Dr John – Album By Album
The pianist, singer and songwriter Mac Rebennack, known better as Dr John, faces your questions in the latest Uncut (dated July 2012), out now – but back in October 2010 (Take 161), he took us on a fascinating journey through his most important, and interesting, releases, from Gris-Gris to Exile On Main St. "We went to a nudist camp somewhere, we made up a song called 'The Symphony Of Frogs'…"
The early outing
LEONARD JAMES AND HIS ORCHESTRA
Boppin' And A-Strollin'
A full decade before Mac Rebennack began trading as Dr John, his recording career begins. As a young man, Mac would play guitar in his native New Orleans with a number of R’n’B combos, often with sax player Leonard James. Not widely heard, this is a swiftly recorded local effort…
Dr John: "I’m always grateful to my father for telling me, 'Your head ain’t on no school. My advice to you is to take that job on the road.' My father used to fix the PA systems at clubs, and restaurants where they had music. Those were the days when people paid my father with fish, or ducks. Real things. Life was a lot simpler, and it was a gig, you know?
"Originally I was working with Leonard James’ band. I worked with bands like The Spades. The Dominos. The this, the that. But Leonard showed me how to hustle to get gigs. We used to play gigs in the 9th Ward of New Orleans at a grocery store. He’d walk in, and he’d have his sax case fall open accidentally…he’d start playing, give a guy a record. But he was a very vain cat, he had ducktails and all of that. So when he saw he was losing his hair, he joined the Air Force. He was playing saxophone in Air Force bands. We lost touch with each other. We were supposed to meet. I don’t know if he’s alive or dead – but there’s so many people like that."
The Night Tripping Masterpiece
Gris-Gris (ATCO, 1968 )
Having moved to LA to pursue a career as a session musician, Mac decided to unveil a concept project – Dr John, the Night Tripper, who would perform music deeply linked to New Orleans mystical tradition. Recorded after hours, it remains an eerie, stone-cold classic…
"When we started this whole Dr John thing we were trying to preserve the New Orleans voodoo scene which was called Gris-Gris… we were trying to preserve it. I had this whole album writ down. Either Sonny or Cher was cutting for Atlantic – it got done on their studio time. All of the guys on that record were from New Orleans. One thing about people from New Orleans, we know it’s better to hang together than to hang separated. I took a lot of sacred music, and asked some reverend mothers [Voodoo practitioners of New Orleans] if it was OK. I asked, if I didn’t sing the original spiritual lyrics to the songs, was it OK to do this record? And they told me 'That’s OK'. But don’t do this, don’t do that.
"So it was easy: I was given a lot of instructions on certain things. But I was trying to help them in certain ways, too. When that record came out, they got me to front their [Voodoo] church and get it legalised with the state of Louisiana, so that when they heal people they wouldn’t go to jail. I gave the church to a guy called Noel, and he’s still got it rolling in South Louisiana. The spirit is strong. That music was important – they gave me so much so freely, that it was important for me to do something for them.
"They taught me how to cure people with plants, and what you look for in the earth. These days they call that homeopathical medications or whatever they calls it. In Louisiana this is part of Choctaw traditions, African traditions… It’s all in this little area between Louisiana and Mississippi – everything grows. I was always around so many blessed musicians… great guitar players, sax players, killer drummers. We did a whole voodoo show. We did what you would actually see [at a voodoo ceremony], but made it into showbusiness, which was taking what we used to do with minstrels and mixing it with stuff from the mardi gras Indians, like the fur suits I had. We had a guy that was a wild man for the Creole Wild West, way back in the game in the 1930s. I talked to the kids… they know about this stuff, but they don’t remember far back. But all of these people contributed something that made this music different, and we were trying to keep the spirit of all of that."
The bad news album!
Babylon (ATCO, 1969)
A strange set of circumstances sees Dr John and band arrive in San Francisco, where they fit – to their surprise – very neatly in with the countercultural vibe. The Vietnam war, and the assassinations of Martin Luther King and Bobby Kennedy contribute to the album’s heavy atmosphere…
"We went to a nudist camp somewhere, we made up a song called 'The Symphony Of Frogs', we were jamming to the frogs, Didymus [conga player Richard Washington] was playing the rocks. Little Charlie was playing his flute. Next thing, these nudists said, 'You should come with us to San Francisco.' So we go there, and people is givin’ us these pads to stay at. The Grateful Deads is putting us up at this pad. It was like 'damn'. And our Gris-Gris started selling a little bit… it fit in with their thing. It was funny to all of us. Because kids used to say to us, little kids, 'You guys are like dinosaurs – everyone’s doing acid, and you guys are shooting heroin.' It was like, 'Damn! How does this kid know?' The saxophone player left the band from out there, because he kept seeing signs that said 'Armageddon'. He left the band and got busted and was in Raiford State Penitentiary in Florida, on the chain gang. He sent me a letter and he said, 'I feel much safer here than in Babylon.' It was a strange letter to get, but it may have had something to do with the record, and all the things happening."
Remedies (ATCO, 1970)
Managerial problems – Dr John has had a few. One adviser encouraged him to spend time in a mental hospital to get out of a drug conviction – the part-finished Remedies comes from this insane period. Contains the 17-minute prison reform polemic, “Angola Anthem”.
"My managers put me in a psych ward. These guys were very bad people – I had gotten busted on a deal, and they got me bonded out of jail, and so when they did I could have got a parole violation. All of this stuff was so unconnected to music that it’s hard to relate it. A friend of mine had just come out of doing 40-something years in Angola [the infamous Louisiana State Penitentiary], he was just someone special in my heart – called Tangleye. And Tangleye says, 'I’m gonna sell you this song. Got it in Angola, but ain’t nobody ever cut this song…' Even now guys I know getting out of Angola know this song. It’s still a horrible place to be. They feed people every 10 days or whatever.
"And that’s why I cut this song: I got a friend doing 300 years in one of these satellite penitentiaries, he got high blood pressure, cirrhosis of the liver, he don’t get no medication. People have no idea what it’s like in a cell when it’s just you, and they feed you whenever they feel like it. One of these guys told me, 'You can taste the food before you eat it.' And they stretch it too with the rats and whatever other critters these guys have as pets."
The all-star jam
The Sun, Moon And Herbs (Atlantic, 1971)
Originally planned as a triple concept, The Sun, Moon And Herbs ended up – via managerial shenanigans, missing tapes, etc – not being quite that. Recorded in London, Mick Jagger, Eric Clapton, etc turn up to guest…
"We were doing this record over here [in London], and they [Dr John’s managers] decided they were going to try and sell the tapes to [blues-rock label] Blue Thumb Records – and I was signed to Atlantic Records, so I ratted them out… Everyone who was part of that record talked to me and told me to go for it. We wanted to make a three-record set: a sun record, a moon record, an herbs record.
"The first record was this beautiful thing about the sun, and we had a song my mother wrote. I didn’t have all of my regular guys: most of the guys were straight-up addicts, so there was a lot of confusion getting them anywhere. I had to change guys just to get across the border. We had a lot of people from all over, from Africa, Jamaica. We had Eric Clapton, at the time when he had Derek And The Dominoes. But the point is that people all threw down to help with this. I seen a picture of Mick Jagger at the studio singing some back-ups. I seen a picture of myself with what looks like a joint in my hand, but it must have been a home-rolled cigarette – because I wasn’t into smoking the weeds."
Gumbo (Atlantic, 1972)
After four years of Gris-Gris theatre, Dr John and band decide to pay tribute to the music that inspired them. Spawns radio hit “Iko Iko”…
"All that stuff that we were wearing [for the Gris Gris shows] burned up in a fire at Studio Instrument Rentals, and it was hard to keep doing the show without any of the stuff we had started out doing the show with. But by the time of Gumbo… I’ll be straight up, instead of buying more stuff, I took the money and went and copped some dope with it. Atlantic was up for doing something different – it opened a door for us. But I’m sorry I called it 'Iko Iko', because Joe Jones had stolen that song when he made his record with the Dixie Cups and put his name on it – it was a James 'Sugar Boy' Crawford song called 'Jock-A-Mo', and Joe Jones got his hands on the money for that. When you copyright something – that’s who should get the money, period. When I got into this business, I was making a couple of recording dates a day, two gigs a night. My first wife and I couldn’t pay the rent. We were trying to run a ho’ house – and between all of that we couldn’t make the rent. We called that supplementing our income. But I couldn’t stop playing music."
The high-profile session gig
THE ROLLING STONES
Exile On Main St (Rolling Stones Records/Atlantic, 1972)
At the LA sessions, Dr John attends and supplies some additional keyboards. He also brings in backing singers Tami Lyn, Shirley Goodman and old pal Didymus.
"I tell ya what. They recently reissued that record, but the kick was hanging with Keith – he’s still the same Keith, like always. The other guys… Charlie was cool. But I felt some differences with some of the cats, just something I couldn’t put my finger on. But I tell you this: I brought Tami Lynn in to sing on that record, and Mick seen her – he couldn’t remember who the hell she was. But when Keith seen her he just grabbed her and hugged her and said, 'I loved that record you cut, "I’m Gonna Run Away From You".' I used to think, damn man, he’s fucking high, but that touched me. We was doing some TV show in the States and he was on it, I get a note. I thought it was from a chick or something because it was like, 'I’ll meet you any time, any place…' And it was a note from Keith. I couldn’t read his writing but he was cool. He’s old school. He’s the same cat. Didymus was mad when they put the percussion credit 'Amyl Nitrate' on the track ['Sweet Black Angel']. You don’t want to get him too mad."
The post-Katrina outpouring
DR JOHN AND THE LOWER 911
City That Care Forgot (Cooking Vinyl, 2008)
After the devastation of Hurricane Katrina, Dr John re-immerses himself in the New Orleans fonk. Displays a lesser-spotted Rebennack quality – righteous anger…
"So little is being done for the city of New Orleans. I was way angry – I was pissed off. I was so disgusted with the politics at the time. Even though we didn’t call him by name, there was a song about George Bush. We had a song about how the black cops were shooting the citizens during the storm. What’s all that about? All of South Louisiana is different to North Louisiana – North Louisiana people are much wealthier. We are a very poor area of a very poor state. We’re the United States equivalent of Haiti or somewhere like that. Some of the truths we said are only now coming out – it’s taken a long, long time. I don’t own a television – and I’m grateful for that. I hate to be lied to. If I’m gonna try and tell truths, I don’t get any from anything on the television. I get stuff from my grand-daughter, who I get working for me. She might get stuff off the computer machine. I don’t know how to work the computer machine – don’t want to know that stuff. I want to know the truth."
The new album
Tribal (Proper, 2010)
Alongside appearing in David Simon’s new show Treme (which, not having a TV, he hasn’t seen), Mac has a new, cool, album. It’s dedicated to Bobby Charles, composer of “See You Later Alligator” – and one of his longtime friends and collaborators.
"Bobby Charles was writing some songs for the record, and then he passed away. But there was one of them that he did, and that became the title of the record. Tribal… It’s kind of the theme of the record, we all one tribe, we all breathe the same air. There’s a song, 'Potnah', it’s the oldest song that Bobby and I wrote – round the time of The Last Waltz. I can’t remember when that was, but it was whenever that was . I don’t have memories about certain things, but I liked writing with Bobby. Guys, like Bobby, Doc Pomus, they’re easy to write with. Unfortunately I don’t have a lot of the demos for a lot of songs we had. We keep going through some bad changes in New Orleans because the city’s receding. It’s a lot to do with the oil business: for years and years it’s been cutting salt water canals into the wetlands, the islands are disappearing. Pretty much everything is disappearing that protects New Orleans from hurricanes."