For more than 25 years, he’s been the Big Chief of Gris-Gris Gumbo, the High Priest of Hoodoo, the Loop Garoo Shaman of New Orleans jazz, blues and fonk . He’s Mac Rebennack, better known as Dr. John, the Night Tripper, one of the finest purveyors of Crescent City music tradition alive.
The master singer-songwriter-pianist-showman, who performs Friday at the Coach House, could and should enjoy a banner year in 1994, with a superb new album and a mud-funky autobiography just released, and consecutive Grammy awards for his previous two albums.
A very youthful 52, the good Doctor is on a tear, with the new “Television” album and its 1992 predecessor, “Going Back to New Orleans,"among the two finest of his long and fruitfulcareer. All the more remarkable given that Rebennack admits he was a heavy drug abuser for close to four decades and was written off as a washed-up junkie just a few short years ago.
A professional musician since age 15, Rebennack learned his craft at the feet of many of New Orleans’ legendary masters.
By the early ‘60s, Rebennack continued his studio work while developing the Dr. John persona, a character that sifted voodoo, Mardi Gras madness and other aspects of New Orleans culture together with a psychedelic sensibility.
Since his 1968 debut with “Gris-Gris,” Dr. John/Rebennack has recorded more than a dozen albums on his own and guested on countless others. His commercial success peaked in 1973 with his “In the Right Place” album, which yielded two hit singles: “Right Place, Wrong Time” and “Such a Night.”
But Rebennack acknowledges wasting too many subsequent years in a drug-induced void. In a recent phone interview, Rebennack asserted that chapter of his life is now closed.
“Oh man, I had problems--mostly with the drugs,” he said in that raspy, one-of-a-kind voice. His speech is a curious mix of Creole patois, hepcat jive talk and black dialect.
But if his grammar was often twisted, Rebennack’s message came through loud and clear. “The most important thing I learned over the years is, hey man, it’s cool. You can lose sight of anything if your priorities is out of order.
“You gotta be in order, all in order, and I was out of order a lot of the time. I can accept that now. I messed up. But hey--today I ain’t. Hopefully, we can talk to these youngsters and say, ‘Hey--you don’t have to be no crackhead or dope fiend. You can do this. You are the only one holding it together.’
“I’ve got a beautiful family that’s been real supportive of me no matter what, and now I can appreciate it,” he said. “That’s more important than money or any of that other stuff. When you’re rippin’ and runnin’ and dippin’ and dodgin’, you don’t get a chance to appreciate what you got.”
Rebennack proved he’d come back all the way with the career reaffirming “Goin’ Back to New Orleans” album--the first he had recorded in his hometown, in which he’s backed by many of his mentors.
It is a lovingly traditional effort that Rebennack has followed with “Television” (MCA/GRP), a driving collection of dynamic funk originals and a pair of classic covers that plays like the other side of the N’awlins coin.
“New Orleans music is all about the fonk, and I try to give a little fonk in different areas and styles,” he said.
Recalling “In the Right Place” in its deep grooves, punchy horn charts, layers of soulful background vocals and crisp songwriting and production, “Television” plays yin to “Goin’ Back’s” yang, both in capturing Rebennack’s essential New Orleans vibe and in its overall excellence.
“This is the first time in a long time that I’ve been able to do a record I wanted to do the way I wanted to do it,” he said. “I wanted to make an overall picture of what I picture fonk being. I feel real happy with it, doing Sly’s tune"--referring to his rendition of Sly & the Family Stone’s No. 1 hit from 1970, “Thank You Falletin Me Be Mice Elf Again"--"putting it back in the game. that’s always important to me.
“And I was real happy to write some tunes--like that ‘Television’ song--that speak to me. Most of it’s stuff that’s fresh in my head. That’s what music’s about.
“Music, man, is like an environmental thing,” he continued, “and I’ve been trying to keep the environment around me in a good place, and it’s improved the way I look at a lot of things.
“I’ve got a distorted view of life anyway, full of opinions, but that’s OK, because some of them is facts. But if you keep good people around you, good things happen--surround yourself with lames, and something lame is gonna happen. So I feel real blessed to be around some good cats.”
Among the estimable cast of guests on “Television” are saxophonists David (Fathead) Newman and Alvin (Red) Tyler, trumpeter Randy Brecker and, interestingly, Red Hot Chili Peppers front man Anthony Kiedis, who performs a duet with Rebennack on “Shut D Fonk Up.” Rebennack said working with Kiedis was one of the highlights of recording the album.
In addition to being a fan of the Chili Peppers, Rebennack listens to and enjoys a lot of modern artists, and said he draws inspiration from many of them.
“I be hanging out and checking what my kids listen to, and I hear a lot of different stuff every day. . . . Gloria Estefan is doing this real Afro-Cuban thing; I’m digging Terrence Blanchard’s ‘Malcolm X’ thing. There’s so much out there that’s happening that’s real hip. . . .
“But you also gotta tip your hat to the cats that set things up,” he added. “Like in jazz, maybe it’s Bird and Diz and maybe it’s the Trane,” referring to Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie and John Coltrane. “In another area, maybe cats’ll tip to Jimi Hendrix. You gotta go back in the game and look where everything came from, ‘cause it’s an ongoing process.”
Going back many years himself, Rebennack’s recently released autobiography, “Under a Hoodoo Moon” (St. Martin’s Press), is a fascinating and gritty account of a lifetime in the music biz. A first-person narrative relayed in Rebennack’s colorful speech pattern and slang, he credits ghostwriter Jack Rummel for the book’s authentic flavor.
“I came out of rehab and the psych ward and started talking to him about four years ago,” he recalled. “He talked to me and various other cats, and while we ran our mouths, he taped everything. He was able to keep the New Orleans-ese and musician-ese intact.”
One of his key goals in doing the book, he said “was hoping that somebody else might learn from my mistakes, like, ‘You ain’t got to do it this stupid.’ ”
Rebennack now seems determined to make up for some of his misspent past. Emerging from the dark years, he’s found a new chance--and new acceptance of his work in the process. Redemption never sounded so sweet.
“One of the cats told me--I don’t remember which one--'The reason we doing all right is just the fact that we survived,’ ” he said. “And that’s the truth.”
* Dr. John and Sam & the Moonlighters perform Friday at 8 and 10:30 p.m. at the Coach House, 33157 Camino Capistrano, San Juan Capistrano. $19.50. (714) 496-8930. * LISTENING TO ‘TELEVISION’
Dr. John journeys deep into heart of funkness on new album. See OC Live!, page 5.