Dr John – Hanging with the Hoodoo Man

Dr John

To say Malcolm John ‘Mac’ Rebennack Jr, aka Dr John, has lived a colourful life would be something of an understatement: from spells in jail, being shot in the hand, scoring drugs and his upbringing in deepest, darkest New Orleans, he is the very embodiment of the Crescent City’s rich gumbo soul. With his riotous album Ske-Dat-De-Dat: The Spirit of Satch, he celebrates another Big Easy scion, Louis Armstrong and his timeless trumpet and vocal legacies. The Good Doctor tells Michael Jackson how jazz has always woven itself into his work...

“Louis came to me in a dream and said ‘Cut my stuff yo’ way’,” recalls Rebennack, “and man, he never came to me in a dream before, even though we wuz both booked with (legendary boxing and jazz promoter) Joe Glaser back in the game.” Rebennack remembers Glaser’s vintage roster represented, ‘the spectorama of trumpet players’ including Dizzy Gillespie, who at the time thought Louis was Uncle Tomming (selling out to white audiences). “I told Dizz then ‘he can’t be Tommin’, he’s anything but that, he just knows the procedures to get across’.” Words of experience from a white man who infuriated segregated white and black unions in New Orleans by backing black musicians in the 1950s and 60s. Eventually, singer Joe ‘Mr. Google Eyes’ August brought Dizzy to a Dr John show and the bebop progenitor confessed he now concurred about Armstrong. “He totally agreed with me and that made me feel much better,” reflected Rebennack, who idolised both Gillespie and Armstrong.

Dr JohnIn honor of Pops a ‘spectorama’ of latter-day trumpet heroes are assembled for Ske-Dat-De-Dat including Nicholas Payton, Arturo Sandoval, Terence Blanchard, James Andrews and Wendell Brunious, who turn in cameos respectively on ‘What a Wonderful World’, ‘Memories of You’, ‘Wrap Your Troubles in Dreams’, ‘Dippermouth Blues’ and the warm and fuzzy ‘That’s My Home’. A signature track from the record is a funkified update of ‘Mack The Knife’, which features Blanchard and Paris-based rapper Mike Ladd. During his version of this storied narrative, originally titled ‘Die Moritat von Mackie Messer’ in the original Brecht/Weill iteration from 1928 (adopted as ‘Moritat’ by Sonny Rollins, the same year as Armstrong waxed it, by the by), Rebennack shouts out to star guests Bonnie Raitt and Shemekia Copeland, much as Armstrong tipped his hat to Weill’s widow Lotte Lenya in his 1956 version, an addition furthered by Bobby Darin. The merry murder ballad was also morphed by Ella Fitzgerald, who forgot the lyrics in Berlin in 1960 and improvised. Rebennack appreciated Fitzgerald and her simpatico with Armstrong and was once convinced Ella was looking out for him. “I was in this rehab years ago, having a vacation from my life in the psych ward and I was totally convinced this nurse was Ella Fitzgerald.”

Rebennack’s rambunctious life as wannabe hustler, songwriter and record producer is kaleidoscopically portrayed in his autobiography Under A Hoodoo Moon (St Martin’s 1994), in which, early on, he has his own Mac the Knife moment, trying to get even with his formative ‘junko pardna’, a sketchy character called Shank:

“One night, after he had pulled some bad issue on me, I tore over to [Shank’s] house, ready to stab him. I came in there with my knife out, and he croaked, ‘Is that all you got to use on me?’… he pulled this huge revolver out from somewhere, didn’t even point it at me, but he got me backpedaling fast. Later, I found out his gun not only wasn’t loaded; it didn’t even have a firing pin. It was some antique from the Wild West days.”

Rebennack’s days as a potential McHeath, mercifully, were fraught with misadventure, such as the time he fixed on shooting rhythm & blues singer Lloyd Price for stealing one of his songs, but the Price gig at which the showdown was supposed to occur was cancelled. In attempting to sue Price for the theft of ‘Try Not To Think About You’ (which Price recast as ‘Lady Luck’), Mac ultimately discovered the lawyer he enlisted was also on Price’s payroll.

A further rift involving blade and gun proved more hazardous. It’s an infamous road story involving Dr John’s defence of his greenhorn singer and Jesuit High School classmate Ronnie Barron, but Rebennack fleshed it out during our conversation:

“Ronnie’s mama was chopping some meat with a big knife and she said ‘I’m gonna chop your cajones off if you don’t look after my son, ’cos he’s way underage.’ So I took him on the road and I walk in his motel room and he’s getting pistol whipped by this guy, some big robbery guy in Florida; so I’m hitting this guy’s hand on a brick trying to get the gun out of his hand and pull his eyeball out and I thought my hand was over the handle but it was over the barrel.”

The resultant gunshot severely damaged Rebennack’s left ring finger and made him switch from guitar to keyboards after an unhappy spell playing bass in a Dixieland group at NOLA’s Famous Door lounge. Mac, who studied guitar with Fats Domino guitarist Papoose and the versatile Roy Montrell, recently demonstrated vernacular Telecaster chops in Chicago on a rousing version of Earl King’s rebellious ‘Mama and Papa’, otherwise sticking to piano or Nord, peppering ballsy cuts from Locked Down with such Rebennack perennials as ‘I Walk on Gilded Splinters’, ‘Make a Better World’ and ‘Such a Night’.

“Yeah, I play a little bit of guitar now. I never really stopped, even after I first got shot in my finger, but I remember Leo Fender at some point asked me to play his Jazzmaster guitar and I said ‘these things get outta tune’ and I didn’t play it, so he stopped endorsing me. If I had any of dem guitars now, I’d probably be rich. Aah well, that’s life.”

A precedent to Dr John’s Armstrong tribute was his pithy Ellington homage Duke Elegant (Blue Note, 2000), which featured guitarist Bobby Broom. Broom was backstage at Chicago Blues fest, along with this writer and his kids (it was father’s day after all and I knew the writer of ‘My Children, My Angels’ would be down with that). Dr John greeted us all and ‘jaw jerked’ benevolently.

Broom had this to say about his time with the Doctor: “I was in Mac’s band from 1994 to just about 2000. When I joined him, I knew about its place in the story of jazz music, but I had no idea about the strong influence on the creation of R&B that New Orleans had. During my time with him it all started making sense that, as with all melting pots, New Orleans always had the perfect traditional ingredients for any new, cultural creation – whether in food, religion, jazz or R&B.

“Mac embodied those musical traditions ­– in R&B, blues and jazz. He knew I was a jazz guitar player and a music lover who could lean a little in different directions and he let me bring that to the band.”

Talking of such inclusivity Ske-Dat-De-Dat is particularly generous in the space allotted to sidemen and women, even for a typically expansive Dr John project. That’s the product of formative years working at Cosimo Matassa’s legendary studio in New Orleans and thence with the Ace, Ron and Ric and Mercury labels, where he put sessions together, pooled talent and often wrote songs with others in mind. ‘Tight Like This’ for example is a steamy, Afro-Cuban tinged feature for Arturo Sandoval, where the leader is conspicuously hands off, and ‘Sometimes I Feel Like A Motherless Child’ is singer Andy Hamilton’s baby, the Doctor lets him have it.

Though an inimitable frontman ever since he hatched his mythical moniker and caught the imagination of the psychedelic set in tumultuous 1968 with his eerie, eclectic cave-jam Gris-Gris (incidentally Mac was never a devotee of psychedelics), Dr John wasn’t desperate to be centre of attention. Many of the acts he supported, ‘back in the game’ – to borrow a nostalgic phrase his sandpaper rasp over the phone frequently delivers ­– he found disingenuous.

“My pa told me: ‘Kid, you got kicked outta three schools, my advice is go out on the Chitlins Circuit with dem old men’. But the whole thing about those frontmans (sic) was a lotta them had a three dollar bill attitude… it was in the days when nobody saw acts on the TV, so Sugar and Sweet would pass off as Shirley and Lee and Earl King would pass off as Chuck Berry or Guitar Slim, James Booker as Joe Tex. People didn’t even know who the real front guys was because there was so many shuck guys out there.” Rebennack refuses to bracket Marvin Gaye in that number however, “I loved that Marvin played good drums every soundcheck, better than his real drummer and I loved Big Joe Turner; I had a real blessing working for him.” Turner’s ‘Piney Brown Blues’ first heard in his father’s record store when he was in knee pants, made a big impression.

“My pa sold three kinds of records, there was what they call race music back then, which was blues and R&B, there was spiritual and gospel and there was jazz – bebop and traditional jazz.”

Though his primary influences included his wildly flamboyant confrère James Booker and crucial stylist Professor Longhair in New Orleans, Mac always craned an ear for jazz from further afield and comments in Under a Hoodoo Moon about checking McCoy Tyner: “Every break I used to get from working joints in the Quarter, I used to go to Vernon’s to hear John Coltrane when he was in town… I used to sit up behind McCoy Tyner, because I wanted to learn how he played piano. But Trane’s music would get so intense – and my head was getting so narcotised – that I’d nod out every time they started.”

Another jazz great Rebennack intersected with was Art Blakey, though at first not in ideal circumstances, when he, tubaist Ray Draper and pianist Walter Davis woke an angry Blakey as they night tripped through his apartment to score heroin in the early 1970s. Through the connection of Mac’s road manager Barbara Becker, Blakey would eventually record Bluesiana Triangle (Windham Hill, 1990) with Rebennack and David ‘Fathead’ Newman and during the session, “Art was sweet enough not to mention the way we’d first met,” Rebennack recalls. That date turned out to be prescient, given a somewhat chilling version of ‘When The Saints Go Marching In’ (more pertinent to the song’s somewhat apocalyptic lyrics than the touristic version) and Blakey’s croaky vocals on ‘For All We Know’, as Bu (Blakey’s Islamic nickname) would be dead within six months.

Before expedient DA Jim Garrison cleaned up New Orleans in the early 1960s, there had been a genuine 24/7 music scene embracing more of a community, less dog-eat-dog. Since there was plenty of work, musicians would swap out gigs and play several engagements a night. This has contributed to Rebennack’s laidback attitude and the peculiarly relaxed, yet rhythmically layered, crowd pleasing funk that emanates from NOLA. Musicians from the City all share a brotherhood and at Chicago Blues Festival, Rebennack was pleased to share the bill with Aaron Neville.

“I used him on the first session he was on, at Cosimo’s studio, when we was all dittyboppers,” Mac recalls fondly, “Me, Charles (Neville) and Aaron played ‘Please Send Me Someone To Love’ on this tribute to me in New Orleans, we’ve been playing that since we were kids, I love Percy Mayfield’s songs.” And indeed, he learnt the songwriting craft from the likes of Mayfield: “Me and Shine (guitarist Alvin Robinson) wrote a song that we thought was a killer for Percy, but when he heard it he said ‘You can’t take that long to get to the hook!’ We was writin’ songs but didn’t care how long it took to the hook, so Percy pulled our coattails to that and it made some kinda sense to both of us.”

In LA in 1967, a couple of years after release from spells in Angola, Fort Worth and Lexington correctional facilities, Mac Rebennack refashioned himself as Dr John, a throwback to a nineteenth century medicine man/freed slave/purported Senegalese Prince who ran a voodoo practice and whorehouse with a certain Pauline Rebennack. In many ways the connection with this original hoodoo hustler and journeyman made sense, since Rebennack himself was an itinerant troubadour who had dabbled in pimping and the dark arts (early on, goofer dust – graveyard dirt mixed with gunpowder and church-bell grease – was a favorite concoction to curse his enemies). By 2013 even his ‘Dr’ appellation was vindicated when Tulane University bestowed an honorary doctorate of fine arts, so he became Dr Dr John.

Another self-graduated entertainer, organist Dr Lonnie Smith, worked on a tribute record to Fats Domino in New Orleans with Herbie Hancock, Norah Jones and Rebennack and remembers his counterpart with affection: “Doc is very funny, very soulful and the strange thing is we both walk with a cane, don’t we? He plays from the heart, it’s not about anything that’s not real, and that’s the way his music comes across; he’s a very beautiful person.”

 

“I just feel blessed to play music and be doin’ what I’m doin’.”
– Dr John

 

So, getting back to the star studded new album – for which he owes thanks to his longtime “hellfire trombonist”, arranger and co-producer Sarah Morrow; such flirtatious duet partners as Raitt (‘I’ve Got The World on a String’) and Copeland (‘Sweet Hunk O’Trash’) and the Blind Boys of Alabama – did the Doctor ever meet his main man Satchmo, outside of a dream?

“I met him in Joe Glaser’s office where on the wall was a picture of Louis sittin’ on a rock right outside New Orleans. I knew he was sittin’ by the bridge which went to Bucktown and right there I knew he could see Ralph Schultz’ Fresh Hardware store and my pa’s shop.” Rebennack’s father’s appliance and record store, where he fixed turntables and amps and span records, had a defining influence on young Mac. “I was askin’ if he was looking at my pa’s shop – but Louis was laughing so hard at Schultz, because Schultz could marry you, give you your birth tag stickers, whatever ya needed at his hardware store – that I never got to finish the question.”

Subsequently, Dr John is as synonymous with New Orleans as Armstrong himself and has traveled a long and winding road since copping Louis Jordan and Joe Turner from his father’s Top 20 list. “Back then I thought I was gonna be a Liberace type guy or somethin’, I didn’t know what the hell I was gonna be, I had some dream of dat – you always have fantasias.” He adds, “Listen, whatever ya get, that’s what ya got and I don’t care, I just feel blessed to play music and be doin’ what I’m doin’.”

Though the Night Tripper of yore has had health concerns of late, he remains sanguine and still tucks into a gamey gumbo of squirrel, alligator and specklebelly goose when back at the crib. “If ya eat squirrels that comes outta the swamps, ya get good, if you get ’em that’s close to the Gulf, that’s not good.” His gratitude to the open armed Spiritual Church of New Orleans (he learned bass in the Church band when he was a sprout) is evidenced in the purified modulations of ‘Nobody Knows the Trouble I’ve Seen’, delivered by soul singer Ledisi and gospel quintet the McCrary Sisters on Ske-Dat-De-Dat. ‘Wrap Your Troubles in Dreams’, a more secular cure for life’s ills, along with James P Johnson’s ‘Sweet Hunk O’Trash’ (originally recorded in 1949 with Pops and Billie Holiday) typify Dr John’s taste for a hybrid of sacred and profane. It’s all grist to the mill or rather gris gris to the pot Broom refers to, a rich brew, with Rebennack re-stamping the legacy of Armstrong who stretched the canon and spiced it with humour. Such adaptation borne of dry joie de vivre was encapsulated by one of Dr John’s songwriting collaborators and sometime Sidney Bechet sideman, Pleasant Joe: “My old partner Cousin Joe used to play with all the bebop bands in New York and I could see why they would hire him, because he had funny lyrics to all the blues. Anyway he told me a long time ago, he said ‘The best way for a musician to croak is to fall over on the last song of the show – the band gets paid, and you don’t have to play an encore,’ that’s the way to go.”

This article originally appeared in the November 2014 issue of Jazzwise. Subscribe to Jazzwise

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