For the New Orleans icon, Hall of Fame status is 'right place, right time'
March 11, 2011
By Alan Light
Special to MSN Music
In the liner notes to his landmark 1972 album "Gumbo" -- a rollicking, unprecedented-at-the-time collection of New Orleans standards -- Dr. John wrote that "I thought that the people might enjoy hearing the root music from New Orleans, which was maybe the chief ingredient in what we know today as rock 'n' roll." He added that he wanted the album to be "a picture of the music New Orleans people listen to, a combination of Dixieland, rock 'n' roll, and funk."
In a conversation a few months ago, the man born Mac Rebennack 70 years ago, who is being inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame next week, also spoke about the other kinds of music that helped shape his remarkable musical direction. "When I think about stuff that influenced me," he said, "the Afro-Cuban stuff was big in New Orleans, on jukeboxes all over. Also the bebop records was big -- the brass bands would play those songs to advertise gigs. As a kid, I just thought that was all part of New Orleans. Later I realized that it's all connected, that everything is part of a whole."
For more than 50 years, as a singer, musician, producer, songwriter, and all-around instigator, Dr. John has served as a global ambassador for that incomparable New Orleans recipe, introducing the region's musical history and legacy to countless listeners through both his own work and his numerous collaborations with legends. He is a living link to the New Orleans of Louis Armstrong and Buddy Bolden, a witness to the pioneering work of Fats Domino and Little Richard who went on to record with the likes of the Rolling Stones, Aretha Franklin, the Band, Eric Clapton and B.B. King.
Rebennack grew up hanging around Cosimo Matassa's celebrated studio, and began working as a session musician while still a teenager, playing guitar with local heroes like Professor Longhair and Lloyd Price. After taking a gunshot to his finger while defending his friend and bandmate Ronnie Barron, he took up the bass before returning to his first instrument, the piano.
In the early 1960s, he moved to Los Angeles, where he recorded with Phil Spector, Sonny and Cher, and Frank Zappa. During downtime in the studio, he began working on a new project, gathering the Crescent City refugees who had migrated to L.A. to make music inspired by the mysterious, ancient religious traditions of New Orleans. Rebennack assumed the character of "Dr. John, the Night Tripper," taking the name, he later explained in his riveting, brutally honest 1994 autobiography, "Under a Hoodoo Moon," from a 19th-century medicine man who was "preeminent in the city for the awe in which he was held by the poor, and the fear and notoriety he inspired among the rich."
His 1968 debut under the Dr. John moniker was titled "Gris-Gris," which was later named one of the greatest albums of all time by Rolling Stone. "'Gris-gris' is the New Orleans word for voodoo," he wrote, "and it was voodoo music, but there's not exactly a calling for that in the marketplace. It just happened that we fit into the psychedelic movement." His irresistibly funky grooves and live spectacle, inspired by old carnivals and minstrel shows, connected with hippies and freaks everywhere. The album's apocalyptic climax, "I Walk on Guilded Splinters," became both a frequent cover, by artists from the Allman Brothers to Paul Weller, and a popular sample for hip-hop tracks.
In the 1970s, Dr. John seemed to be everywhere, both as a headlining star and an A-list collaborator. "Iko Iko," from the "Gumbo" album, took timeless New Orleans Indian chants to the Top 40. "Right Place Wrong Time," with lyrics concocted in a round-robin with the likes of Bob Dylan and Bette Midler, had a slithering, monumental groove by the Meters; it became his biggest single ever in 1973. The following year's album, "Desitively Bonnaroo," would eventually inspire the name of the biggest music festival in America (at this year's festival, Dr. John and the Meters will be performing the often-overlooked album in full).
Along the way, he was also recording with rockers like the Rolling Stones (he appears on "Exile on Main Street"), John Lennon, and Van Morrison. He took a star turn playing his hit "Such a Night" at the Band's farewell concert, memorialized in "The Last Waltz," worked on Rickie Lee Jones' first album and wrote extensively with master songwriter Doc Pomus.
Eventually, his own work would lead him back to the blues, jazz, Tin Pan Alley and classic R&B foundation with which he grew up. He recorded several highly acclaimed solo piano albums, and has won five Grammy awards -- tellingly, each one recognizing a different genre (jazz, pop, rock, traditional blues and contemporary blues). And over time, Dr. John's unmistakably sly, craggy voice has become synonymous with New Orleans, offering a shorthand taste of the city in commercials, television shows, movie soundtracks and civic events.
In recent years, Rebennack has devoted much of his time to raising money and awareness in the wake of the Hurricane Katrina disaster. He has been outspoken in his criticism of the government's preparation for and response to the crisis, and has backed his talk up with numerous benefit appearances and recordings. His hometown, he once said, "is part of me, it's part of whatever I'm about. The importance of it is beyond anything I do."
When we spoke last year, Dr. John reminisced about playing on the session for Professor Longhair's classic "Big Chief" in 1964. "I have no idea what I played on 'Big Chief,'" he said, "I don't even know what the guitar part was. There was just so much stuff going on -- and that, to me, is what New Orleans music is about."
Alan is the former editor-in-chief of Vibe and SPIN, and was co-founder and editor-in-chief of Tracks. He is the director of programming for the public television concert series "Live From the Artists Den," and contributes frequently to The New York Times and Rolling Stone. Alan is a two-time winner of ASCAP's Deems Taylor Award for excellence in music writing.