By Ray Shasho
Malcolm John “Mac” Rebennack, Jr. is not exactly a household name, but Dr. John, the Nite Tripper, or Dr. John Creaux, are the distinguished stage names for a man whose musical genius inspired generations of musicians and enthusiasts.
The New Orleans native, whose roots can be traced back to the early 1800s, is a National Treasure. Dr. John’s musical ingenuity began at an early age. Mac’s dad owned an appliance store and record shop, and was quickly introduced to virtuoso jazz musicians like Louis Armstrong and King Oliver. His father’s connections enabled him to grasp the musical knowledge needed while rubbing elbows with elite performers. Mac’s impertinence became evident after meeting Professor Longhair in his early teens, and after receiving his dad’s blessing to launch a career as a professional musician.
As a teenager, Mac Rebennack, Jr. was hired by Johnny Vincent in a producer role for Ace Records. In the late 1950s he became an A/R (Artists and Repertoire) man for ACE as well as RON and RIC Records. He began playing the guitar and performed on recordings with such legendary artists as Professor Longhair, Joe Tex, Art Neville, and Frankie Ford. He switched to bass guitar and finally to keyboards after his left ring finger was injured by gunshot after defending bandmate Ronnie Barron.
Dr. John moved to Los Angeles in the early 1960s and quickly became a sought-out session musician performing on recordings by Van Morrison, Sonny and Cher, Aretha Franklin, Canned Heat, Frank Zappa and the Mothers of Invention and on The Rolling Stones Exile on Main St. album to name just a few.
He also launched a solo career during that period and developed the infamous stage presence of Dr. John, the Nite Tripper. A virtuoso pianist/keyboardist embellished in Voodoo charms and Regalia, inspired by an eclectic blend of funk, rhythm & blues, voodoo mysticism, psychedelic rock and Creole roots. His debut album Gris-gris released on Atco records in 1968 received instant rave reviews.
Dr. John was revered by his peers for his innovating eccentricity and musical dillettante. His albums, The Sun, Moon and Herbs (1971) and In the Right Place (1973) featured guest appearances by Eric Clapton, Mick Jagger, members of The Meters, Allen Toussaint, and David Spinozza. In the Right Place spawned Dr. John’s signature anthem tune, “Right Place Wrong Time” (#9 on Billboard’s Hot 100 singles) and “Such a Night” (#42 Billboard Hit). In the Right Place became the biggest selling album in his career.
Throughout the 70s, Dr. John added musical flavors of blues, New Orleans R&B, and Tin Pan Alley standards to his expanding musical repertoire, which already featured elements of funk, zydeco, jazz, rock and roll and boogie-woogie. Dr. John toured extensively and performed on classic rock television programs such as Don Kirshner’s Rock Concert and ABC’s In Concert. He also performed at the farewell concert for The Band (1976) and was featured in the movie The Last Waltz in 1979. The movie was filmed by director Martin Scorsese.
Besides a flourishing solo-career, Dr. John provided his incredible musical talents to various acclaimed tracks and recordings by Carly Simon and James Taylor, Neil Diamond, Maria Muldaur, Levon Helm, Van Morrison, Rickie Lee Jones, and Willy DeVille to name just a few. Dr. John also entered into a musical collaboration with American blues singer/songwriter Doc Promus, a successful relationship that endured for over twenty years. Promus was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1992.
Dr. John also provided the vocals for the Popeyes Chicken & Biscuits jingle … “Luv dat chicken from Popeyes.” He’s also written several other jingles for TV commercials including Levi’s blue jeans.
In 1989, he toured with Ringo Starr & His All Starr Band.
Big Easy legend Dr. John celebrated Grammy Award wins in 1989, 1992, 1996 and 2000, and had received six other nominations over the years. He was also awarded the distinguished Académie Charles Cros 57ème Palmarès award in France, marking the first time since the 70’s that a North American artist had received the award.
After Hurricane Katrina, Dr. John instantly contributed his efforts in relief-fund raising concerts and recordings. In 2008, he released the album, City That Care Forgot earning him yet another Grammy Award for Best Contemporary Blues Album –The fifth of his illustrious music career.
In 2008, he was inducted into the Louisiana Music Hall of Fame.
Dr. John was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2011 by singer/songwriter/actor John Legend.
He’s recorded over thirty solo albums and has collaborated on countless recordings with legendary artists and musicians.
In 2012, Dr. John released the critically-acclaimed album Locked Down. The album was rated #15 on Rolling Stone’s list of top 50 albums for 2012. The album spotlights guitarist/vocalist Dan Auerbach of The Black Keys. The release was recorded in Nashville and produced by Auerbach.
At 72, Dr. John continues to be one of the hardest working entertainers in show business, performing at numerous outdoor music festivals and sold-out concert halls around the globe. He performed most recently in St. Pete, Florida at the Sunshine Blues Festival at Vinoy Park.
I had the rare opportunity and great pleasure recently to chat with the legendary man from ...
“noo-AW-lyenz,” Dr. John, about his remarkable music career and substantiating the fact that he was actually in the Right Place at the Right Time.
Here’s my interview with (5) time Grammy Award winner, Rock and Roll Hall of Famer, New Orleans Iconic legend, Singer/Songwriter/Multi-instrumentalist/Trailblazer … DR. JOHN.
Ray Shasho: Dr. John, happy 2013!
Dr. John: “Have a blessed 2013.”
Ray Shasho: Did you ring in the New Year in New Orleans?
Dr. John: “Yea, I was in New Orleans but I am doing lots of other things right now … just living in a world of change, a world of machines … like I’m talking to you on a machine called a cell phone.”
Ray Shasho: You and I share something in common … My dad owned an electronics/appliances/camera store when I was young, and your father owned a record store/appliance store in your days as a youth.
Dr. John: “He had a record store and an appliance store, and he went bankrupt with the appliance store when I was very young, but was successful with the record store.”
Ray Shasho: My dad dragged me to work at his store every Saturday since I was six years old … did your dad make you work at his store too?
Dr. John: “My father was always trying to get me to follow his path, and I think it was when I was in ninth grade, he’d tell me, “kid, I know you’re smarter than this, my advice to you is go take the job on the road with this old guy, you’ll probably learn something.” But he was a great father and a real special person.”
Ray Shasho: I really admire your career because you worked both sides of the music business fence … as a producer and A&R man for several record companies, and of course as a musician and songwriter.
Dr. John: “Yes, I did both. As a teenager I was working for Johnny Vincent at Ace Records, and then worked for Joe Ruffino at Ric and Ron Records. One of the records that I produced for the Professor was one of my favorites, “Mardi Gras in New Orleans” and that was his big hit, for years and years every time they’d do Mardi Gras they’d play it.”
“And I had the great pleasure of playing on “Big Chief” with Wardell Quezerque who passed away recently; you know …some people will always stick out.”
Ray Shasho: “Big Chief” was another huge hit for Professor Longhair …and he was a huge influence on your career.
Dr. John: “He did things his way and there wasn’t anybody that was doing it the way he did it, just all kinds of different rhythms that wasn’t connected directly to New Orleans, but still played everything else with the flavor and that was kind of his thing.”
Ray Shasho: Professor Longhair was also heavily influenced by Cuban rhythms.
Dr. John: “I’ve been having a great time doing some stuff with Telmary Diaz from Cuba, Arturo Sandoval from Cuba … and all these people were really special to me.”
Ray Shasho: Did you ever meet Celia Cruz back in the day?
Dr. John: “Oh yea, she used to come by this one gig that Joe Glaser use to book us in when he was managing Dizzy Gillespie and Louis Armstrong. Miles Davis used to come by there, the Cruz used to come by there, there were just so many people that would come by that club and it was just so hard to get to meet everyone.”
Ray Shasho: Before she met my dad, my mom dated the manager of the Tropicana Club in Cuba. She was a model and very beautiful. She’d pick up the performers at the airport before they’d played at the club … artists like Bing Crosby and Nat King Cole.
Dr. John: “My mom was also beautiful; she was supposed to be the original Jane in the original Tarzan movie. They asked her to put her foot in the water and there was an alligator in there, and she wouldn’t put her foot in the water. All Laughing”
Ray Shasho: You originally played guitar and because of a rather scary incident started playing keyboards.
Dr. John: “I started out with the guitar and was a studio musician back in the 50s, and then got shot in my finger. Then James Booker showed me how to play the organ for a gig and stayed doing that mostly, but I still play a little guitar now.”
Ray Shasho: I’m a fan of Joe Tex and you’ve got a history with Joe?
Dr. John: “I not only did some recording sessions with Joe, but I had also gone on the road with Joe.”
Ray Shasho: I grew up around D.C. …Marvin Gaye country …. I just love R&B music.
Dr. John: “I worked with Marvin Gaye too. Didn’t do any recording sessions with him but I played in his band, and did one tour with him, and I loved when he played the drums. He played better than his own drummer. Stevie Wonder was a good drummer; Marvin Gaye was a killer drummer. I think he just played during the soundchecks and he’d have another guy sing his parts while he played the drums. He just wanted to play the drums and have some fun.”
Ray Shasho: I chatted with one of your buddies Maria Muldaur a few months ago.
Dr. John: “Yea, we did a lot of stuff earlier in her career and then we did some more stuff later … she’s always been cool.”
Ray Shasho: I first saw you perform “Right Place Wrong Time” on Don Kirshner’s Rock Concert. When you strutted your way into the audience, were you throwing confetti at everyone?
Dr. John: “It was glitter.”
Ray Shasho: So what was the inspiration behind writing that timeless classic?
Dr. John: “It was sort of the story of my life; I always seemed to be in the right place at the wrong time. (All laughing)”
Ray Shasho: Based upon your music career … I truly believe you were in the right place at the right time.
Otis Rush entitled one of his albums Right Place, Wrong Time, was that just a coincidence?
Dr. John: “I was actually doing a gig with him and he went off on me and said, “Hey, you stole a song from me.” And I said … I don’t think so, I wrote a song and never even heard your record. I think he was just trying to be funny.”
Ray Shasho: Otis Rush’s album was released in 1976 and your song was released in 1973. I believe Otis may have borrowed your title for his album.
Here’s a question I ask everyone that I interview … If you had a ‘Field of Dreams’ wish to play or collaborate with anyway past or present, who would that be?
Dr. John: “There are so many people I’m friends with. But I’ll throw someone out there … Stevie Wonder. It’s funny, knowing Stevie; it’s probably never going to happen. The way I look at it is like it’s not a great possibility for happening because he’s always out there on the road … just like I am and always doing something …like I am.”
“But music is something sacred and when people are open to it they can gain some knowledge and gain some wisdom.”
Ray Shasho: Your latest album Locked Down is with The Black Keys guitarist and singer Dan Auerbach. The album received rave reviews. Auerbach also produced the album.
Dr. John: “Yea, I liked Dan from The Black Keys, he’s a good kid. I think he’s going to win producer of the year this year too. I’m really praying for him to win that because I think he’s a damn good producer. I had my little granddaughter turn me on to them and it was kind of cool… not long after she turns me on to them, all of a sudden, Dan get’s in touch with me.”
Ray Shasho: When I chatted with Kim Wilson of The Fabulous Thunderbirds awhile back, he told me he really wanted to play with The Black Keys.
Dr. John: “Hey, I could dig that because they’re real special guys.”
Ray Shasho: Dr. John, thank you for all the incredible music you’ve given to all of us over the years and continue to bring us. You’re a legend man.
Dr. John: “Thank you Ray, you have a blessed day and a blessed 2013.”
Dr. John official website www.nitetripper.com
Purchase Dr. John’s latest album Locked Down featuring Dan Auerbach of The Black Keys at amazon.com
Very special thanks to Pearl Evidente Feldman of The Gorfaine/Schwartz Agency for arranging this interview.
Coming up next …an interview with original Beatles drummer Pete Best!
Contact classic rock music journalist Ray Shasho at firstname.lastname@example.org
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