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Remembering Musician, Singer, Songwriter And Producer Dr. John

Jun 7, 2019
Originally published on June 10, 2019 8:06 am
Copyright 2019 Fresh Air. To see more, visit Fresh Air.

DAVE DAVIES, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Dave Davies in for Terry Gross. Mac Rebennack, the musician, singer, songwriter and producer, better known to his fans as Dr. John, died yesterday of a heart attack. He was 77. His best-known songs include "Right Place Wrong Time" and "Such A Night."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SUCH A NIGHT")

MAC REBENNACK: (Singing) Such a night, it's such a night, sweet confusion under the moonlight. Such a night, such a night to steal away, the time is right. Your eyes caught mine, and at a glance, you let me know that this was my chance. But you came here with my best friend Jim. And here I am trying to steal you away from him. Oh, but if I don't do it, you know somebody else will. If I don't do it, you know somebody else will. If I don't do it, you know somebody else will. If I don't do it, you know somebody else will. And it's such a night, it's such a night, sweet confusion under the moonlight. It's such a night.

DAVIES: Mac Rebennack grew up in New Orleans and came of age when the city was one of the country's rock 'n' roll capitals. In his teens, he worked as a session musician, playing guitar and keyboards, influenced by the pianists that epitomized the New Orleans sound, including Professor Longhair, Huey Piano Smith and Fats Domino.

In the mid-60s, he left for Los Angeles, where he created the Dr. John persona. As Dr. John the Night Tripper, he led a production that combined voodoo, psychedelia and old medicine shows. He would emerge on stage dressed in sparkling robes and shoot glitter out over the audience. A troupe of dancers performed to his band's music that fused New Orleans rhythms with acid rock. He continued to perform as Dr. John, even as he phased out the show.

In the early 1980s, Rebennack moved to New York and made his record debut as a solo rhythm and blues pianist, paying tribute to his mentor Professor Longhair. In recent years, he appeared on several episodes of the HBO series "Treme," set in New Orleans.

Today we'll feature excerpts of Terry's 1986 interview with Mac Rebennack. He started performing as a teenager, playing New Orleans clubs with older musicians who promised his parents they'd look out for him. He told Terry what the club scene was like.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)

REBENNACK: Most of the clubs were fronts for something else. It was like the - you know, there were the B drinkers and all, working prostitution out the backs of the clubs. There's - they all these motels connected to them. There was gambling going on, like - and all these hidden rooms around the clubs.

And it was all pretty, like - what was great about it was it left - the club owners hired bands that played music that they liked. And there was a lot of freedom, so bands in those days did not have to play for the public. They played for club owners that enjoyed music. You know, what happened - there was a lot of clubs that had bebop music or different forms of music. It was great for musicians. They weren't under pressure to pack people in a club 'cause these guys didn't even care if there was any people necessarily in the club 'cause that's not where their money was necessarily coming.

TERRY GROSS, BYLINE: Were there are a lot of knife fights or gun fights at some of the rougher clubs that you played?

REBENNACK: Oh, yeah. Some of the giants were real, you know, typical bucket-of-blood giants. And there were - some of the places my family knew I was working, and some of them would have just pulled me out the whole scene. I mean, it was nights that guys would push me behind, like, these one-arm bandits, you know, the little slot machines and would use them like shields and shove me behind them when they'd see the guns come out and stuff. And like, man, there was a night, you know, that somebody got shot, stabbed or whatever.

GROSS: If the guns or the knives were coming out, were you supposed to keep playing?

REBENNACK: Yes. We always were instructed to play loud and fast when trouble happened. That was kind of the rule of thumb. When trouble start, you play loud and fast.

GROSS: What was that supposed to accomplish?

REBENNACK: Drown out the trouble.

GROSS: Oh (laughter). Did it work?

REBENNACK: Yeah.

GROSS: So people wouldn't notice that much what was happening.

REBENNACK: Yeah, so the bouncer could clear the people out the place. And, usually, nobody was the wiser that somebody was murdered or whatever happened. It was usually not even noticed by the bulk of the paying people.

GROSS: I had read somewhere that you were shot in the fingers, I think, when - during a club date. What happened? What's the story with that?

REBENNACK: Well, I was playing a gig in Jacksonville, Fla. And Ronnie Barron, who was singing with our band at the time, he was, like, really underage. He was, like, a couple years younger than me. And his mother had told me, look. You look out for Ronnie. And I remembered how guys had looked out for me when I was first out there.

Well, I went to get Ronnie for a gig. I walk in the room, and this guy's pistol-whipping him over, like, a jealous lover scene. And I went to try to get the gun out the guy's hand. And in doing it, I got my finger over the barrel instead of the handle of the gun. And as I hit the guy's hand on a rock to get the gun out of his hand, it went off and blew the tip of my finger off.

And I was fortunate they were able to sew the tip back on, but it's, like, affected me from being a guitar player. And it really took a toll. I really feel that a lot of the contribution of me getting into drugs was out of - connected with this incident; that I was very depressed about not being able to follow my career as a guitarist. And even though I was - went into playing keyboards and other things that worked out later, there was a long space of time when I was very, like - I'd just give my life to being a guitar player. And all of a sudden, that was, like, gone. And it really messed my whole head up.

GROSS: Was there a separate black and white music scene when you were coming of age?

REBENNACK: Well, there was separate unions. There was segregated unions, which was a real problem for me because - especially as I was working in the recording scene, I had flack from the white union for hiring black musicians. I had flack from the black musician by hiring white musicians. So both unions were giving me trouble for hiring the other guys when what I was doing was trying to hire the best guys to fill the jobs.

GROSS: How did you start doing studio work?

REBENNACK: Well, I hung at the studio. Myself and James Booker and several other musicians, as kids, we just literally hung at the studio, hoping somebody would get sick or get hurt and that we'd get to sub for them. And, I mean, literally, we made, you know, novenas to the saints that somebody would get ill, that we'd get a chance to play. And we'd wait. And occasionally, somebody would be late, and we'd get to play for a little bit. And usually, they'd come, and we'd get shooed out again. But slowly but surely, we kind of got accepted into the clique. And it was like, I think more to do with persistence and talent, you know?

GROSS: What are some of the sessions that you played on that became big hits nationwide?

REBENNACK: Well, early on, some of the Huey Smith and The Clowns things and Frankie Ford sessions and Jimmy Clanton sessions. Like, with Huey Smith, it's funny. I listen to some of the records that we had done. And I don't know what I played on them because Huey Smith would take me as a guitarist and say, play a conga part or play a bongo part. And I've played more things on records as a guitarist that don't sound like a guitar than I did that sound like a guitar.

GROSS: I want to play a recording from your "Gumbo" album. And it's "Those Lonely Lonely Nights." Why did you choose to do this song?

REBENNACK: Well, I was looking for some Earl King songs. Earl was one of the - he and Huey Smith were two of the guys that encouraged me to keep on writing songs. And they were like the up-and-coming guys. Like, Huey Smith was the young piano player coming up at that time. And Earl King was, like, called Little Guitar Slim, who was, like, the hero of the guitarists at the time.

GROSS: And why don't we hear it? You're featured on piano and vocals...

REBENNACK: Right.

GROSS: ...On this recording of "Those Lonely Lonely Nights" from Dr. John - Mac Rebennack's album "Gumbo."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "THOSE LONELY LONELY NIGHTS")

REBENNACK: (Singing) There's been some lonely, lonely nights, oh, baby, yes, since you been gone. Lay my head on my pillow. Oh, how I cried all night long. The thing you used to say to me - you said that we would never part. Well, you know I love you, darling. Tell me why did we have to part?

GROSS: "Those Lonely Lonely Nights" with my guest Dr. John - Mac Rebennack - featured on piano and vocals. When you started producing records, did you have a sound in mind that you were always going for?

REBENNACK: When I first started, I didn't know what I was doing. I was such a - like, a kid that got into things before I was ready. I was like the original learning-on-the-job-experience guy. All I knew was, if I hired the best musicians, I got the best arranger and got the right songs for the right singer, I had did my job correctly. Then all I had to do was get everybody to play it right in the studio, make sure we got a good tape. And my job was finished then.

And it wasn't about so much getting a sound. To me, it was getting a feeling. Once we had a track that felt good, that was it. It was like - because it was all one-track recording. There was no overdubs till a few years later. We began to overdub machine to machine. We didn't have two-track machines then. But the thing was, mistakes or not, anything went as long as it had a good feeling. If you could dance to it, if it made you - we could tell on the playbacks whether we had something good because the musicians would all start dancing if it felt real good. If they didn't get up and dance - no matter how tired they was, at least some of them would always dance if it was - felt right. If that didn't happen, we'd go on and do it again.

DAVIES: That's New Orleans pianist and singer Mac Rebennack, also known as Dr. John, speaking with Terry Gross in 1986. Mac Rebennack died yesterday at the age of 77. We'll hear more of their conversation later in the show. But next, a performance Mac Rebennack recorded in the FRESH AIR studio. That's coming up right after this short break. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF DR. JOHN'S "HONEY DRIPPER")

DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR. We're remembering the great New Orleans pianist, singer and producer Mac Rebennack, also known as Dr. John, who died yesterday at the age of 77. In 1988, we invited Mac Rebennack to be FRESH AIR'S performer-in-residence for a few weeks. Here's one of the sessions he recorded - two songs written by Hoagy Carmichael.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)

REBENNACK: I like to decompose a couple of Hoagy's tunes for you right now, starting with an old tune called "Up The Lazy River" (ph).

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "UP A LAZY RIVER")

REBENNACK: (Singing) Up the lazy river in a mill stream. Lazy, lazy river, where we can sit and dream. Linger in the shade of a kind, old tree. Throw away your troubles. And dream a dream with me. Up the lazy river by the old mill run, lazy, lazy river in the noon day sun. Blue skies up above, everyone's in love up the lazy river with me - up the lazy river with me. Up the lazy by the old mill stream, that lazy, lazy river, where we could just sit and dream. Linger in the shade of a kind, old tree. Throw away your troubles. Dream a dream with me. Up the lazy river by the old mill run - that lazy, lazy river in the noon day sun. Blue skies up above, and everyone's in love. Up the lazy river - how happy we could be up the lazy river with me. Yeah. Yeah. Yeah. Yeah.

That's an old Hoagy tune I used to really dig. I used to play it with various Dixieland bands. And now I'd like to do one - "The Nearness Of You" - starting out with a little...

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "THE NEARNESS OF YOU")

REBENNACK: (Singing) It's not the pale moon that excites me, baby, that thrills and delights me. Oh, no, it's just the nearness of loving you. It's not your sweet conversation, baby, that stirs up my imagination. It's you, child, and the nearness of loving you. When you're in my arms and I feel you so close to me, all my wildest dreams, baby, come true. And you know, sure enough, they do. It's not your sweet conversation, baby, that stirs up my imagination. It's you, child, and just the nearness of loving you. And when you're in my arms and I feel you so close to me, all my wildest dreams, baby, come true. And you know, and, well, it's not your sweet conversation, baby, that stirs up my imagination. It's you, child, and the nearness of loving you. Baby, it's you and all the stars above and the nearness of love, and just the nearness of love.

A little Hoagy Carmichael stuff for you - some oldies but moldies (ph) but some real truies (ph) and sweethearts of tunes you can't get away from.

DAVIES: Mac Rebennack, also known as Dr. John, performing in the Fresh Air Studios in 1988, when he was a FRESH AIR performer in residence. Rebennack died yesterday at the age of 77. After a break, we'll get back to his interview with Terry and hear how he combined voodoo lore and psychedelic rock to become Dr. John the Night Tripper. Also comedian Zahra Noorbakhsh shares some thoughts on community and ritual, and Justin Chang reviews the new film "Late Night." I'm Dave Davies, and this is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "MAMA ROUX")

REBENNACK: (Singing) She was the queen of the little red, white and blue. She was the queen of the little red, white and blue. She said, ooh, why can't you spy, boy? Prepare yourself to die, boy. Medicine man got a heap strong power. You know better than to mess with me. La, ga (ph), ra, bo (ph), la, la, la, la, la, frou (ph), frou. La, ga, ra, bo, la, la, la, la, la, frou, frou. If you see a spy, boy, sitting in the bush, mess him on his head and give him a push. Get out the dishes. Get out the pans. Oh, he's a pheasant for the medicine man. Tra (ph), la, la, la, la, la, la, la, ja, kon-oo (ph). Ooh, lo, ma, lo, wa (ph), la, tra, lo, wa, lo, won, ja, lo. The queen is coming.

DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Dave Davies, in for Terry Gross.

Today, we're remembering the great New Orleans pianist, singer and producer Mac Rebennack, also known as Dr. John, who died yesterday at the age of 77. He recorded more than 30 albums, and when performing as Dr. John, he sometimes appeared in snakeskin, beads and feathers. Terry spoke to Mac Rebennack in 1986.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)

GROSS: You went from this background of playing a music rooted in jazz and blues and early rock and roll. And then you became one of the leading figures in psychedelic music, and you created this persona for yourself - the Dr. John persona. How was that created? Was it your idea to do that?

REBENNACK: Well, I had always came up with album concepts. I would think of, like, well, this will be a project. And I would come up with, like, a lot of album projects so that if I had some work to do that we'd have projects to fill in, to do. And the Dr. John thing was - the idea was, at the time, there was no real show shows that were out and around.

And the concept was to take all of the tricknology (ph) that I knew in show business from over the years, like throwing glitter to make the effect of magic and using a lot of concepts that were easily and cheaply adaptable to show business and then make a show that would be real mystical, an orientation for people. And it was a real, like, easy-to-do show.

And all I had had to do was to get a group of dancers. And I got all these people from New Orleans who were real familiar with that kind of music. And we did the album, and the show was geared to the snake dancers and all the regular voodoo shows of New Orleans.

And I first - and when I first presented it, it was a little too authentic for the labels. They weren't quite ready for a guy biting a chicken's head off and stuff. So they - we modified the show down to a lot less authentic-ness to more showbiz style and took it on a road.

But when it first started, it was a great show. I would have put that band up against anybody. I used to challenge any band that was on a gig with this tour - battle of the bands. And whether it was Thelonious Monk or whether - whoever it was, I knew these guys could hold their own with. And my idea was that to show people that we weren't just about show business - that we were real good musicians, too.

GROSS: I want to play something from one of your early Dr. John the Night Tripper records, and this is from the "Gris-Gris" album, and it's "Gris-Gris Gumbo Ya Ya." Do you want to say anything about when you started doing this song and how you'd get into it?

REBENNACK: Well, this was the introduction song. Like, on the show, I would step on a button and have a big puff of smoke and say, they call me - and as the smoke cleared, it would look like I had just popped up. You know, it's an old magic trick. And that was, like, the introduction song to our show. And this also, was, like, introducing myself to the audience is who and what Dr. John is.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "GRIS-GRIS GUMBO YA YA")

REBENNACK: (Singing) They call me Dr. John, known as the Night Tripper. Got my sizzling gris-gris in my hand. Day tripping up, back down the bayou. I'm the last of the best. They call me the gris-gris man. Got many clients come from miles around running down my prescription. I got my medicine to cure all y'all's ills. I got remedies of every description. I got - gris-gris gumbo ya ya. Hey, now. Hey, now - gris-gris gumbo ya ya. Hey, now. If you got love trouble, you got a bad woman you can't control, I've got just the thing for you - something called control in the hearts or get together drops. If you work too hard, and you need a little rest, try my evil eye rub. I'll put some on my boss fix jam in your breakfast. Try a little bit of gris-gris gumbo ya ya. Hey now. Hey, now gumbo ya ya.

GROSS: Now, I think you hadn't sung or at least recorded your singing before recording in the persona of Dr. John. Was it hard to find your own voice when you were doing Dr. John?

REBENNACK: I literally had no voice. I had never really sang other than a few risque songs after hours at clubs. But I'd never - the only thing I knew about singing was I knew how to sell songs as a songwriter. But I had no chops as a singer in any way, shape or form. And I'm only recently kind of learning a little bit how to sing.

GROSS: What was your reaction to the psychedelic music scene? You'd come from a very different background.

REBENNACK: I was very turned off by the vibe of everybody being into the oneness of the planet and how that was great and the vibe. And then I was watching the aftereffects of this. I mean, I'd see these runaway kids that would hook up with that band. And like - I was around, like, the Diggers who were, like, feeding all these runaway kids in the parks.

And it was real - the side that is calling of all the love and the love beads and all was in the marketplace. But they're little kids. They got this far. They're freezing and not covered and didn't know how to take care of their self. And it was very fortunate that there were guys like the Diggers and the Panthers feeding these kids and taking care of them.

GROSS: You were born Roman Catholic. What got you so interested in voodoo?

REBENNACK: Well, it's a real heavy port in New Orleans' scene. When I was coming up, it was like everybody I know - it's like you automatically, whether it was my grandmother or my grandfather - everybody did certain little gris-gris things. It was like the herbal remedies we took as a kid was strictly gris-gris things. And I don't think people - they look at spells and the stuff, but that's a side of something, and it's a very small part of what gris-gris is about in Louisiana. And it's just part of the culture.

GROSS: You were studying to be a priest in the church of voodoo and witchcraft.

REBENNACK: Well, what I actually did was legalize it. I chartered it so that the reverend mothers in New Orleans would not be busted for fortune telling, for doing spells and whatever they did prior to me having got a charter with the state of Louisiana. Always, reverend mothers, who was some of the best people I ever knew, were getting busted on a regular basis for just going to hospitals and helping people. And it was ridiculous.

GROSS: So you created the church to help legitimize their activities.

REBENNACK: And it worked real well. It's like - to this day, they still can use this charter.

GROSS: A couple of your latest albums really showcase your piano playing. Have you been seeing yourself as much of a pianist now, as a singer or guitarist or producer or any of the other things that you've done?

REBENNACK: Actually, I just have always looked at myself as just a musician that plays in a rhythm section. I feel very awkward being called a piano player, a something, 'cause what I do is, like, not necessarily - I'm not a great piano player, so to speak. I can play the piano, and I love to play the piano. I love to play music. But I just as much love to play the guitar, the bass and the drums or anything else in a rhythm section. And that's really my love. I feel very awkward making piano solo records because there's no interplay.

And I always thought of doing something like that. It's like the end of the rope. From there I - I'm stuck with playing the Holiday Inn circuit for the rest of my life. And I'll be in some little club, somebody drunkenly asking me to play "Melancholy Baby" or something. And that was my vision, and it's - well, it didn't go that way, but that's a real underlying feel with this kind of thing to guys like me who've seen it happen to friends.

GROSS: I want to play a piece in which you're featured at the piano. It's a composition that you wrote called "Dorothy." My guest Dr. John, Mac Rebennack, at the piano. Thank you so much for talking with us.

REBENNACK: Well, thank you for having me. I enjoyed this.

(SOUNDBITE OF DR. JOHN'S "DOROTHY")

DAVIES: Mac Rebennack, better known as Dr. John, spoke to Terry Gross in 1986. He died yesterday at the age of 77.

Coming up, commentator Zahra Noorbakhsh reflects on a time when a personal health crisis coincided with the Christchurch shooting in New Zealand. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF DR. JOHN'S "WADE IN THE WATER") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.