“I had never felt the way I do now, seeing New Orleans and the state of Louisiana disappearing. We’ve given the world jazz, our kind of blues, a lot of great food, a lot of great things. It’s so confusing to look at things these days.” — Dr. John, March 2009
With a masterful boogie woogie piano touch and a voice brimming with Southern crackle, the infamous Dr. John is a genuine original. He is a living testament to the heritage of incredible cultural and musical diversity in the city of New Orleans. With triumph comes tragedy, and Dr. John, along with countless other artists and citizens, continues to search for balance in the ongoing struggles of coastal Louisiana.
Malcolm John “Mac” Rebennack was born in November 21, 1940 in New Orleans, Louisiana. Exposure to a rich variety of musical styles including blues, rhythm and blues, jazz, and gospel, initially came through his fathers record store. Still known as Mac Rebennack at the time, he learned the guitar as a young teen and quickly became part of the music scene in New Orleans.
This early musical and spiritual development was a result of the love and knowledge of music being passed down. “Spiritually, I was taught by good people,” he says. “Whether it was Alvin ‘Red’ Taylor, Earl King, or Joe Tex, all of these people gave me something as a writer.”
The Crescent City
Growing up in New Orleans provided not only diverse musical exposure for Rebennack, it allowed him to absorb and internalize the traditions and heritage of the city. New Orleans itself sits at the southernmost point of Highway 61, also regarded as The Blues Highway. Its junctions in Tennessee and Mississippi remain some of the most musically significant regions of America.
New Orleans has an outstanding culturally diverse history with its French, Spanish, Italian, African, and Native American makeup. French Creole architecture, Cajun cuisine, and Mardi Gras are all part of life there. With the musical mixing of African rhythms and European instruments came the creation of jazz music.
New Orleans is also the birthplace of other music legends such as Fats Domino and Louis Armstrong among many others. Its unique style of rhythm and blues was a foundation factor toward the development of rock ‘n roll. Due in part to Rebennack’s contributions, New Orleans also boasted a thriving funk scene in the 60s and 70s.
Rebennack’s introduction to the piano came after playing guitar in countless bottom-of-the-barrel nightclubs throughout the south. Gang fights and gun fire weren’t uncommon. After a show in Florida, Rebennack severely injured his left ring finger when he was shot while attempting to protect a bandmate. This prompted a shift to the piano through which he gained deep inspiration from boogie woogie piano legend Professor Longhair.
Movin’ Out West
In 1963, Rebennack moved to Los Angeles for greater exposure, leading to the development of his Dr. John character. Harold Battiste was a friend of his at the time and also the musical director for Sonny & Cher. Once in LA, Dr. John would become a part of the duo’s backing band. Further encouragement from Battiste pushed Rebennack to work on the Dr. John character. At this point, Rebennack was heavily steeped in the the LA scene and had become a first-call session musician for legendary producer Phil Spector.
Rebennack’s early live shows drew heavily from New Orleans culture. He built on a foundation of r&b and uniquely included elements of psychedelic rock and voodoo chants. “We would wear large snakeskins, there was a boa constrictor, an anaconda, a lot of plumes from Mardi Gras Indians,” he recalls.
Mac Rebennack would now be billed at live shows as Dr. John The Night Tripper. The name Dr. John was borrowed from a 19th Century New Orleans voodoo practitioner named Dr. John Montaine.
The Good Doctor
By his 1968 debut Gris Gris, Rebennack had simply became known as Dr. John. This album featured his early New Orleans and voodoo influences and was recorded from studio time gifted to him from Sonny & Cher. Through the late 60s to early 70s, Dr. John created a series of definitive albums in a variety of styles. By his 1971 release Moon, Sun, and Herbs, Dr. John had developed a star-studded following which included Eric Clapton and Mick Jagger, who also contributed to the album.
The 1972 release o f Dr. John’s Gumbo featured a more traditional r&b approach of New Orleans standards of the 40s and 50s. The single “Iko Iko” broke the Billboard Top 40. The album remains a landmark recording in New Orleans music.
The following year, his s hift into funk music dawned the outstanding In The Right Place. With their r&b roots, the backing of The Meters helped Dr. John to create an upbeat funky dance feel. The singles “Right Place Wrong Time” and “Such a Night” both hit the Billboard Hot 100 chart. Dr. John had established himself as a key player in the style of New Orleans funk.
Since becoming a solo artist, Dr John has collaborated with many outstanding musicians. His piano skills were offered on The Rolling Stones’ song “Let It Loose.” He has also been part of several major studio collaborations with a variety artists such as Eric Clapton,Van Morrison, Aretha Franklin, James Taylor, Mike Bloomfield, Carly Simon, and Lou Reed.
However, the collaborations in his hometown have offered him the most artistically. Some of the finest drummers in music have come from New Orleans. Dr. John has had the opportunity to work with them. When asked about collaborating with Dr. John, legendary drummer Earl Palmer reflects, “We have a musical connection of our own. He never lost that New Orleans feel, that New Orleans thing was always there with Mac. The minute you were in his company, you felt right at home.”
No matter your place of origin, a sense of home is something that everyone carries with them. Some people desire to erase and escape memories of their hometown, while others become deeply ingrained with the pulse of their city. In terms of creating music, place can establish what you play and how you play it. A powerful potential of art is that it can create deep social networks and a sense of community. I feel that no matter where one resides, a sense of community and true social interaction is as important as ever.
Like many others, I can only begin to comprehend the loss in New Orleans through the unimaginable devastation of Hurricane Katrina. Thousands of families scattered across the US, and a home was forever changed. Many are unable to return.
“I can just see so many miles, and miles, and miles of where friends of mine lived, and there’s nothing. And nobody’s about to do anything. And I just pray that something will happen that will put a balance back in it all,” says Dr. John.
It was Dr. John who closed Shelter from the Storm: A Concert for the Gulf Coast telethon with a version of Fats Domino’s “Walkin’ to New Orleans.” Shortly after, in November 2005, Dr. John released a four-song record called Sippiana Hericane as a benefit for the New Orleans Musicians Clinic, Salvation Army, and the Jazz Foundation of America.
“Our culture is getting hit from so many directions, like the oil companies cutting salt water canals that are destroying the wetlands in South Louisiana. Seeing that makes me feel horrible. There is more and more offshore oil drilling, and just so many stands of dead cypress trees. I’m just trying to tell the truth about stuff that nobody seems to want to talk about. Really it gets me a little crazy,” says Dr. John, who shared his thoughts about oil companies many months prior to the recent oil spill off the Louisiana coast.
In this recent environmental tragedy, we are witnessing a release of toxicity by the hands of man at an incomprehensible level. Due to our unquenchable thirst for economic growth we are part of an increasing dependency on the resources provided by our planet. I feel that because of this dependency, current and future, natural and man-made disasters will have a much stronger impact on mankind.
Through preparedness and education we must realize and respect our limitations. Similar to our relationships and sense of community, it requires significant effort to respect our planet and uphold our heritage as we continue to push forward.
Dr. John’s 2008 release of the Grammy winning The City That Care Forgot further points to his determination in continuing to shed light on post-Katrina New Orleans. His 2008 induction into the Louisiana Music Hall of Fame also serves as a testament to his musical and personal contributions toward New Orleans. Furthermore, Dr. John will be taking his live show on the road for the 2010 summer with dates in Europe and the US.
To experience some of Dr. John’s music, seek out and have a listen to these select tracks which are standouts in an extraordinary career. These songs are an excellent starting point for new listeners and a glimpse at his large body of work. Below that, you will find two excellent videos for your viewing pleasure. Enjoy!
“Such a Night ” on In The Right Place
“Right Place Wrong Time” on In The Right Place
“Iko Iko” on Dr. John’s Gumbo
“How Come My Dog Don’t Bark (When You Come Around) ” on Goin’ Back To New Orleans (Written by Cousin Joe)
“Time For A Change (feat. Eric Clapton)” on City That Care Forgot
Dr. John On Video
What Do You Think?
Please feel free to comment and share your thoughts on the music of Dr. John. What are some of your favorite songs or albums? How have they affected you? If you have seen Dr. John in concert, please share some of your comments about the shows.
“Dr. John” wpopp, Wikimedia Commons
“Dr. John” Derek Bridges, Wikimedia Commons
“Dr. John” Guus Krol @ Flickr.com Creative Commons. Some Rights Reserved
“DSC-5812” Guus Krol @ Flickr.com Creative Commons. Some Rights Reserved.