Bill King is a jazz columnist and co-host of Soul Nation on JAZZ.FM91.

Born in New Orleans in 1940 as Malcolm John Rebennack, Dr. John began playing piano at age six. His first recorded date was at 14, coinciding with his job as an A&R man at Ace Records. In the mid-’50s, an A&R man’s responsibilities were to find a promising artist, hire the musicians and cut and master the records, all for $60 a week. By the ‘60s, he was working with Frank Zappa, Phil Spector and Sonny & Cher, on whose studio time he cut his first album Gris-Gris — establishing him as Dr. John: the Night Tripper.

After a decades-long career in which he recorded more than 20 albums, produced a top-10 hit (Right Place, Wrong Time), won six Grammy Awards, got inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and carved out a legacy as one of New Orleans’s top musical exports, Dr. John died of a heart attack on Thursday, June 6. He was 77.

One of my all-time favourite conversations was with the good doctor in 1998. Doc was penciling notes on a music chart, prepping a set list and smoking a Sherman cigarette. I admit to being shy and nervous, but the moment I saw him locked into pad and paper I felt a genuine calmness. The good doctor was gracious and we spoke mostly the same language — the mysteries of life and music.

Here’s that conversation.

Bill King: In your biographical notes you state: “I don’t wanna know about evil. Only the delicate balance of anutha zone, way past Shapaka Shawee, more ancient than the olive tree. Before Rosacrucian mysteries, or Freemason vestries.”

Dr.John: It’s right where we settin’ at, you know. I know about evil. I’ve lived in this racket, the music industry, where you’re comin’ up with gangsters and whorehouse gamblin’. I know about that evil stuff.
If you walk down Spadina where any of those music joints were, they were dealing narcotics. Well, I don’t want to know about that. I’m about feelin’ some good things today. I want to feel love and feel good.

You go on to say, “The spirit kingdom is more powerful than just this meat world.” Have you had experiences that have brought you in contact with a supreme being or spirits from another world?

The sense of breathin’ puts me in touch every day with the spirit kingdom. If I wake up today, I’m breathing and I’m happy. If I can pinch my meat [he pulls the skin on his arm], I not only know that I’m alive, but I’m feelin’ something.

When I had the church in New Orleans from 1967 to 1989, I saw a lot of things like cures being done. Things that I couldn’t explain. I saw a Mother Catherine Seals bring what looked like a dead baby back to life by grabbing something out of the child. I don’t try to understand or figure it out, ‘cause if it ain’t broke, why fix it.

You grew up in New Orleans’s Third Ward, which was fairly integrated. There were Afro-Americans, Cubans, Germans and Irish along with Caribbean immigrants. When did your ancestors arrive in this community?

I know my family is supposed to be from the Bas region of France. They arrived in New Orleans in 1813 or 1830. They had a place on Bayou Road which is now Governor Nicholas Street.

My great, great, great aunt Pauline Rebennack was involved with a guy who had my name, Dr. John. He was a Banbera cat and they had a whorehouse out by what they call Little Woods in New Orleans.

Bayou Road was a historical street in what they call the Tremé area of New Orleans today. Jelly Roll Morton grew up on that street. The one thing the Third Ward was famous for was that Louis Armstrong was born there. Unfortunately, the politicians in New Orleans decided not to keep his pad a tourista spot and tore it down. It’s a movie equipment store now. That’s typical political stuff.