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, who 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.
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Text and photos copyright 2013 by Les Kerr
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