Dr. John Interviewed

by Elliott Cohen
Circus magazine, #159 (July 7, 1977)

Note: The subject of this interview is limited to Dr. John's thoughts regarding his recent production of Van Morrison's A Period of Transition released shortly after this interview was published.

In the frantic world of rock music there exists a vast discrepancy between the "one-shot phenomenon" who capitalizes on some current fad before falling forever into oblivion, and the artist who can stay out of the public eye for several years and always have an audience to welcome him back. Van Morrison falls neatly into the latter category.

Although Morrison himself once claimed that if a well known musician didn't put out any new records or perform for any lengthy period of time the public would forget about him , Van's electrifying performance on this April's Midnight Special, his first television appearance in seven years, merely left his mighty legion of fans wanting more. Well , more they will be getting in the form of Morrison's new album for Warner Brothers in three years, entitled A Period of Transition, and an upcoming tour of America later in the year. Together, they promise to be two of the hottest musical events of 1977. The album features seven new originals and is thematically less despairing than his last few offerings. Collaborating with Morrison on the recording is a whole new cast of musicians, including guitarist Marlow Henderson, bassist Reggie McBride, and drummer Ollie Brown who first came into prominencewhen he accompanied the Rolling Stones on their 1975 World Tour.

Whipping this new band into shape and co-producing and co-arranging the project was the venerable Night Tripper from New Orleans, Dr. John. "Van came to me about a year ago and said 'I'd like to do a project with you'," recalled the good doctor, speaking in his heavy Louisiana drawl. "I didn't really figure anything was gonna materialize until one day he just called me on the phone and said 'Let's do it.' "

Dr. John - known more formally as Mac Rebennack - wasn't clear as to how long the album took to produce since several problems arose during the time it was being recorded. "It's weird to explain," he says, "because there were so many starts and stops involved in doing it. We started off with one group of musicians who didn't make the grade either so we had to stop a few more times until we found the right musicians."

Is he an overly demanding person to work for?

"I wouldn't say 'demanding,' he's just looking for good musicianship. If you hire a painter you expect him to be able to paint, and if Van hires a musician he expects him to be able to cut it. I feel the same way. I don't like musicians who try and bullshit about their ability."

Dr. John related how the sessions eventually wound up. "During last May and June we did the basic tracks, then in September and October we did the overdubs. We recorded part of the album in Manna Studios in England and the rest was done at the Record Plant in L.A. Everything went real smooth except when one of the musicians wasn't working out."

As for his own influence, Mac Rebennack is modest. They share a common musical heritage and more than a tinge of respect for each other's music - and longevity. The planned tour, set tentatively for August, will put both of them on the road together.

"I think Van and I feel the same way about certain older music. It's just music. It crosses geographical places. There's a song on the album about Kansas City, but to me the sound is not necessarily Kansas City. It's just part of Van's way of projecting certain pictures. My playing is just my way of helping him to capture this picture of it."

To help make the picture clearer, Dr. John offered the following elucidating comments on the album's seven new tracks:.

You Gotta Make It Through the World

"That's a funky tune. Van wanted to give it a real spiritual sound. It has a nice trumpet part on it; he used one chick also, but she had a male sound to her voice. He used a clavinet and a Fender Rhodes piano instead of an acoustical one , and Van himself played an electric guitar in place of his usual acoustic one."

It Fills You Up

"It's like country blues, a real gutbucket tune and reminds me of a cross between Chicago and Dallas, Texas. Van plays harmonica and acoustic guitar on this one, and this is the only track that I play guitar on."

The Eternal Kansas City

"This was the song that Van got the whole album hooked up around. When I first met up with Van about doing this project he played this song for me which was a real deep thing for him to focus on. He used a real sparse instrumental backing on it, just hooking at different angles. Lyrically the song is about a dream he focused in on, or a scene that he witnessed and put into a song. It's like about a "trip" he took with Billy Holliday, Jimmy Witherspoon, Big Joe Turner and Pete Johnson. It goes from a real ethereal voice sound to a jazz introduction and then into kind of a chunky rhythm and blues Van Morrison type of sound."

Joyous Sound

"This is another track with a male backup sound and a real spiritual sound to it, like a shuffle.Van really cooked his ass off on this track. Besides singing his ass off , he just got on the guitar and copped in a different kind of way than most other guitar players could have."

Flamingoes Fly

"This is the only song on the album that Van wrote a long time ago. I think someone may have actually recorded the song already. (It was Sammy Hagar on "Sammy Hagar.") The musicians were kind of bugging Van about recording the song 'cause we all liked it a whole lot. Van didn't like the idea of cutting one of his old songs because he only thought that he should be recording new songs."

Heavy Connection

"This one's got a nice little blend of male and female vocal group sounds mixed within the track and a very predominant melodic line. I guess you could call it a catonic thing happening that Van likes to use."

Cold Wind In August

"My favourite on the album 'cause I like to hear Van singing ballads and there's a lot of nuances in his lead vocals and in the background vocals that I like. The song has all these elements hooked up between the time Van starts off with just acoustic guitar and bass 'til it builds up to the full arrangement. It also features Reggie McBride playing the upright bass instead of the Fender which he uses on all the other tracks.

The song is a cross current from Forties to Seventies music in a way that I think is highly original. To me, it's like where Ray Charles left off Van takes it away and goes somewhere fresh with it. It's a real sincere , heart rending tune, a real tear jerker that gets back to the basics of music. It's got the old fifties sound on the saxophone with the voices doing a real Sixties sound like Ray Charles uses on "I Can't Stop Loving You,"which is similar to what Van uses on the "Kansas City" song, mixing the real lily-white Anita Kerr Singers sound with the real gospel sound. In fusing those sounds together you cross a lot of barriers, which is a real natural for Van to do anyway."

How does Dr. John compare his current association with the laid back Mr. Morrison and his early association with Little Richard, the legendary pioneer of flamboyant rock and roll stage shows in the Fifties?

"Van is more of an expressive person," he explains, "whereas Little Richard likes to whoop and holler. Van can whoop and holler too, but that's not what he digs doing. However, they both do have one thing in common: the ability to express a whole lot of feeling without using a whole lot of words. That's one of the things I love about Van, a certain thing he puts across with with musical intervals and a real soul to soul expression."

Copyright 2003 by Elliott Cohen/Waiting-forthe-Sun.net