In memory of Dr. John: An archival interview with the New Orleans music legend

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.

Did the composer Louis Moreau Gottschalk have a profound influence on the evolution of New Orleans music after his visit to Cuba in the mid-1800s?

Louis Moreau Gottschalk studied at that college in Paris with Chopin and became a hit in the area because he wrote all the folk songs.

Not only was he the first classical composer of the United States, but, in his day, he was regarded as the fastest piano player alive. In his music written before the Civil War, you can hear all the elements of the samba, the rumba, the habanera, the tango and a lot of the elements of what came to be known as ragtime.

When Van Dyke Parks turned me on to this cat, I heard a piece Gottschalk wrote called, Bamboula: Danse des Negres. It was about his memories of livin’ on St. Ann Street across from Congo Square where the slaves used to do their shuck gris-gris thing for the slave masters or what they do in Haiti today for the touristas. You can not only hear the Yoruba influence, but also how it was already Caribbeanized in a way.

When I recorded one of his pieces, Litanie des Saints, on Goin’ Back to New Orleans, we had the No. 1 record in Haiti, Nigeria, Brazil and Greece. They all knew the piece, whether it was the Orisha people from Brazil, the Shango people from Jamaica or the Santeria people of Cuba.
People cried to it because we put strings on it like Gottschalk wrote. It was a tribute to him, but also a piece I’d heard in church with just guitar and a bunch of drums.

The Brazilians have also had a profound influence. Can you pinpoint a specific rhythm pattern or harmonic consideration that was absorbed into local music culture?

The Second Line rhythm in New Orleans is connected to the Brazilian samba. It’s just a little different. Cuban rhythm is in the centre of the beat, the Brazilian rhythm is a little more ‘round the beat and in New Orleans, it’s all around the beat, pullin’ it. That’s where funk comes from, just implying the rhythm of the samba.

For the last 40 years, I’ve played the Mardi Gras in New Orleans, so I never get to see what it’s like. I’d love to go to Brazil just to see all the samba clubs. It’s a fascinating connection of rhythms we play.
You know the Cubans’ first entry into the United States was New Orleans. Most of them came through our ports. The ones who stayed kept their thing intact and added something to the New Orleans things.

New Orleans had three opera houses in the 1800s. Where else did you find that in America at the time?

A good friend of mine, Teddy Gumpus, who was one of the guys whose grandfather started unions in America, played in 1920 in the old French Opera House. When I came up in the ‘60s, it had burnt down and was then a strip joint.

In the 1920s, Teddy sang Pagliacci at the opera house. He was famous for doing Popeye the Sailor Man. I forget what instrument he plays, the oboe or something, but he played the melody on the original tune Popeye.

The name Dr. John was based on a 19th-century doctor. Who was this person and why did you adopt this persona in staging your first tour?

The original Dr. John was a Banbera cat from Africa. My name is Malcolm John Michael Crow Rebennack, so John is actually my second name. My gris-gris name is John Gris-Gris John.

Now, since I retired in 1989, I can put those things out there. It was a natural adaptation and the fact people call me “professario” or “doctor.” There were certain jackets hung on me, typical New Orleans stuff. People call me snake, others call me crow. I think the doctor thing hung on because I like to read a lot.

You’ve written a piano book which delves into turnarounds and embellishments which are essential to this music. How did that come about and is it still in print?

Happy and Artie Traum wanted me to send a paper to my manager giving them permission to reissue the thing. I’m real grateful to have met so many piano players around the world who say the book has helped them. I’m also happy about preserving it on CD-ROM.

For New Orleans players like Huey Smith, James Brook, Allen Toussaint, Art Neville, Professor Longhair, who I learned all kinds of turnarounds from, they were their signatures.

Other guys like Pete Johnson of Kansas City or Albert Ammons in Chicago had different kinds of turnarounds. But New Orleans had variety. I could tell which guys played on sessions by some of their turnarounds.

What’s ahead?

Right now, I really want to spend some time fishin’, before it gets frostbitten cold.