dr. john, 1941-2019

Dr. John (Mac Rebennack).

It was in the early 1970s, on that great televised seminar of contemporary music known as “Don Kirshner’s Rock Concert,” that I was introduced to Dr. John.

Initially, he was a name among many – one of those artists a pre-teen kid was supposed to know about if he was serious about his devotion to rock ‘n’ roll. Well, here Dr. John was, making a house call to my living room TV dressed in layers of scarves and necklaces, tossing glitter in the air, playing piano like a rock-funk renegade and singing like the voodoo shaman he very much envisioned himself to be. In another month or two, Dr. John, born Mac Rebennack, would be all over rock radio with a blast of New Orleans funk called “Right Place, Wrong Time” and again a few months later with the vastly sunnier follow-up “Such a Night.”

The album those singles came from, 1973’s “In the Right Place,” was my first Dr. John record purchase. But what it became was a passport to the city of New Orleans and the world of music it contained. This wasn’t the Dixieland/Al Hirt jazz my father’s generation viewed New Orleans music to be or even the Jelly Roll Morton-schooled ragtime and swing that serious jazzers considered as the defining voices of Crescent City music. No, Dr. John was different. His music was darker, thicker and, in every purposeful way, trippier – hence the addendum to his performance moniker: The Night Tripper. As such, “In the Right Place” was a new-generation New Orleans summit that featured the city’s premier song stylist Allen Toussaint as producer and co-keyboardist and its coolest funk troupe, The Meters, as the record’s primary band. It was outrageous – an 11-song road map through the more subterranean, voodoo-infested avenues of Crescent City funk that sounded unlike anything I had heard.

But the enduring magic of Dr. John, who died Thursday at the age of 77, was how vast his musical reach was. In subsequent decades, he would cut albums of Duke Ellington and Louis Armstrong compositions, pop standards and solo piano meditations while gigging with everyone from The Band (he sang an uproarious “Such a Night” for “The Last Waltz”) to Art Blakey.

Still, nothing satisfied more than when Rebennack was in full Dr. John mode, whether it was though the seven Atco albums cut between 1968 and 1974 that shifted from heavily psychedelic variations on New Orleans funk (the 1968 debut “Gris-Gris”) to scholarly nods to Crescent City forefathers like Professor Longhair and Huey Smith (1972’s “Gumbo”) or forgotten later albums like “City Lights” (1978), “Creole Moon” (2001) and the Dan Auerbach-produced “Locked Down” (2012).

I got to interview Dr. John twice ahead of Lexington concerts in 2009 and 2015. His mood was strikingly different during the conversations, although his demeanor was consistently polite.

The 2009 interview came four years after Hurricane Katrina and the floods that erupted in its aftermath had forever changed the face of his homeland. Infuriated that the rest of the country had mistakenly thought New Orleans had magically healed itself from the wreckage, Rebennack released an album called “City That Care Forgot” that embraced the resilience of those who continued to work through the devastation of Katrina.

“Let’s put it this way,” he told me in 2009. “I ain’t giving up. We’re a people of a good spirit. These are people I trust with my life. They’re resilient.”

His tone was lighter in 2015, when the New Orleans inspiration that created such a variety of depth and color in his music, seemed almost redemptive in its intensity, as was his optimism at still being able to perform in his early 70s. The word he used repeatedly to describe his touring band, his audience reception and his entire sense of performance vigor was “slammin’.”

“I think that no matter what you go through in life, you got to roll,” he said in 2015. “You got to roll like a big wheel in the Georgia cotton fields.”



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