show you the Blue Cat Lounge where the girl would fuck a zebra. It was really a mule,” he adds, as an aside to MOJO, “but it was painted to look like a zebra.”

Dr. John, aka Mac Rebennack, is not your average New Orleans tour guide. There’ll be no steamboats or go-cups of lite beer on this expedition. At 73, Rebennack is internationally recognised as the embodiment of Crescent City history and his hulking frame is carrying three-quarters of a century of it, leaning on two walking sticks adorned with personal talismans including voodoo charms, sobriety chips and a gator tooth. His Southern-cum-Brooklyn accent, malapropped neologisms and husky, scratched-cat vocal timbre is so familiar that he inadvertently causes Inflection Infection – the addictive habit of talking like Dr. John. As such, it’s been a “slammin’” period for the singer/pianist/songwriter/producer/session man and Rock and Roll Hall of Famer of late. He was feted this past May with a tribute in his hometown featuring Bruce Springsteen, Aaron Neville, Mavis Staples, Allen Toussaint, John Fogerty and others, and his new album, Ske-Dat-De-Dat…The Spirit Of Satch, is a modernified hip-hoppity tribute to that other raspy-voiced instrumental virtuoso and planetary ambassador from New Orleans – Louis ‘Satchmo’ Armstrong. With that in mind, we are to spend an afternoon seeing New Orleans through the eyes of Dr. John. Naturally, we begin at the beginning.

Mac and MOJO are sitting in the back seat of a nondescript Toyota Corolla riding through the streets of his youth on a hot, humid Sunday in late June. He and Satch were born and raised in the area called the 3rd Ward. Roughly segregated by neighbourhood and with a large Cuban population, it was more racially mixed than many of the city’s other wards. Rebennack’s father fixed devices that ran on “electrickery” – radios, record players, PA systems – and sold records out of his shop. Mac was bewitched by the city’s music – particularly rhythm & blues – and learned guitar and piano from its best players. He’s also the offspring of the town’s notorious eccentricities and illegalities. “My pa made the back porch like a room for me. It was hip. I was trying to build a skelekon [sic]. I would play hide-and-seek in the cemetery and I’d find bones in the tombs ’cos that’s where I always hid. Back then in the 1940s, everybody had a feelin’ of somethin’ different. I was bussin’ up herb in grade school.” The thick smoke caused contact highs. “My mama would come up in the room and she’d leave dancin’.”

Mac’s maternal grandfather was a minstrel show vet. “I remember my grandpa – he was a piece-a-work. I stole a lotta songs from him.” 
A discussion about folk songs and nursery rhymes ensues. “Huey [‘Piano’] Smith once gave me a library book of how-and-why children’s poetry. It was a hip book. Huey said, ‘Revamp the lyrics and make ’em updated,’ and he said, ‘If you only have a melody, go check when the kids is playin’ games in the street and steal one from them.’”

“My friend Flop burned down a judge’s pad and became a torchman for the mob.”

Dr John

We pass a quaint two-doored house and Mac nods towards it. “See – that’s where I used to live, right across the street – 324 South Jefferson Davis Parkway. It’s all grey now, it used to be yellow. The neighbour right next door – he became a federal judge. (Pauses) Not that I ever went before him,” he adds drily. “My partner Flop torched that judge’s pad and it caught onto the next pad and to my pad – and my room sunk. Flop became a torchman for the Mob. I know him since we was kids.”

Formal education was meaningless to the just burning-to-bop budding musician. He was hanging outside nightclubs before puberty and playing in them by his early teens. He points out two of the three high schools he was kicked out of. “I never made it past the 9th grade. My pa told me some very good advisements. He said, ‘Kid, my advice to you is to take that job with the old men on the chitlin’ circuit.’ That’s what I did and I was very blessed to do that.”

We’re heading down Canal Street. “The Monkey Bar was on the cornder [sic],” explains Mac, “the Texas Lounge was right next to it and the Brass Rail was right there. That was three jernts [sic] in a row. Now they’re all gone. I remember [New Orleans musical renaissance man] Paul Gayten at the Brass Rail told me, ‘Kid, ya gotta get new arrangements.’ We had to stay up all night and rehearsal past whenever I was s’posed to go to school the next day. We just kept rehearsalin’ until we got the songs ready for the gig.” The landscape’s vibe on this Sunday on Canal Street is the antithesis of the non-corporate, nocturnal world Rebennack describes. We pass fast food chains, a chain hotel, their façades identical to all the other chains across America.

“Ahhh, listen,” laments Mac, “it’s all fucked. Stupid shit now. Back in the game there were strippers who were too old to work on Bourbon Street, so they sold weed in the alleys between the jernts.” The Jet Lounge is now a restaurant, the Blue Cat a parking lot. Another long-gone club is serving sushi. The Dew Drop Inn still standing and Mac recalls one late proprietor as “the best fence in the city of New Orleans. I would always dump a bunch of whatever I had.” He had to: Mac was a teenage junkie.

The concrete wall that keeps the Industrial Canal from flooding the 9th Ward is new. The wall that was there before broke after Hurricane Katrina in 2005, and the floodwaters from the many breached levees ravaged New Orleans. The memory of Katrina lingers here, unwelcome but unavoidable. Mac turns sombre and remembers where he was when the hurricane hit.

“I was in Minnesota,” he says. “The other end of the Mississloppy River. I was on the phone with somebody that drowned while we were talking. That was freaky. My grandson called me a month or two after Katrina and let me know he was alive. So little was rebuilt, it’s sad. It was a big neighbourhood. Nothin’ is hardly left here now.” The neglect – particularly in the predominately black 9th Ward – is so pervasive, it’s as if it was intentional. “I personably agree with you there,” Mac responds quietly, in contrast to his very public rage against the criminal lack of response by the government. “We did so many benefits…” His voice trails off. “That’s life how it goes – you roll with everything like you could.”

Not that there haven’t been private efforts by more fortunate Americans. Brad Pitt founded the Make It Right Foundation and they’re rebuilding homes. Branford Marsalis and Harry Connick Jr helped create the Musician’s Village that’s constructing houses for generations of musicians. One of them is 77-year-old drummer Smokey Johnson who played with Fats Domino, Professor Longhair and apparently every other local legend – including Dr. John. A prime architect of second-line drumming, Smokey lives in a comfortable new home in the Village and is eagerly sitting in his wheelchair on his porch waiting for us. Disabled by a stroke, he still practises every day despite his limp right arm.

The two old friends go back decades and the war stories begin immediately. Names ranging from Ray Charles to Luscious Lloyd Lambert get dropped. Speaking of Longhair, Mac says, “They had these floatin’ card games and I said, Fess, ain’t this kinda dangerous for you to be playin’ cards over there? And he says, ‘Not the way I play.’ He showed me on one sleeve he got a card and on the other sleeve he got a derringer.” Laughter. MOJO asks about rock’n’roll patriarch Antoine ‘Fats’ Domino.

“I went to play two weeks in Dallas with Fats and stayed 28 years,” says Smokey. Asked the year he started, he answers, “I dunno. I quit six times and every time I came back I got a raise – I know that!” Mac chips in with memories of outrageously flamboyant pianist James Booker: “One night at the Maple Leaf, Booker come on the gig with a police suit on. He got drunk, throwed up all over the piano, and run the district attorney out the jernt!” Uproarious laughter.

Smokey’s wife Gwen shows MOJO a large, framed 20-year-old photo hanging on the wall. Standing together are Smokey, Allen Toussaint, Clarence ‘Frogman’ Henry, Ernie K-Doe, Marva Wright, King Floyd, Tommy Ridgley, Jean Knight, Davell Crawford and other New Orleans legends. All smiling. Some things can’t be washed away.

The shade in the backyard patio of a crib on Royal Street in the French Quarter is a relief. We’re sitting with Mac, munching on goat cheese and grape leaves and reminiscing. It’s been 46 years since his first solo album, Gris-Gris by Dr. John, The Night Tripper. Fresh out of prison from a dope bust, Mac had headed out to Los Angeles in 1965, hooked up with musicians from back home and began sideman work. “[Percussionist] Didimus was the one who talked me into doin’ the record,” says Mac. “He said, ‘If Sonny And Cher and Bob Dylan can sing – you can sing.’”

The record remains a marvel: a genre of one. The melodies have the simplicity of kid’s songs, harkening back to Huey ‘Piano’ Smith’s advice to a younger Mac. There’s loads of percussion, sparse keyboard and guitar, and haunting background vocals.

And then there’s the lyrics, based on native New Orleans religion that mixes West African and Catholic traditions. Rebennack was fascinated from an early age and consulted the women who kept the rituals, stories and songs. “All the Reverend Mothers told me, ‘You can do the song, but don’t do the right lyrics.’ I wrote new lyrics to all the songs. In fact, I stole something from my grandpa which was ‘Corn boonay, kili, con con’ – that’s cornbread, coffee and molasses. [I Walk On Gilded Splinters] So I shifted the gears around.”

Although it seems counterintuitive, Dr. John credits much of the album’s creativity to differences twixt him and his producer at the time. “I was aimin’ to do somethin’ that was true to New Orleans voodoo,” he says, “but I think Harold Battiste was tryin’ for somethin’ that was tongue-in-cheek. That was where everything worked better ’cos we were going in two directions at the same time and I think that makes better records. It was fresh that way.” Atlantic Records honcho Ahmet Ertegun – who’d signed Dr. John – disagreed. “Omlet didn’t like this record whatsonever. He told me in a middle of a Bobby Darin session, ‘What’s this boogleee shit you’re doin’?’ He was mad as a motherfucker. But that was just Omlet.”

I Walk On Gilded Splinters from the album began to get airplay on underground rock stations and the Dr. John troupe was booked in the freaky ballrooms du jour. “The hippies back in the game liked to see a show. When we did Gris-Gris, we had magicians that showed us tricks so that it looked like I came out of a puff of smoke. All this stuff was off the hook.” As well as the group’s surreal music and presentation, they were mostly on different drugs to their audience. “I remember a little kid comin’ up to me – probably eight years old – and sayin’, ‘Nobody’s usin’ the narcotics y’all’s usin’. They’re all droppin’ acid and you’re usin’ the old stuff.’ The kid was right.”

A crowning moment came when Dr. John shared a bill with bebop’s high priest Thelonious Monk – a devotee of hip chapeaus – at the Carousel Ballroom in San Francisco. Monk was quoted as digging Mac’s piano playing and saying of the DJTNT sobriquet: “That name is a motherfucker!”

“He came up to the band room,” remembers Mac, “and put a hat on my head. It was a hat from Africa. And I thought, Wow, I’m honoured, ’cos it was from Monk and I loved that cat! [As part of the show] I walked through the audience – same thing every night – and it was took off my head. Somebody just snatched it. They musta recognised Monk had that brim on. I went and apologised to Monk after the gig.”

Monk wasn’t the only jazz giant Mac met, although one time he was greeted with more than a hat. “I met Art Blakey back in the game, sneakin’ through his pad. I kicked over a metal wastebasket and he cocked a gun. It was a 9mm Walther. I remember his daughter sayin’, ‘You gonna shoot him, Daddy?’ He said, ‘Not yet.’”

Rebennack was in Blakey’s apartment with a couple of other junkie musicians, looking to score from a neighbour. Years later he made an album, Bluesiana Triangle, with Blakey and David ‘Fathead’ Newman. Blakey was kind enough not to mention the incident. And 24 years ago Mac Rebennack got clean and has remained clean ever since.

The concept for the new album began when Louis Armstrong came to Mac in a dream. “All he said in my dream is, ‘Do my music your way.’ That’s all he told me in the whole fuckin’ dream. He gave me that like an order – I respect my elders.”

Mac had never thought of doing a Satchmo tribute before. “Louis had a big influence on stuff ’cos way back in the game I would’ve wanted to cut Blueberry Hill, but by the time Fats cut it, I thought, ‘It’s enough.’ But I loved Louis’ record of that when I was a kid.”

Rebennack met Armstrong a few times at the office of Satch’s manager, Joe Glaser, before the elder’s passing in 1971. A photo on Glaser’s wall always caught Mac’s eye. “I remember Louis was sittin’ on a rock in [New Orleans ’hood] Bucktown, facin’ Ralph Shultz’ Fresh Hardware Store. Across the street was where my pa’s shop was. Ralph could fix your brakes, get you brake tags and he could marry you. He had like 25 things he could do.” The older and younger man laughed about the photo. “That made me feel better. That was a world Louis Armstrong could understand.”

The record was a long time coming. “We was supposed to do it two years ago and we didn’t think it was gonna work.” Last year, Mac made some changes, including getting a new band and managers and appointing trombonist Sarah Morrow ‘musical directoress’. She has injected a new vitality into Dr. John’s music, building on the success of Locked Down, his Grammy-winning collaboration with The Black Keys’ Dan Auerbach. “Sarah wrote great charts,” he says. “She did a slammin’ job. Everything is slammin’ now.”

Ske-Dat-De-Dat…The Spirit Of Satch is subtly similar in concept to Gris-Gris. Whereas the earlier album updated spiritual New Orleans folk music for the psychedelic rock era, the new one takes the roots of New Orleans jazz and brings it into the contemporary rhythm & blues and hip hop era of the 21st century. Both share Mac’s relentless “funknology” and, of course, his unique singing voice. Like Armstrong, he has a gritty set of pipes and perfect phrasing. The new album reveals how similar the two are and how heavenly the match is: one can say it’s literally a dream come true. Dr. John has hit the road with his new band, doing material from both Locked Down and Ske-Dat-De-Dat, even though, he says, “I don’t like to travel as much. Transportation and security is a pain in the ass.”

And he’s horrified by aspects of The Twenty-Worst Century. “This country could turn into Nazi Germany or something. Everything is prepostulous.” But the kid from the 3rd Ward has seen a lot and exudes a crazy wisdom. “I understand some things are off the hook,” he says, “but I don’t have to worry about all this crap. I ain’t worryin’ about nuttin’ and that’s the one thing keeps my spirit up.”

This article originally appeared in MOJO 251

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