In 2012, the Black Keys’ Dan Auerbach was able to fulfill a lifetime dream of working with the late Dr. John, who died Thursday of heart failure at the age of 77. With Auerbach acting as producer and guitarist, the album, Locked Down, evoked Dr. John’s swamp-rock days while also venturing into more contemporary grooves. The album went on to win a Grammy for Best Blues Album the following year. Auerbach spoke to Rolling Stone about his friendship and professional relationship with the Hall of Fame musician.
I was in my studio – the same one where we made the record – when I heard he had died. It wasn’t totally unexpected. I’d heard a few things from people that he wasn’t well. It was actually a scientific miracle that he lived as long as he did. He abused his body for a long time. But when I heard, it was heavy. I immediately felt so grateful and thankful. It’s a blessing we had him around so long.
The earliest I would have heard him was probably “Right Place, Wrong Time” when I was a kid. But when I was older, what really got me was when I first heard “Mama Roux” [from his 1968 album Gris-Gris]. It just stopped me in my tracks — the intimacy of the singing, how simple and soulful it was. To this day, that record feels perfect. With that, it was all over — I was a convert.
I wanted to make a record with him, so I had my manager go look for him. Dr. John was a hard guy to find. We had to go through a bunch a people and we finally found out he was staying in some ex-convict’s house; someone who was taking care of him and cooking him meals. I would try to call him and he’d put up this smokescreen, extra-thick accident; I could barely understand him. I found out later that this was this defense mechanism for strangers. He’d been ripped off by so many different people over the years.
I flew to New Orleans to plead my case. I got his address and bought myself a plane ticket and just showed up. That was the first time I met him. He didn’t know who I was. I basically explained what a big fan I was, and slowly his exterior started to melt. He went into his room and came back with notebooks filled with lyrics and beat poetry. Book after book. He let me go through them and we talked about music and ended up having a good time. We used both books to form the songs for the album. After we became friends, he mentioned that he brought up my name to his granddaughter, who knew our music, and that helped.
He was shuffling around the house, but he was totally decked out in his braids, and there were trinkets hanging from his cane. He was basically stage ready. He had this grand piano in the front room; probably the most horribly out-of-tune piano I had ever heard in my life. But he sat down and started singing — I think it was some Professor Longhair songs — and I could tell it was going to work. He just had this energy, that twinkle in his eye. He had a hit with “Right Place, Wrong Time,” and he never went back to doing a Dr. John album like that. I wanted to go back and make one of those out-there records and I knew he could do it as soon as I saw him play and sing. I thought, “I gotta do this.”
“He [made] the keyboard an extension of his mind.”
We booked some dates in Nashville and assembled the band and got Mac up there. We would drive around listening to Ethiopian jazz; stuff I would play for him to show him what shit I was into. The first time in the studio, he had all these beads he’d gotten from a woman in New Orleans and walked around and lit candles. He blessed the studio.
We had a Farfisa organ, which he hadn’t played in a long time, and he sat down with it. All of a sudden, it sounded like something that was alive. I don’t know how to describe it. He was making it talk and breath. It was bizarre. He was the first person I’d ever seen do that. Everything he’d ever learned in his life, he channeled through his fingers when he played. I’ve been around a lot of great musicians in my life, but he was able to make the keyboard an extension of his mind. I’d never seen that before.
Every song was like a performance; he just went for it. He loved the music, and he wasn’t looking for perfection; he was just grooving. All the stars aligned. Some of the songs held a lot of deep meaning for him personally. It seemed it took a lot of weight off his shoulders. He was a little lighter after he sang those songs. Afterward he thanked me and just said it really helped bring his family together.
He said he loved writing songs with me, and that it reminded him of working with all the old New York songwriters. I was all about the business of getting the songs done, and he used to talk about hanging out with Doc Pomus in New York, hiding out in his apartment and writing hundreds of songs together. He talked about that a lot. He had really fond memories of that time in his life.
He also told us the story about the finger. [In a notorious incident in the Sixties, Dr. John intervened in a fight and his left index finger was hit by a bullet, forcing him to switch to piano.] We got him to start playing guitar again. One of his fingers wasn’t so good [laughs], but he played great, man. He was never going to sound like anybody other than Dr. John.
After we made the record, we did a show at Bonnaroo. We played those songs and some of the old songs, and it was so much fun. He was such a showman. He got up and started dancing around and the crowd went crazy. He was very real and he didn’t overdo it.
“We lost something that will never be duplicated.”
When the album won a Grammy, we were both kind of shocked. We were both onstage together and it was crazy. We never thought about anything like that. For him to get that recognition and get to run that victory lap — words can’t express how awesome that was. It meant the world to him as validation, and he always thanked me for it.
We stayed in touch. We spoke every once in a while. He sent the coolest texts. He texted like he talked. It was like Iceberg Slim in a text. That’s why he was Dr. John and we’re not.
He was so one of a kind. He came from a time before social media and everything became one big thing. He could truly be unique, isolated in a way — that special gumbo. We lost one of the greatest musicians who ever lived and also one of the greatest reflections of this country, musically, in one man. He was a human melting pot, a human embodiment of what makes American music great. He grew up with different races and experiences, and it made him the most incredible mutt ever. We lost something that will never be duplicated.