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The Doctor Is In: A Talk With Dr. John

The enigmatic musician on snakes, his deep discography and learning from Papoose

American, musician, Dr. John, Montreux Jazz Festival, Montreux, Switzerland

American musician Dr. John performs live on stage at the Montreux Jazz Festival in Montreux, Switzerland in July 1973.

David Warner Ellis/Redferns/Getty

Malcolm John Rebennack is a New Orleans musician who has played on more sessions than he or anyone else can remember. In 1968 his first solo album, Gris-Gris, was released under the pseudonym Dr. John Creaux. Three succeeding albums were less successful, both artistically and commercially; but he rebounded in 1972 with Gumbo, a tribute to New Orleans compatriots. This year he teamed up with producer Allen Toussaint and the instrumentalist Meters for In the Right Place, which included “Right Place, Wrong Time.”

In early July Dr. John visited Montreux, Paris and London for “New Orleans Night” concerts. He had never, had a chart record in Britain, and the BBC had played “Right Place, Wrong Time” less than ten times. Atlantic’s London” promotion for the shows surpassed $12,000, what a company spokesman called “about the size of an Alice Cooper campaign.” The Rainbow concert was a full house that included Cat Stevens, Alvin Lee, Kenny Jones, Ron Wood, Ian McLagan and Bill Wyman in the audience.

We spoke to Rebennack the afternoon of his Rainbow concert and the following day preceding his Sundown Edmonton appearance.

* * *

We’re getting ready to do Fats Domino records, that’s the thing right now, making him a current star rather than a memory. That’s our project, me and Allen Toussaint. Everybody from New Orleans wants to get Fats, Professor Longhair, and our artists before the public. I’m sorry Longhair had to go to New York for the Newport Festival and miss the London shows, but I’m glad that people are listening to him now who never heard of Professor Longhair a few years ago.

When you do the Professor Longhair sessions will he be playing in his style or in a different fashion?
‘Fess could never play any way other than his own style. I strongly believe that Professor Longhair playing just instrumentals would be just as effective as stylized vocals, that’s how much I believe in his music. I just hope whatever group is backing him is complementary and doesn’t try to pull him into something that isn’t natural. There should be no problem because he agrees, I agree, and Allen Toussaint agree on who should be playing with him.

Who else will you be doing work for?
We just finished some stuff with Johnny Winters I’m happy with and I just was talking to Joe Crocker about writing some songs for him and also we’ve been talking with Vinegar Joe. There was also somebody else but I forgot, so I’ve been callin’ around.

By now you’ve seen that Columbia Records made a trio out of the John Hammond record.
I’m kind of disgusted with that. I was thinking it was John’s record. I can see how the record company’s thinking, my record’s hot and maybe it will help him sell, but if it hurts him I’ll get really mad. It’ll be OK if he comes across as more than just a folk artist, which I don’t think he is. I think we’re all musicians; we play music. If someone says “folk music” I think of Donovan or Peter, Paul and Mounds, something like that, not a blues singer. I don’t think B.B. King and Muddy Water is no folk singer, they blues singers, and that’s the same with John Hammond.

Categories is so messed up. It’s like I can’t work here because I’m a somethin’, or you can’t work here because you play music that doesn’t go here. Why is that? If it’s music, it goes. I don’t think it’s appropriate to play “Will the Circle Be Unbroken” to a bunch of people drinking, but I still think those people should hear that music some time in their life rather than never hear it.

I was criticized by some people for my first album because they said I was taking sacred music. They knew nothing about what I was doing, that was no sacred music, that’s music I wrote. I patterned it around voodoo church music, but it wasn’t exactly the music or the lyrics or nothin’.

You’ve said that on your first couple of albums you couldn’t bring yourself to do out-and-out commercial material, but that now you think it can be valid to cut a hit single.
It’s hard to put this in anything that sounds sensible, because I’ve been making commercial records for all the other artists for a long time. I feel there’s a certain point at which some records get hurt if they’re trying to be commercial, but then there are some records that are commercial that’s good. The only thing that make a record commercial is if people buys it. Originally I felt to go commercial would prostitute myself and bastardize the music. On reflecting, I thought that if without messin’ up the music and keeping the roots and elements of what I want to do musically, I could still make a commercial record I would not feel ashamed from, I’m proud of, and still have a feel for, then it’s not a bad thing but it even serve a good purpose.

Were you disappointed on the final mix on ‘The Sun, Moon and Herbs,’ which had the British stars (including Eric Clapton, Mick Jagger, P.P. Arnold and Graham Bond)?
Not as much with the mix as with the tapes I received. By the time I got the tapes, which I never did see all of, Atlantic just got what Charlie Greene [then Mac’s manager] gave them, and what I got to work with were not what I had intended in the first place and some of the tapes were such that I had to do plastic surgery on. Between cuttin’ it down and makin’ it fit, what I had meant to be three albums became something I was very unhappy with.

Do you ever hear from some of the English people on that album?
I’d like to do something with Eric, but who’s gonna be available when the times comes you don’t know. I’m gonna try to get people together for the session I want to do in late August and September, have some recorded in Florida, some at Trident [in London], and some in New Orleans if the studio’s built. But that’s all buts and maybes.

(Enter Lorraine, Mac’s second wife.)

At what times has Jerry Wexler been crucial in your career?
When I made my album Remedies and it came out a mess he came into the studio one night, Leon Russell, Jerry Wexler and his wife at that time, Shirley Wexler, and I was playing some old New Orleans songs. He said, “Well, why don’t you cut an album of just what you’re doing, the old songs?” Later when I was in a mess with management problems and everything we got together for what came to be the Gumbo album, which all came from that night when we took a break from the session and was reminiscing. I have some stuff left over from that idea I’d like to do but not as fast as we did the Gumbo.

Jerry has said he believes you influenced the piano styles of Leon Russell and others. Do you agree?
I think all musicians influence each other. I don’t think any musician plays anything that is new. Everything musical has been played.

(Lorraine spots a magazine with Dr. John on the cover.)

There was a story published over here that made me very unhappy. It said things about Papoose [Walter Nelson, Fats Domino’s guitarist] that were better left unsaid. He helped teach me to play the guitar. Music is sensational enough without talking about drugs and stuff like that.

It made me sound that Papoose and me were a bunch of pillheads. Maybe we took pills, but plenty of other people do those things, too. Maybe we smoked weed, that to me isn’t the point. The point is that Papoose’s music was so far beyond any other guitar player. Where Charlie Christian left off, Papoose started a new thing; he was an innovator of the guitar. The things he did during his recording career with Fats Domino in the Fifties and Sixties until the day he died was as much a part of the music of New Orleans as anybody else has had to offer. From the days when Papoose played with Professor Longhair’s band, before he got mixed up with all this other stuff, that was the real Papoose.

In the days when it was very difficult for a black guy and a white guy to even socialize, for a black guy to give a white guy guitar lessons when he’s scuffling to make a livin’ is beyond beautiful. It’s the most soulful I could say. I was like a little punk kid with those guys saying, hey, could you show me how to do this, and they would. In a time when black people were not accepted by white people, they were willing to overlook that to help me play music. And these guys was not just street musicians, they was the best guys there.

They all took rock & roll and rhythm & blues beyond what it had been to what they now call funk, boogaloo. Syncopated music that is now the craze would never have come to pass if they hadn’t taken rock to funk.

(Lorraine gets a phone call from a doctor who informs her Mac’s leg x-ray shows he has arthritis.)

You mean I jump in swimming and hurt my leg and I’ve got arthuritis? You’ve got to be ribbin’ me!

Lorraine: You’ll need cortisone injections.

I don’t want no cortisone ingestions. Someone writes I’m getting a shot and people will think I’m on junk, strung out in the Londonderry Hotel.

Lorraine: Listen to this from the magazine: “The name, Dr. John Creaux, to take the covers off that: my in-laws on my father’s side … ” There’s no such thing as having in-laws on your father’s side.

That’s a misquote and a half.

Lorraine: “And my wife’s family name was Crow.” I swear to God, Mac, I am fucking leaving your ass if I read one more article like this.

I gather that derivation of the name is false.
My first wife’s last name was very long [beginning with a syllable sounding like “Crow”]. I didn’t want to take her family name, so I took Huey Meaux, who was at the time my business partner when I was writing stuff. Myself and three other people had a production deal in New Orleans that was kind bootleg, ’cause at the time we had it the only records made in New Orleans was bootleg. Huey’s spelling of Meaux with the “crow” made it sound Creaux.

I’ve always been scared of anyone being aware of the fact that we had a business thing that was going on after the union had shut down New Orleans from a recording scene so that none of the guys would get any more fines. In the last three years I have paid off my $1700 in fines to the Musicians’ Union. The rest of the guys, I would hate to see them and myself get any more fines.

We seem to have a contradiction of sorts here in that the article hints that you can’t go back for your own safety but you’ve said today you want to record there.
Let me clear that up. Even the gangster-type guys that I worked for that it was inferred might want to off me or somethin’ are very tight with me today. I don’t like to call them gangsters although the people who are in it are the kind you associate with gamblin’ and those circles, not the entertainment circles. I’m very welcome with ’em. There are no kind of bad vibes at all. At a time when I was workin’ for them I couldn’t quit, but when I got busted it cooled it all off and the money I owed when I left they even said, well, forget. Today I’m still tight with the same people and I don’t exactly know where that kind of thing [personal danger] got started.

Have you ever tried to keep track of all those sessions?
There’s a fella in L.A. working on it. But on the trip over here we had a look at it and Professor Longhair tried to straighten out his discography mistakes. Every one of us has blunders in the thing. I was very upset to read it was Battiste playin’ the piano on Johnny Adams’ records when it was me. Allen Toussaint got very upset that Marcel Richards, who played piano on “Ya Ya,” didn’t get credit and it said Allen played it. I feel it’s important that the right guy gets credit, even if it’s a bad record. I feel that Melvin Lastie left a contribution to music on the cornet solo on Barbara George’s “I Know” that even if he played nothing else in his whole life, which he did play plenty of, that was a musical contribution to leave the world.

Lorraine: Yours was the organ lick on “Spanish Harlem.”

Is that what it says? Oh, God, I’d hoped I’d done somethin’ better than that.

Lorraine: I think the organ lick helped make it a great record.

I was tryin’ to make bird sounds.

Lorraine: Don’t tell people that, they’ll know you failed.

I think it sounds like bird sounds. There are no bird sounds in Spanish Harlem, that’s why I did it.

Concerning your discography, do you think there is some information no one will ever be able to find?
There’s some stuff I don’t think nobody will ever be able to dig up. We used to do sessions everyday, sometimes two or three sessions a day, and you just scuffled to get through. Sometimes one guy might change from the last session, sometimes one guy might fill in for just one session. If I tried to give the discography information and got that one guy wrong, then it’s all wrong.

Do you think those session players were paid fairly?
No, especially guys like Lee Allen. Practically every one of those records has a Lee Allen saxophone solo. He should be rich today for solos on records that were hits for Shirley and Lee and Little Richard and Fats Domino and everything else. Yet he still has to go to work. To me that’s unfair. But I’m sure nobody is gonna read this and say, “I’ve gotta go give Lee Allen some money!”

You were supposed to produce a group awhile back called Inner Space Fungus. What happened to them?
The less said about Inner Space Fungus the better. I’ve still got the tapes in my house but I’m afraid to play them back, for fear that bacterial growth will take over my house.

What happened to your snake Oscar?
I think the SPCA killed him. I never kept him in a cage unless the kids were around, and he used to crawl around, and the neighbors got all uptight. I went out on tour and came back and nothing was there.

Do you still get much attention for such things as snakes in your house?
Not since we moved from the house [in Los Angeles] and not many people know where we live. In the old house with the music all the time, people must have thought I had a discotheque operating. They wasn’t too happy. Now, it’s a lot cooler.

On ‘Gumbo’ you were dressed in a suit. You’re dressed differently and unusually on various covers and in concerts. Is there any significance to this?
No more than that’s what I got to wear at that time. It’s just like anybody else, you gotta change your clothes sometimes. If I wore the same thing forever they’d go out on the bandstand and play the gig without me.

Several concert reviewers have suggested that one has to be deeply into the voodoo or New Orleans scenes to fully appreciate your performance.
No. If you’re gonna get off on somethin’ you don’t need to know nothin’ about it, music is a universable language. If it’s opera in Italian, you ain’t supposed to know nothin’ about Italy, you can just sit there and dig on it.

In This Article: Coverwall, Dr. John

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