Dr. John exits waving to a crowd on its feet. Photo copyright 2013, 2019 Les Kerr
About 5:15 Thursday afternoon, June 6, 2019, I was listening to Nashville’s fine Americana radio station WMOT FM and noticed that a Dr. John song was playing. I’ve heard Dr. John on that station many times before and was happy to hear him again. Then, a second song by that piano man with the gravelly voice was played and, by the third one, I began to get a sad feeling. Three songs by the Good Doctor might signal some bad news. Afternoon announcer and station program director Jessie Scott confirmed my fears after the third song played. Dr. John, aka Mac Rebennack, had died.
Those of us who grew up in Pascagoula, Mississippi in the 1970s listened to a lot of AM radio from New Orleans. The rock giant, WTIX (The Mighty 690!) was our go-to signal for what the nation was listening to on the Top 40 charts. Admirably, WTIX was also very loyal to the great musicians of New Orleans, including Dr. John. After Stevie Wonder’s current hit played, the next song would just as likely be one by The Meters or Dr. John. When Dr. John’s Right Place, Wrong Time became a national hit, we felt like our musical tastes had been validated. Everyone cheered for him with that far-out phrase of the seventies, “Right On, Doctor John!”
I have always been a music fan and I love to attend concerts. Seeing Dr. John on stage was an eye-opening (and ear-opening) moment for me. As I began to set my sights on singing, playing and writing for a living, I began to observe Dr. John’s stage shows as a student. I realized what a wizard he was at weaving incredible musicianship in with unbelievable showmanship. The Doctor could cure whatever ailed anyone in the audience as he drew upon his rich knowledge and experience of New Orleans’ musical history, prescribing some of his own contemporary funk as part of the remedy. Among the best places I ever saw Dr. John in concert was in New Orleans at the Jazz and Heritage Festival. He was at home there literally and figuratively.
Another fine show was in Nashville in the 1990s. He was on a bill with Little Feat and B.B. King. It was a magical evening from start to finish.
In his own parlance, he was a “char-acter,” a charmer, a big ball of talent and a sincere entertainer. By sincere entertainer, I mean that he treated his audience with respect. He always assumed, wisely, that we knew what he was about and he never talked down to those of us watching him play.
My favorite rendition of the New Orleans classic Iko Iko is by Dr. John. But of his original songs, One 2 A.M. Too Many, written with legendary songsmith Doc Pomus, paints a picture so real, it’s obvious he had lived some of that gritty story himself during his legendary wild years of decades ago. For me, it’s the highlight of his 2001 Creole Moon album, and among the best of his entire repertoire.
In 2013, Dr. John was interviewed at the Country Music Hall of Fame. I attended and wrote the following account of his conversation. If you would like to read about that great conversation between him and Nick Spitzer, keep reading.
Beyond that, I’ll just say, Rest in peace, Dr. John, and “Jockimo Fe Na Nay.”
“Doctor” Dr. John in Nashville, 2013
Dr. John plays as interviewer Nick Spitzer watches
It must have been the right time. I was definitely in the right place. Dr. John entered the Country Music Hall of Fame’s Ford Theater for a one-hour interview and performance in conjunction with the Americana Music Association Conference in Nashville September 19, 2013. He was greeted with a standing ovation by those of us in the packed theater as he walked in with interviewer Nick Spitzer, host of American Routes, a radio show that emanates each week from New Orleans, Dr. John’s hometown. The night before, the good Doctor, aka Mac Rebennack, had been presented the Americana Music Association’s Lifetime Achievement Award for Performance. If you have ever seen him perform, you know he deserves that accolade.
In the Ford Theater’s green room, where Dr. John had been prior to the interview, are Hatch Show Prints commemorating others who have been the subjects of similar programs. There are posters featuring legends including The Jordanaires and Kris Kristofferson. When Dr. John began to speak, he seemed to be in awe that he was in the same company as guitarist James Burton and banjo innovator Earl Scruggs. “I would see dem cats on the road off and on when we played on the ‘Chitlin’ Circuit,’ and the ‘Bucket of Blood Circuit’ years ago.” He did clarify that the Bucket of Blood Circuit was not as dangerous as the Chitlin’ Circuit, despite its name.
Name that tunesmith
Spitzer asked the gumbo-rhythm guru if he preferred to be addressed as Dr. John, Mac, or something else. Dr. John replied that he had been called a lot of names in his life, some he wouldn’t want to mention in public, drawing empathetic laughter from the crowd. In May, he was awarded an honorary doctorate of fine arts by Tulane University, which prompted Spitzer to ask if he should now be called “’Doctor’ Dr. John.” The answer, with a chuckle, was, “You ain’t the first cat to lay dat ‘Doctor’ Dr. John bidness on me since it happened.”
In addition to Dr. John, Tulane bestowed honorary doctorates to the accomplished New Orleans composer, arranger and performer Allen Toussaint and Natasha Trethewey, Poet Laureate of the United States.
And His Holiness, the 14th Dalai Lama of Tibet, was awarded an honorary doctorate of humane letters. The doctorates were presented at Tulane’s graduation ceremony and the Dalai Lama was the keynote speaker.
“I don’t think the Dalai Lama understood my ‘New Orleans-ese,’” said Dr. John. “His ‘interpretator’ axed me, ‘are you alright?’ when I was talking to him.
“I thought, ‘das pretty cool, bein’ interpretator for the Dalai Lama!’”
When the talk got around to music, Spitzer asked the Grammy winner about his beginnings. Dr. John’s first instrument was guitar. He took lessons as a child from a teacher he referred to as “Papoose” and played on his first recording session at age fourteen. His style was so influenced by blues great T-Bone Walker, he got the nickname “Little Bone.” “I never really cared for that,” he said.
Working sessions with Frankie Ford, Art Neville, Danny Barker, Huey Piano Smith and other New Orleans legends, he got a good music education, starting in the 1950s. It was Barker, he said, who taught him “ho’-house versions” of certain songs that he later cleaned up to record himself. As Dr. John began to play piano, he met Professor Longhair.
“Fess had his own terminology for how he played,” he said. “When I axed him how he did something on the keyboard, he would say, ‘Man, das a double-crossover,’ or ‘I’m jus’ doin’ overs and unders.’ He made up his own names for all dat.”
Spitzer then asked Dr. John to play a little of Professor Longhair’s piano style. “This isn’t too early in the day to play Professor Longhair, is it,” the interviewer asked. “Well,” replied man nicknamed the Night Tripper, “I’m a ‘night people,’ myself, but I think I can play it o.k.”
And he did play it o.k., to say the least. As the last note of a “double-crossover” rang, the hour was over and Dr. John exited, just as he had entered, to a standing ovation.
Click images to enlarge photos.
Text and photos copyright 2013, 2019 by Les Kerr
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