“They call me Dr John, known as the Night Tripper” growls the good doctor amid a hazy maelstrom of hoodoo blues, the perfect introduction to his debut solo album. A psychedelic swirl of blues, jazz and black magic, it represented a culmination of influences from a lifetime of paying his dues in the musical hotbed of New Orleans, all of which shaped him into one of music’s most colourful and prodigious talents. Thirty-five years later, with another solo record about to drop in quick succession to his last, Clash caught up with the only doctor for whom music is the best medicine.
Although born Malcolm John Rebennack Jr in 1940, he would forever be known simply as Mac to his friends. Mac grew up in New Orleans, one of the oldest and most historic cities in the US; its culture rich with the flavour of its French, Spanish and African American heritage. His earliest memories, he tells Clash, is of being surrounded by music everywhere. “People would gather round a piano everywhere in my neighbourhood,” he drawls, his Southern purr not diminished any over the years, “they’d have a crawfish bowl, a shrimp bowl, a crab bowl or some kind of food.” He continues: “My Aunt Dottie Mae and my Uncle Johnny used to have jam sessions with some real famous musicians. My daddy was selling records. I just was really, truly surrounded with music everywhere. My sister sang with a band when I was a little kid, like ten years old. She was a great singer and piano player. My mother played good piano. My aunt taught me how to play the piano and I started getting guitar lessons from some great guitar teachers.”
His biggest influence at that time was the eminent boogie-woogie pianist Pete Johnson, best remembered for his work with Big Joe Turner. “I wanted to be him as a little bitty kid,” Mac admits. “I didn’t know nuttin’ about anything.” From the wealth of local talent he had rich pickings for more influences. “I loved the way of Professor Longhair, Fats Domino, James Booker, Toots Washington… I could list piano players forever who I loved locally. Eddie Bo, Huey Smith, the list goes on and on. There was just a million guys and I loved them all.” There could be no substitute however for the city itself, a unique inspiration and institution where music is celebrated for its ubiquity. “I think everything is connected to everything in New Orleans,” he explains. “You can’t separate the church music from the Mardi Gras music, you can’t separate that from the funeral music; everything is connected. There’s something beautiful about that.”
By the age of 16, under the direction of guitar teacher Walter ‘Papoose’ Nelson, Mac had turned professional and was in and out of studios earning himself a reputation as an adept session musician, while also writing songs and auditioning fellow musicians. Disaster struck when, defending a bandmate in a barroom brawl, his left index finger was almost shot off. “I had my finger in this big-ass cast, right? I knew my guitar days wasn’t workin’ right at the time because I couldn’t play guitar with this big cast.” In the meantime, a friend got him a gig playing bass, but his fingers would bleed onto the strings, and bass strings were expensive, so he supplemented that gig with another on drums - but that meant carrying a kit around! “It was a pain in the ass for a while,” he remembers, “and then James Booker taught me how to play Hammond B-3 organ, and that changed everything for the better.”
With drugs so redolent in the scene, Mac fell victim to a heroin addiction before he was 20, and then to the vice squad in 1963 when DA Jim (“Back and to the left”) Garrison put his foot down on the city’s club culture. Mac was sent down for two years and, upon release, was forbidden to return home, so instead moved to LA. The Sixties were beginning to swing and California was the place to be if you played music. Mac found himself in demand for the likes of Sonny and Cher but remains humble of his employers and his role. “Recording sessions was like a job we did that paid a little mo’ money than what we made playin’ the gigs. I put more energy and effort into it in one way, but as a musician, at recording sessions I tried to contribute, this is what I was taught to do by the old-timers. When I got in, you try to contribute what you think will make the record better.”
Ensconced in the confines of the studio, Mac paid no attention to the creative boom that was happening around him in and the sonic adventures of that brightest of decades. For him, it was all the same. “Listen, when I came up in New Orleans we was taught to don’t look at music by separating. It was all music and you played it all good. You try to make it true to that music, but don’t look at it like ‘this is country and western’ or ‘this is gospel’ or ‘this is jazz’ or ‘this is blues’ or whatever the names would have been; you’re just playing good. And I still look at music like that. I think it’s stupid the way that people separates everything; there’s something beautiful about just viewing music as a thing of itself that’s just really cool when you just enjoy, you know?”
Whenever the opportunity presented itself, Mac would steal studio time to cut his own tracks - the majority of his debut album ‘Gris-Gris’ was formed at the expense of Sonny and Cher! At this point, Mac had an idea to get a deal for his singer friend Ronnie Barron; he wanted to call him Dr John, but Ronnie’s manager didn’t like the idea, so Mac appropriated the moniker and set about reinventing himself. The inspiration behind this new character was a Dr John Montaine, a 19th Century Bambarra prince who lived in New Orleans and was a hoodoo practitioner. What emerged in 1968 was a psychedelic medicine man whose swampy soul and spicy gumbo funk found favour with the love generation and opened gris-gris (or hoodoo) music to a wider audience. Gris-gris itself is traditional spells or charms, a common spiritual belief in New Orleans, and haunts the grooves of Dr John’s music. “Gris-gris in New Orleans was kind of a part of the culture just the same was everything else was,” he says of this influence. “It’s just, like all the different things that makes New Orleans whatever musically it is, you can’t separate them.”
Faced with this unique talent on record, Atlantic label boss Ahmet Ertegun almost refused to release ‘Gris Gris’. “He was pissed off to get this record and he said, “What is this boogaloo shit you’re giving me on a record?” And he was really aggravated,” he reveals. “And I never thought it would come out, to be quite frank, so when it did, all of a sudden I had to shift all my gears around.”
Stardom beckoned, and albums ‘Babylon’, ‘Remedies’ and ‘Sun, Moon And Herbs’ followed, the latter featuring new friends Eric Clapton and Mick Jagger. But the Doctor found his greatest success (not least as the inspiration for Muppet band leader Dr Teeth) with ’73’s ‘Right Place Wrong Time’, taken from the album ‘In The Right Place’. This loose and funky track, arranged and produced by fellow New Orleans genius Allen Toussaint, received a helping hand from, among others, Bob Dylan. “Yeah, everybody around the recording studio, I’d ask them, “You got a line for this?” Cos I’d been playing this song with the music on it but I didn’t have the words all together,” he admits. “A lot of people gave me lines for it. Bette Midler gave me a line.”
Further confirmation of his status came when he was invited by The Band to appear at their farewell concert, The Last Waltz, in 1976, where he performed his live favourite ‘Such A Night’.
I think it’s stupid the way that people separates everything; there’s something beautiful about just viewing music as a thing of itself that’s just really cool when you just enjoy.
Continuing to work, Dr John also suffered bouts of depression, checking himself into psychiatric hospitals, and finally kicking drugs after a spell in rehab in 1989. From here his career took a major surge after high profile endorsements came from the unlikeliest of fans. Paul Weller, accompanied by Noel Gallagher, covered his ‘I Walk On Gilded Splinters’ on his ‘Stanley Road’ album, and eventually recorded with the man himself on Mac’s 1998 return to form, ‘Anutha Zone’, which also boasted collaborations with Spiritualized and Supergrass. An ongoing friendship with Jools Holland has also bore some impressive material. “All of them guys that I came up with as a kid like Pete Johnson,” Mac says of Jools, “he’s just got all of them guys in his playing and I love all of that.”
Understandably, recent events in New Orleans have deeply moved Dr John. The devastation by Hurricane Katrina sweeping across the Southern states saw thousands of people killed or left homeless or destitute, not helped by the lack of help or support by the American Government in its immediate aftermath. Dr John seethes with anger at the thought of this. “I was watching the TV,” he says, remembering the night of the gig he played out in the suburbs as it passed through, “and I haven’t stopped being pissed off since then.” Already a proud demonstrator for the Clean Water Bill and a participant in the Wetlands Project (the area’s movement for clean drinking water), he leapt at the opportunity to use his profile to let his voice be heard. “We ran in the studio and we cut something,” he says of the record that became ‘Sippiana Hericane’, “it was an angry record and I’m still angry.” Fuelled by outrage and sympathy, the album became his most passionate ode to his hometown and is driven by the emotion of his band, The Lower 911, who - all but one - had their homes wiped out overnight. “I can’t find nuttin’ good,” he scowls on the situation. “It’s like so long now and all these politicians’ pockets are all money, and I get very upset.”
Presently we find Dr John paying tribute again on his excellent new album, but this time to musical hero Johnny Mercer. His new album, ‘Mercernary’ is a collection of his interpretations of the classic American singer/songwriter’s songbook, and follows a similar project from 2000’s ‘Duke Elegant’ in which he doffed his cap to Duke Ellington. “Johnny Mercer,” he says, explaining his choice of inspiration, “I look at it like I’m a guy like him except I don’t have the kinda songs to write like him. I mean I just don’t do what he does, but I relate to being a song hustler and a guy that had to just use all kinds of tactics to survive in this racket. He was good at that.” The end result is a fitting tribute to two exemplary talents: Dr John’s unique stamp of ‘N’Awlins fonk’ transforms a well-loved canon of songs into a fresh and modern collection that begs re-discovery.
Dr John will be 66 this year, but retirement is still a long way off. He’ll be swirling some hoodoo rhythms in a town near you soon (and having witnessed his show twice now I can only urge you to experience it) as he tours the UK in May. So with such a huge legacy and a career revered by many, who would he most like to see make a record of Dr John interpretations? “Listen,” he says, matter-of-factly, “I don’t give a damn. You know what I think? Music, if somebody feels something, roll with it. If somebody ASKS them to do it, don’t roll with it. That’s my thing.”