1999 Best of the Beat Lifetime Achievement Award Interview

Mac Rebennack, known and loved throughout the galaxy of music as Dr. John, is the recipient of OffBeat’s 1999 Best of the Beat Lifetime Achievement award. Born Malcolm John Rebennack, Jr., on November 21, 1940 in New Orleans, Dr. John is the city’s greatest living musical ambassador, assuming the role once held by Louis Armstrong. When Dr. John plays piano or sings or talks, you’re hearing the pure, undiluted New Orleans truth.

Rebennack’s musical career commenced during the mid-’50s when he was a student at Jesuit High School (from whence also came Louis Prima and Harry Connick, Jr.) and formed his first band, the Dominoes. Rebennack’s father owned an appliance store and was friends with local studio operator Cosimo Matassa, an alliance that afforded young Mac an early opportunity to experience the New Orleans recording scene. Walter "Papoose" Nelson, guitarist in Fats Domino’s band, became the teenager’s tutor and gave Mac his first studio job as a session player. In 1957, with Seth Davis, Mac composed his first hit, the breakneck rocker Lights Out, recorded by Jerry Byrne for the Specialty label, whose New Orleans office was run by Harold Battiste.

Rebennack became a fixture of the fertile New Orleans recording industry and the world of live performance on Bourbon Street, where his music often provided the accompaniment for stripteasers and other advocates of exotic dance. Three or four gigs a night was the norm for young Mac, who needed all the funds he could muster to support his heroin addiction. District Attorney Jim Garrison, on a puritanical rampage to cleanse the French Quarter of its sinful elements, closed many of the clubs in which Rebennack regularly played and in 1963, Rebennack was busted and spent the next two years in a Fort Worth federal prison. Released in 1965, Rebennack headed for California and employment with his old friend Harold Battiste, who was now producing Sonny and Cher. Instead of backing Professor Longhair or Irma Thomas, Rebennack’s new studio mates included such psychedelic titans as the Strawberry Alarm Clock and Iron Butterfly.

Out of this combination of California hippiedom and New Orleans voodoo, the Dr. John persona was born. With studio time seized from a Sonny and Cher session, Rebennack and Battiste began experimenting and at the insistence of Sonny Bono, the first Dr. John album, Gris-Gris, was reluctantly released by the Atlantic/Atco label in 1968. Atlantic president Ahmet Ertegun hated it. Youthful devotees of love-ins loved it. Mac Rebennack would henceforth be Dr. John the Night Tripper, touring the planet as a rock ‘n’ roll hoodoo healer, complete with handfuls of glitter and glowing "Come To Me" candles.

Subsequent highlights of Rebennack’s career included the 1972 Gumbo album (a virtual rhythm and blues love letter to New Orleans) and the 1973 In The Right Place disc, produced by Allen Tussaint and featuring the Meters at their funkiest best. From this record came two hit singles, Such A Night and Right Place Wrong Time, both of which can still be found on many of New Orleans’ finer jukeboxes.

In 1994, St. Martin’s Press published Rebennack’s extremely candid biography, Under A HooDoo Moon, a volume Mac claims he’s never read. The book’s descriptions of drug addiction leave no stone unturned or vein unpopped.

Mac Rebennack’s latest musical release is Duke Elegant, a tribute to the works of Duke Ellington recorded in the rootsy, minimalist style of Gumbo. Like everything Mac records, be it a toilet paper commercial or a movie soundtrack, he transforms the music of Ellington into sounds that are uniquely his own: it’s Ellington but it’s really Dr. John.

Mac was interviewed in his suite at the Monteleone Hotel, as he prepared a set list for an evening concert at the House of Blues. His hair was in a neat ponytail and he was wearing blue jeans, moccasins and a Touro Hospital t-shirt. As he has for years, Mac smoked brown Sherman’s cigarettes, utilizing a soapdish for an ashtray, and drank very sweet coffee. We delivered regards from impresario Jim Russell, who we had seen earlier in the day at the funeral service of Roland "Stone" LeBlanc, a "podnah" of Mac Rebennack’s from long ago.

OffBeat is presenting you with its Lifetime Achievement Award. Do you ever get a chance to read OffBeat?

I’ve seen quite a few OffBeats. In fact, I was going to send a letter to OffBeat. There was a story about certain New Orleans phrases that they had and I was going to argue with some of ’em. I saved that edition and I wanted to start arguing about something – I don’t know what it was.

Was it the story about musicians’ nicknames?

No, it was way before the nicknames story. Maybe it was like interpreting what the Indians said. Something like something you hear here. I’m talking about years ago.

I saved one of the Jazz Fest issues because I said, "This year, I’m gonna go see all the acts and I’m gonna use the OffBeat" but I didn’t get to do that either…you know, the best-laid plans of meeces and men.

OffBeat’s good with that–it’s got a lot of information that you ain’t gonna get nowheres else. I’ve seen OffBeats in weird places. I found people with OffBeat magazines at the North Sea Jazz Festival in England. I’ve seen ’em in other states. I just see ’em here and there.

So what do you consider your greatest Lifetime Achievement?

That I’m breathing. That’s Number One. I feel good.

You look healthy. What do you attribute that to?

Being cleaned up off of narcotics didn’t hurt none. And the other thing that really helps is I don’t eat at 5 in the morning. I don’t eat right before whenever it is I’m going to sleep. It was a big thing to get out of that one.

One of the things is that I walk the critters. I had my grandchildren out on Long Island with me for Christmas and all. I’m just doing stuff, going out in the woods and stuff.

I get up in the daytime. I never did that before. I actually don’t slovenly sleep my way through days – just pass out for days on end. I dig life too much.

I remember interviewing you about 20 years ago and you never got out of the bed.

Look, Bunny, lifestyles are harder to shake than other things. The guys I grew up emulating – their kind of maneuvers of lifestyles to the point where I developed some of the things into like really sick things I never even saw. Like Roland [Stone], like some other cats here who came up in the whole thing, it was just part of the game. When you mentioned Jim Russell, I’ll always remember that line he had in that book Walking To New Orleans – it was about my band: "They was always late and they was always loaded." We lived up to all of that. Lately, I’ve been just getting away from that, shifting gears about life stuff.

The other day, I was at a recording date somewhere in New Jersey with Thomas Jefferson Kaye’s kid. In the old days, if I showed up for a recording session on time, it’d been at the last second. There was a lot of traffic and I was there early – that’s how I live today. It threw them all off – these kids weren’t expecting me to be on time. They know of me from before their pa died – the jackets I used to wear. It throws some people out of whack who ain’t been in touch with me.

I feel like a lot of songs I be writing, they’re more clearer. I used to write shi t– and I’m not knocking stuff – me and Poops [Jessie Hill] and Shine [Alvin Robinson], we wrote a lot of songs but we was doing stuff so fast and scuffling so hard to try to just keep ahead of everything. I listen to stuff from back then and a lot of the songs was almost really good. But it was like we just barely missed some of ’em behind the fact we was doing so many of ’em so fast for so many people and trying to survive. I tell ya, I ain’t trying to survive – I’m trying to live – and there’s a big-ass difference.

Do you ever think about moving back to New Orleans?

I was going to get a pad here. I was looking for a pad out where I could go fishing easy. A couple of podnahs I got involved with tried to burn me with one pad – it was like fucked-up this way and I was like, "Hey, you’re supposed to be my podnahs – what is this shit? Is it like I’m an easy mark because I felt like getting a pad back here and you think I’m living ‘The Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous’ or something and I can buy 20 pads?" If I’m going to buy something, I’m only going to buy a pad. I’ve never owned nothing so I bought a pad on Long Island.

If I ever do get into "The Lifestyles of the Somewhat Wealthy," I would like to get somewheres close to like Lake Catherine or Lake Borgne, convenient to that. That’s what I like.

When I get off the road, I don’t want to look at no cities. Like you live a little ways out – that’s nice. I can deal with that kinda stuff these days.

I be sitting out there on Long Island and I can go fishing in the ocean. A little freshwater fishing or saltwater fishing – bam bam easy – just get in the boat.

You own a boat?

No, my podnah Steve does. One day, if I get some cake and I get a boat, it would be down here. I feel more comfortable having a boat down here. The upkeep Steve pays for his boat up there! Man, it’s worse than dealing with hurricanes down here.

Why did you leave New Orleans? Did it seem too confining?

If I wouldn’t have got shipped out of here, I don’t think I’d have left here.

"Shipped out"–what do you mean?

I got busted and I got papers saying "Don’t come back here." I felt like [District Attorney] Jim Garrison had a hard-on for me. I still feel like a lot of people have still got some kinda weird thing here at me. I don’t know what that’s all about.

In New Orleans, we’re reared-up in the thing about holding grudges. It’s kinda part of the cultural thing. I still do it, too, but I’m trying to get past all of them kinda things. But it’s not easy – it’s lifestyles.

It’s like that point where I was looking to buy this pad here, I now think this guy’s family had a grudge on me that was trying to pull an issue on me. And it was a pad I really dug up until I had it checked out and found out this shit was sinking here and it needed all kinds of work. It was like a hustle and it made me get a little attitude and a new grudge with some other people.

I would like to have a place back here close to somewhere I could go fishing. I don’t want to go hunting though. I would like to eat some wild ducks and some wild gooses and a couple of my podnahs have been promising to send me some speckled gooses and some teals and some mallards but I ain’t got a duck yet. I like to cook ’em and eat ’em and I like spitting out a few BB’s. I ain’t going out there and popping no caps at ’em.

I can’t even watch movies these days where they popping caps. I’ve been shot too many times. I don’t want to be around that. I’ve been in too many joints where they was popping caps and people was shot all around me. I don’t like all of that. I value my life today. It’s not fun and games and stuff you can laugh about.

I love the music – that’s the one thing I always love. That’s my fix in life. That’s my one healing maneuver that always works.

There’s some spiritual sides to New Orleans. People don’t like to talk about it but it’s the spiritual churches here, the sanctified churches, gris-gris churches – whoever’s here – that really do some stuff that is real spiritual. I met an old Reverend Mother at the Halloweeen thing at Congo Square and you know something, man, I hadn’t met one of them old ladies that I really felt good around in years. ’Cause they got some real shuck-time shit around – most of the ones I ran with is dead. And this lady – her name was Margaret – she really had a vibe and I felt like, "Hey, this is cool." It drew me in, making me think, "Maybe I’ll go by F&F [Botanica, a supplier of spiritual products on North Broad]." I felt connected good. That’s the kind of little things that attracts me to New Orleans.

I felt something when I was in Jamaica doing that Bob Marley tribute show. I saw some Obeah people – it had nothing to do with the Rastas and all that. I felt connected again. It’s just little things that all of a sudden I felt like "Yeah." When you see that spiritual side of stuff, that’s what makes the music special.

We’ve got seriously spiritual music coming out of New Orleans. That’s one of the things that I think most people do not get out of what we do here. Just even the syncopation of the funk shit that comes out of New Orleans – it ain’t the same as what they get elsewhere. I mean, it connects but it ain’t the same because we all feel stuff from second line. It makes a huge difference and that one thing – people don’t get that. They not only don’t get it – they don’t want to get it. It’s too subtle for them, first off. They’re used to everything being in their face. The kids choose the hip-hop thing because they’re programmed groups.

Of course, a lot of the best hip-hop comes out of New Orleans now.

Actually, I like some of the stuff that’s coming out of here. I just think that some of Master P’s stuff is starting to all sound too much alike. It’s too much the same maneuver. I like one thing Mia X did and I like one thing Master P did. For that stuff, it’s pretty good.

What enticed you to do an Ellington album?

Well, you know, it was his 100th birthday and all. Now it ain’t but it’ll be out for his 101st but it don’t matter. When my Pa used to sell Duke Ellington records, it’s really weird but I wasn’t really into ’em at all. I remember [bandleader] Paul Gayten used to always tell my band when we were working at the Brass Rail, "You guys gotta get your own arrangements and you gotta learn somebody good’s music." And he was including his and Dave’s [Bartholomew] and local stuff. Duke Ellington was the example Paul used to me. I remember we actually tried to learn some Duke Ellington stuff and we played it how we played shit back then.

It was some Duke Ellington song that was the first song that we played that we wasn’t able to even copy off a record like we did with Fats Domino or whoever’s song it was. Later, we started working in strip joints and a lot of the strippers used Duke Ellington songs. And we had to learn them by sheet music. The songs started sticking with me. By the time I was playing with Wardell’s [Quezergue] band – when me and Smokey [Johnson] and George French was playing with him – he played a lot of Duke Ellington songs. He had killer arrangements. That year, I shifted a gear. I kinda got aware of ’em. Then I got hip that there was something more to ’em. Then I realized, "Oh, well this is what you do on this song."

Even though it was opening up to me, playing with Wardell’s big band, it was a real special time. Allen [Toussaint] was doing a lot of sessions at that time and we did Big Chief and all that shit. But it was also the year that so many things was happening. And so it led to, a gang and a half years later, jazz gigs in California where I started playing and messing with some of them tunes. With my band, by the time I started doing the Dr. John thing, just me and [drummer] Herman [Earnest] would do gigs. The tune on the new record – Caravan – just me and Herman used to play it. We were out there and we added a guy to the band – it was Charles Neville – and it was like us three played it. I don’t think the new version came out as good as however we did it then in some ways.

Hey, the new version is pretty great. Are you responsible for all the arrangements?

I’ve been making demos for everything lately. I sit down with my little drum machine and guitar and lay shit down. I let the musicians play what they want but they get the ideas from the basic demos. By the time we go in to cut, they’ve got an idea what I’m thinking about. I was looking to come up with all them obscure Duke Ellington tunes and I only found a few.

I’m not familiar with On The Wrong Side.

It’s from a play from near the end of World War II and the play didn’t happen because of the war.

The first time I heard it, I thought it was one of your compositions.

There’s no recording of Duke playing it so I had to just take the thing and kinda loosely do something to Duke’s changes. I changed a few lines that I felt like was dated. Basically, I left it alone. I didn’t want to mess with Duke Ellington’s shit. I couldn’t figure out how to sing the melody and I didn’t know how he meant it anyway so I just did it how I do anything anyway. I love that song.

I couldn’t believe that Peggy Lee wrote the lyrics to I’m Gonna Go Fishin' for a movie called Anatomy of A Murder, an Otto Preminger movie that I saw and I don’t remember this song. It’s actually a waltz and I made it into a Stax/Al Green kind of thing. I got Fishin’ from the Library of Congress. B.B. Green, the girl that contracted the cats to do the session, went to D.C. and got some stuff out of the Ellington archives – Fishin’ and Flaming Sword.

Flaming Sword sounds like a New Orleans song.

I tried to do some Fess [Professor Longhair] stuff, some Huey Smith stuff, some Tuts [Washington] stuff and mix all of it a little bit up. But the bridge was so Duke Ellington and I never could think of anything different to do. That little percussion player – Cyro Baptista – I knew of the guy because he had played with Miles [Davis] and everything. He just fell in and did a really nice thing.

And Satin Doll – those are all the original lyrics?

That’s all the words–I might’ve did something by mistake. That’s all live vocals, live everything, mistakes and all.

I hate when they re-fix stuff. It’s a pain in the ass. The little girl that engineered the tape got killer sounds on the axes. The organ stuff we cut sucked and she made it sound like it was a good organ. She was great.

The guy that came in and mixed it mixed the whole thing in a few days. That’s how I like to make records. We made that album in three days and it was mixed in three more days. We needed three days to cut it because we came in off the road and was all burnt-out. Every time we come in off the road, the first thing we cut is like a little wack. We could’ve probably cut this in two days if we wouldn’t have been so beat from just getting back from Australia or somewhere a long ways away.

 You actually met Duke Ellington on an airplane once.

Yeah, coming here. I was so blown away to meet Duke Ellington. The whole thing of it was like this cat was sitting right across the aisle from me. I was scared to actually say something and intrude on his thoughts. The guy was sitting there and I remember at some point he was jotting something down. He was reading and when he wasn’t reading, he was looking around and that’s when I kinda butted in with something. I was so nervous I don’t think I even said I played music or anything. I was just so nervous.

I had met his band before at Montreux and I remember going up to Johnny Hodges and I was so excited. Johnny Hodges led to Hank Crawford and all of my favorite alto players. If there wouldn’t have been him, there wouldn’t have been Cleanhead [Vinson], Louis Jordan and a million guys that I love – every bending-note guy that made the alto an instrument that was something special.

You love to tour, huh?

I’d like to cut back at some time but if we don’t be on the road, then I don’t have a consistent way of making money. I just scored a movie and now they tell me the movie ain’t coming out. But that’s how life goes, Bunny – you try to make a hustle here and you never know what’s liable to be around the corner but if you don’t keep doing something, your ass is going to be in – well, they don’t have no poorhouse no more – it’s like the streets today and I don’t want to be out there with the homeless.

I’ve got a lot of great musician podnahs that are staying on the streets – I ain’t gonna say their names. I see guys in New York City from New Orleans that are homeless and hungry that’s made some contributions to the music. I’ve seen another guy living underneath an overpass in California and this guy used to work with me and Shine and Poops. Musicians ain’t got no insurance, we ain’t got so many things because we’re below coal miners with insurance. Nobody really respects things about musicians because our lifestyle’s so wack and it’s understandable. But there’s a lot of musicians with perfectly normal lifestyles and one thing goes wrong and they’re the ones that’s out there with nothing going on on any level to help them and it bothers me. What do you do?

Tell me something about Roland Stone.

Me and Roland had some serious ups and downs. I always felt like Roland never got a shot at what he was best at doing. At the time when everything was wide open to him, [Ace Records chief] Johnny Vincent got this angle up his ass to look at any white artist that he had as being either an Elvis Presley or one of them kids from Philadelphia like Frankie Avalon. Roland wasn’t none of that. Roland never got a chance to be Roland.

Roland came out of doo-wop stuff. If I was to compare him, he wasn’t a singer like Aaron [Neville] but that was the same roots he had. To me, what Roland did the best was like Clyde McPhatter songs. Aaron digs Clyde McPhatter. Roland never got a shot to show his real potential. I saw it early on at gigs when we used to play at clubs and he would do them songs. If you didn’t play requests, you was going to get your ass kicked on the break. Then Roland went and got busted and by the time he got out, everything had happened to put him more out of whack. Then he got bitter – that was the one thing we did talk about. He let me know and I related to it. That was like a bond we had between us – some kind of bitterness about the things that happened in New Orleans with stuff that made life impossible.

I always thought it was extraordinary that your parents let you hang around with black musicians during the days of segregation in New Orleans.

It’s funny. I used to go hang by Fats’ [Domino] band at the Cadillac Club and I used to idolize [guitarist] Papoose [Walter Nelson]. When I was studying from Al Guma at Werlein’s, Al said to my Pa, "This kid doesn’t know how to read, it’s natural talent." Then my Pa thought of taking me to go study with Papoose.

My Pa was pretty hip and had pretty hip musical tastes from selling records and stuff. He dug good music. There was a lot of sides to my father.

By the time I started studying lessons with [guitarist Roy] Montrell, I had bought this terrible little Harmony guitar just because it was green and I thought it looked so hip. Montrell took an axe on Kerlerec Street and broke it to pieces. I remember being scared, thinking I’m going to owe my Pa for this guitar but Montrell talked to my Pa and he said, "Listen, if I’m going to teach this boy, I’m going to teach him on a real guitar." I thought my Pa was going to kick my ass and kick Montrell’s ass. All my Pa told me was "You’re going to be working for me, helping to lug TV’s and stuff around to pay this off."

It wasn’t about black and white–my Pa trusted me with guys that had been around. He knew I was working in clubs and strip joints but if I was with older guys, he trusted something about that. We had a lot of black studio cats coming by the pad and the problem with that was the landlord was giving my Pa flak but I didn’t know that. It was like Earl King, Little Richard, Esquerita or certain people freaked my neighborhood out a little bit. I lived in the Third Ward and they’d pretty much seen anything but there was certain people – [James] Booker always stuck out a little. He wasn’t outrageous like later but he was still a different kind of thing in the neighborhood. My Pa was really open and gave me a lot of enthusiasm. My mother used to do the contracts for me so she was supportive, too. I was real blessed to be around them.

I’d like to know what your favorites are from the songs you’ve recorded.

I like Soulful Warrior and Hello God from the last album, Anutha Zone. Soulful Warrior is something I had a picture of from the Zulu parade and Hello God is just kinda how I pray. Before that, I liked the song Television.

My favorite is I Walk On Guilded Splinters.

It’s pretty much a traditional gris-gris thing. That and Litany of the Saints I’m proud of because they touched a lot of gris-gris people here in New Orleans in a lot of ways. A lot of people have covered Splinters. Some of this stuff I got from my grandfather like I Been Hoodood. My grandfather, on my mother’s side, was in minstrel shows. Just like a lot of stuff I got from Fess was old, old stuff he knew from somewhere else.

Like Junko Partner – I don’t think anybody wrote that.

It’s a penitentiary song. They’ve got so many of them kinda things here that they kept and keep adding on to it. You could find an Angola version, a Texarkana version, a DeQuincy version. Them songs have floated around forever.

The bottom line to it all is I make music. If I feel good, I feel like I can make other people feel good. When I feel uncomfortable with something, I’m ’plexed out enough. I don’t need to add to my ’plexes. I’m trying to get past ’plexes.

Like the little girl told her grandmother, "I’m seeing a shrink." And the grandmother said, "Well, what does he do?" And the girl says, "I just talk to him." And the grandmother said, "Don’t you have any friends you could do that with?" If you ain’t got friends, you gotta check your maneuver

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