DR. JOHN: RIGHT MEDICINE : Mac Rebennack, Alias the Night Tripper, Knows How to Cure New Orleans Blues
In his earliest memory of the Mardi Gras, Malcolm (Mac) Rebennack, alias Dr. John, watched in amazement as a frightful but fascinating apparition rode toward him on horseback.
His father, Malcolm Sr., had taken little Mac to see the annual Mardi Gras procession through their neighborhood, the Third Ward of New Orleans. The highlight of Mardi Gras was the traditional parading of black social clubs whose members dressed as Indian warriors in wildly colorful feathered-chieftain regalia--a tradition with close ties to the development of the funky sound of New Orleans R&B; music.
“My first recollection, which still sticks with me today, was standing on Claiborne Avenue and seeing an Indian on a horse,” Rebennack said in a recent phone interview from his home in New Orleans. “He was all dressed up in feathers, and he hid his face. He had like spider webs (painted) on his face and body. It was like seeing a Frankenstein movie to me. It was scary; it was like unreality. My father had to pull me out of the way--he was coming right at me. This guy had a sawed-off shotgun, and he was firing in the air to clear the streets for the tribe. I saw this puff of smoke and colored beads come out. It was beautiful to me.”
Some 20 years later, when Rebennack made his first splash in the world outside New Orleans, it was with a musical persona swathed in the trappings of colorful, spooky “unreality” that had captured him as a boy. His character, Dr. John, the Night Tripper, emerged in 1968 on the album “Gris-Gris,” leading a band of New Orleans players through one of the strangest sessions of a very spacey period in rock history. Sounding as if they were playing and singing in some mysterious, barely lit cave, Rebennack and friends took equal measures of voodoo lore and New Orleans funk, coupled it with a lysergic sense of the psychedelic, and announced themselves to the world.
For several years, Dr. John toured and recorded in his “Night Tripper” guise: wearing outlandish garb fit for a costume ball in Haight-Ashbury, sprinkling magic glitter-dust about the stage, and playing music that incorporated both the creepy voodoo chants and the buoyant, rhythmic funk of his hometown’s tradition.
Dr. John hit his commercial peak in 1973 with the Top 10 hit “Right Place Wrong Time.” But the Night Tripper persona wore thin after a while: “I gave up my identity . . . and it became a monster,” Rebennack once said. “We became exactly all we hated about psychedelia.”
So Dr. John went back to something more basic: a performing life as a consummate musician who is an important link in the long and rich tradition of New Orleans R&B.; In particular, Rebennack is a member in good standing of the grand society of piano players who emerged in the Crescent City after World War II: a line that runs from founding father Professor Longhair through Fats Domino and Huey (Piano) Smith, Art Neville, James Booker and Allen Toussaint.
Now in his early 50s, Rebennack--who plays Saturday at the Rhythm Cafe--has led a wide-ranging musical life that seems to grow more varied as he goes along. All of his travels haven’t softened his signature thick, low, rasping voice. Also intact is his accent, which, substituting “wit” for “with,” “dem” for “them” and “boid” for “bird,” makes you wonder whether New Orleans was originally settled by cab drivers from Brooklyn.
A roll-call of recent projects attests to that variety. In 1989, Dr. John released “In a Sentimental Mood,” an album of blues and saloon standards. Its version of “Makin’ Whoopee” won a Grammy Award in the best jazz vocal category for Rebennack and his duet partner, Rickie Lee Jones. The same year he served a hitch playing rock ‘n’ roll in Ringo Starr’s “All Starr-Band” comeback tour.
In 1990, Rebennack collaborated with the late jazz drummer Art Blakey and saxophonist David (Fathead) Newman on an album, “Bluesiana Triangle.” And in ’91, he co-produced and played a key songwriting and performing role on “Johnny Adams Sings Doc Pomus: The Real Me,” an excellent, highly emotional tribute recorded shortly after Pomus’ death. Pomus, a well-liked New York songwriter who was posthumously inducted into the Rock ‘n’ Roll Hall of Fame, was a longtime friend and songwriting partner of Rebennack. (His death also inspired Lou Reed’s album, “Magic & Loss.”)
Last year, Dr. John looked back over more than 100 years of his hometown’s musical history on the album “Goin’ Back to New Orleans.” The cover of “Goin’ Back to New Orleans” can be seen as a visual echo of Dr. John’s first memory of the Mardi Gras: this time he’s the one wearing the opulent, feathery costume and headdress of a Mardi Gras Indian--garb befitting one of the chiefs of the New Orleans music scene.
Like the Mardi Gras Indian parades, New Orleans R&B; is a black cultural tradition. Rebennack is white, but growing up he was uniquely well-situated to cross racial barriers and become an integral part of a scene created and dominated by black musicians.
Music was an encompassing presence from the start for a man who says he “never wanted to do anything but this.”
“My mother played piano. My sister and plenty of my aunties played piano--and I had plenty, plenty aunties,” Rebennack said. “I was surrounded with music. A couple of my aunties were professional (musicians). They played piano or organ for silent movies. My Aunt Andre taught me lots of songs as a kid. When I was 6, she taught me how to play the Texas boogie on piano, and I drove my family crazy with that for years. As a real little kid, I was aware of jam sessions at the pad of my Aunt Dottie Mae. Everybody used to have an upright piano in the house. We was real fortunate to have a baby grand. In the ‘40s, that’s what people did for entertainment. There was no TV. Today, there’s no way you can get past this TV and CD generation. The alphabets have taken over the planet.”
There was vinyl, however, and Malcolm Rebennack Sr. made his living selling it. At his business, Rebennack’s Appliance, he would fix radios, amplifiers and other sound equipment, and he also stocked a large selection of records. The store was next to Dillard University, a black college. It was a hangout for musicians and a hangout for the proprietor’s son.
“My father sold a lot of what they used to call race records (blues and R&B; music made by blacks), and it instantly appealed to me,” Dr. John recalled. “I had a great collection as a little kid, of every kind of record my father sold--from hillbilly to gospel to progressive be-bop.”
Not content to settle for spinning his 78-rpm records, the young Rebennack tapped into the wealth of live music available in New Orleans clubs. Instead of turning up for morning Mass at the Catholic school he attended, he would stand outside barrooms in the club district, listening to bands as they wound up in daylight after playing all-night sessions.
“You could hear the band real good, because they had speakers on the street. You could see Lee Allen and Sam Butera havin’ a battle with the sax. It was something for a kid to behold. I’d catch a set while Mass was going on, then I’d jump a streetcar, sneak in a line, and go to school.”
Rebennack’s body may have found its way to class, but his mind was usually back in the clubs. “I would go to school and write songs,” often taking his inspiration from horror comics such as Tales From the Crypt. “It’s something I just did. That’s where my head was back in 8th and 9th grade. In the middle of 9th grade, I gave up school for music.”
Rebennack had found some influential teachers by then, but they worked at a fretboard, not a blackboard. One of them, Walter (Papoose) Nelson, was the guitarist in Fats Domino’s band, and it was through Nelson that Rebennack got started as a professional at age 13.
“He sent me to sub for him on (recording) sessions. To send your student to sub on sessions was not cool. Paul Gayten (the bandleader who oversaw the first session Rebennack played on) was furious. He was stuck with me as a guitar player for a session he hired my guitar teacher on. At the time, Papoose was teaching me to play (in the style of) my hero at the time, T-Bone Walker. I didn’t know . . . music, but I knew that style a bit, and it got me somewhat acceptable” to Gayten and other producers. “They used to call me ‘Little T-Bone.’ ”
The teen-age Rebennack began to move in rarefied musical circles. By age 16, he had a contract to write songs, scout talent and produce artists for Ace Records, a Jackson, Miss., company that did most of its recording in New Orleans.
“I’d tape all these people and submit ‘em to Johnny Vincent,” the Ace label boss. “I hustled a lot of work for people and got ‘em record deals,” which no doubt helped make the young Rebennack a fairly popular figure in New Orleans R&B; circles. “The fact I could write songs when people didn’t have original songs helped too. I believe the reason (Vincent) hired me was I wrote a lot of songs and hung around all the time. I had no credentials to do anything, but I worked cheap. I was young and dumb, and didn’t know what I was doing.”
Working with Ace artists such as Frankie Ford and Huey Smith and the Clowns, Rebennack got a chance to learn by doing. He also formed his own band to back up major rock ‘n’ rollers passing through town--or at least the major white rock ‘n’ rollers.
“I had the only (white) rhythm and blues band, a 17-piece band that could back all these shows. We backed every big artist that came to New Orleans in the ‘50s, from Frankie Avalon to Jerry Lee Lewis; you name someone, we backed ‘em, all kinds of people. But it was segregated. All the black entertainers that had hit records would work with (black backup bands).”
Once, when Bo Diddley arrived at a show without his usual backing players, Rebennack and his band tried to fill in. “We backed Bo Diddley for part of the show, then we had to stop. I was on the bandstand, and suddenly we were unplugged. Bo Diddley had to finish all by himself. That’s how strong the segregation laws were in those days.”
Rebennack and his band also began to do some touring--a development that led, in the early ‘60s, to the sudden end of his promise as a hot session guitarist.
“This guy who had a club in Jacksonville, Fla., was pistol whipping Ronnie Barron, the singer with my band. I tried to get the gun out of the guy’s hand. I thought my hand was over the handle, but it was over the barrel.” Rebennack was shot through the fourth finger in his left hand. Although the surgeons saved the finger, he lost feeling in it, and with that his future as a guitarist.
“I was pretty messed up at the time over it,” Rebennack said. “I lived for the guitar in them days, and I thought I could never make a living in New Orleans, because you couldn’t imagine the amount of great piano players” working in the city.
“For a while, I switched to bass and played a Dixieland gig. Then James Booker,” an old friend and contemporary and fellow link in the New Orleans keyboard saga, “came up and said, ‘Don’t play this schlock Dixieland gig; I can get you a good gig playing the organ.’ ”
Rebennack had never played the organ before, but after a solid year of playing it 12 hours a day in clubs, “it got my chops up.” As far as piano, “I had played on a few sessions before, but it wasn’t something I ever thought I’d do professionally.” But Rebennack emerged as a player well-qualified to follow in the tradition of Professor Longhair, Domino, et al.
In the mid-'60s, he got a call from Los Angeles, where some of his old New Orleans cronies had settled and gone to work playing with Sam Cooke. They invited him to join the band. “I really didn’t want to come out there. I stalled for a long time. When I finally came out there, Sam Cooke was dead.” But another contact helped Rebennack get session work for Phil Spector and Sonny and Cher.
“I did a few R&B; dates, but it was mostly folk-rock and early psychedelic stuff,” Rebennack said of his days as a session man in Los Angeles. “Other than Sonny and Cher and Phil Spector’s stuff, I don’t remember much about it. I didn’t relate too good” to the psychedelic music, “the Iron Butterfingers, or whoever it was.”
Dr. John, the Night Tripper, was born when Sonny and Cher booked some recording studio time, went off to make a movie instead, and invited Rebennack and his partner, Harold Battiste, to step in and use the unoccupied studio.
“I thought it would be nice to make a record showing people what the gris-gris (pronounced gree-gree; it’s a Creole term for voodoo) music of New Orleans was like. We had a whole band living communally in L.A., all these people from New Orleans, and we put our little show together. We were hanging together, trying to think of some angle. I originally wanted Ronnie Baron to be Dr. John, but his manager wanted Ronnie to do other kinds of records, and I went ahead and did it myself. Didimus (conga player Richard (Didimus) Washington) helped me put the shows together, choreographed the dance and put together the costume. (Didimus) was a character who came from Ethiopia and spent most of his life in Cuba. We figured we would do something like the snake oil shows, the Rabbit Foot Minstrels or something,” tapping into the tradition of traveling medicine shows that gave rise to the blues around the turn of the century. “None of us thought this thing would go further than this one record.”
Dr. John took his mystical caravan on the road, established his persona, won a cult following, and recorded a series of albums. The most highly regarded from that period are “Gris-Gris,” with its hothouse mystery, and “Dr. John’s Gumbo,” a bright, rollicking album of Crescent City classics that makes a fine primer for listeners uninitiated in the New Orleans R&B; tradition. Doffing his Night Tripper feathers and glitter for simpler garb (including a trademark beret), Rebennack devoted the 1972 album to sparkling covers of songs associated with New Orleans heroes like Professor Longhair, Huey Smith, Earl King and Guitar Slim, as well as timeless standards like “Stack-A-Lee,” “Junko Partner” and the bubbly Mardi Gras parade anthem, “Iko Iko.”
In 1978, Dr. John took a star turn singing his song “Such a Night” in “The Last Waltz,” the film of the Band’s farewell concert. By then, his original contract with Atco Records had run out, and he spent the late ‘70s and ‘80s recording for a series of smaller labels.
Those leaner times included several years touring as a solo act--something that Rebennack has no wish to return to.
“It’s lonely on the road when you ain’t got no musicians to have fun with,” he said. “I’ve got a good New Orleans band,” a seven-piece unit that features tenor saxophonist Alvin (Red) Tyler, an alumnus of Fats Domino’s band, among many other credits, and guitarist Brian Stoltz, formerly of the Neville Brothers, “and I’m very happy with that. Music is playing off people to me. Some people, playing alone may be their thing, but it ain’t mine.”
After spending most of ’92 on the road in the United States, Europe and Japan, Rebennack took some time off at year’s end. His current series of dates will warm him up for the annual Mardi Gras bash on Tuesday in New Orleans. The Rhythm Cafe, getting in the spirit of the season, will offer a New Orleans menu and other festive trappings during Dr. John’s show.
Rebennack’s current assortment of projects includes “The Ultimate Session,” an as-yet unreleased album that finds him singing and playing guitar with a fine assortment of New Orleans R&B; figures, including saxophone players Tyler and Lee Allen, keyboards specialists Toussaint and Edward Frank, and drummer Earl Palmer. Last week, he flew into Los Angeles for a few days for some private musical dueting with Robert Mitchum. Filmmaker Bruce Weber shot the sessions for an upcoming documentary on the tough-guy actor, who is a longtime fan of Dr. John’s music.
“I’m always writing songs,” Rebennack said, noting that he’d knocked a new one off just before taking a phone call for this late-night interview. “I got some in Robert Altman’s new movie, called ‘Short Cuts.’ ”
One thing that Dr. John currently lacks is a recording contract. Warner Bros. Records recently dropped him, even though “In a Sentimental Mood,” his first album for the label, won a Grammy, and “Goin’ Back to New Orleans,” the critically hailed follow-up, has a chance of garnering another, in the Best Traditional Blues Album category. But the record business was never known for operating in a sentimental mood.
Rebennack shrugged at being dropped.
“All of the trying to figure out stuff about record labels, I gave that up a long, long time ago. I just like to make music,” he added, in a tone suggesting that it’s a pursuit that doesn’t necessarily require the underwriting of major multinational corporations.
Dr. John also has no particular enthusiasm for that current favorite pastime of musicians with long track records: harvesting the archives for a boxed set compilation.
“If somebody does something with it, cool. If they don’t, cool,” he said. “I don’t think it’s gonna change the history of music. It’s just not something that occurs to my brain cells, whether that stuff happens or doesn’t happen. My head is about doing something fresh and doing something new. It’s about making music.”