The career of New Orleans musician Dr. John, who passed on June 6 at the age of 77, lasted almost 65 years. Born Malcolm “Mac” Rebennack in 1941, Dr. John learned music from various family members, including his father, a record salesman for jukeboxes who exposed him to the latest sounds. At age 13, he met Professor Longhair, the seminal pianist/composer who helped invent New Orleans R&B and funk; his path was set.
Mac's recording history is large and bewildering, with stellar discs scattered through a good part of his six-Grammy career. Here is a guide to his best work.
He began recording in the late ’50s, with the best of these sides collected on Storm Warning (What Records). In the early ’60s, drug trouble sent him to jail, then exile in Los Angeles, where he found work with New Orleans expats, including Sonny and Cher's musical director, Harold Battiste. They concocted a stage act based on a 19th-century voodoo priest named Dr. John Creaux. Mac wanted his friend the pianist/singer Ronnie Barron to lead the band. When he declined, Mac stepped in.
The first fruit of this collaboration, and Rebennack's first LP as a leader, is Gris Gris (Atco, 1968). What a shock this must have been at the time: Mac in face-paint and feathers, accompanied by snake dancers and skulls; the mix of vodun with psychedelic rock. The timbral mix is quite novel too: Cuban percussion, electric guitars firmly in the background, mandolin, clarinet, woman's choir. It yielded only one tune that would enter Mac's permanent repertoire, “Walk on Gilded Splinters,” and did not chart. But it has aged well, and critics and fans can now appreciate the audacity that might have simply mystified back in the day.
After three more LPs in this direction, Mac returned to his New Orleans R&B roots for his second great album, Dr. John's Gumbo (Atco, 1972). A glorious paean to a repertoire from 1949 to the early ’60s, these covers were surely the first time these local hits were heard outside of the Crescent City by many listeners. His version of “Iko Iko,” with its 3/2 clave, has set the performance standard for this piece. “Tipitina” and “Big Chief” show the direct link to Professor Longhair. Mac would perform this material in concert for the next 45 years.
In the Right Place (Atco, 1973), is important for two reasons: It contains his only top 10 hit, the darkly clever “Right Place, Wrong Time,” and it’s his first funk album. His backup band was the Meters, who in their short time together revolutionized New Orleans music. Produced by Allen Toussaint, it also features the ragtimey, beloved “Such a Night,” and lesser-knowns that still enchant, like “Same Old Same Old.”
A critical shift in Mac’s career came with his first solo album, the dazzling Dr. John Plays Mac Rebennack (Clean Cuts, 1981). His blues and boogie virtuosity stunned people at the time, and it led to many solo concerts during the rest of his days. Highlights include the gospel waltz “Dorothy;” a Fess tribute, “Memories of Professor Longhair;” and the seesawing “Big Mac.” A follow-up album, The Brightest Smile in Town (Clean Cuts, 1983), is nearly as good.
In a Sentimental Mood (Warner Bros 1989) is better than most homages to the Great American Songbook for several reasons. His piano playing is as juicy as ever, and there are tunes associated with Ray Charles (“Candy” and “Makin’ Whoopee!,” a duet with Ricki Lee Jones). His voice is lower and rounder than in past decades; the top-notch arrangements are by Marty Paich and Ralph Burns.
Like the aforementioned Gumbo, Goin’ Back to New Orleans (Warner Bros, 1992) is a look back to his hometown, though on a much grander scale. Guests include the Neville Brothers, Al Hirt, and Pete Fountain; the big band arrangements are by Nola local hero Wardell Quezerque. There’s great humor here with “How Come My Dog Don’t Bark (When You Come Around)” and “I’ll Be Glad When You’re Dead, You Rascal You.” Past piano professors like Jelly Roll Morton, Professor Longhair, and Fats Domino get a grand hat-tip. Mac is dressed as a Mardi Gras Indian on the cover, maybe the only white man who could pull off such a feat.
These, IMHO, are the essential Dr. John albums. But others are good enough for honorable mention: Afterglow (GRP, 1995) is another fine American Songbook sampler, produced, like Sentimental Mood, by Tommy LiPuma. Trippin’ Live (Windup/Surefire, 1997) was a good representation of how Mac’s band sounded if they hit your town around the turn of the century, with ace horn-men like Red Tyler and Charlie Miller. All by Hisself (Hyena, 2003) is a rocking solo performance from 1986, though the electric piano sound is not for all tastes. Locked Down (Nonesuch, 2012) has a more modern (some say Afrobeat) sound, courtesy of producer Dan Auerbach of the Black Keys.
In addition, for the cherry-pickers among us, some essential songs from non-essential albums: “On a Mardi Gras Day,” (aka “All on a Mardi Gras Day” or “Big Bass Drum”) from the early Remedies album. If you’ve only heard later versions of this tune, make sure to sample this. “Dance the Night Away,” from City Lights: perhaps the most lovable melody Mac penned, and a fine lyric. “Tango Palace,” from the album of the same name—a nearly-forgotten song with an ingenious chordal scheme.“Witchy Red” from Television: perhaps the best of the gris-gris updates that Mac put out in his later days.
Finally, there is Mac as sideman, a role he filled dozens of times. Donald Harrison’s Indian Blues (Candid, 1992) is a terrific mix of traditional Mardi Gras Indian music and modern jazz. Twilight Time (Capitol, 1990), with the formidable saxman Bennie Wallace, finds Mac providing just the right blues element to a modern jazzman’s work. Johnny Adams Sings Doc Pomus (Rounder, 1998): Pomus and Mac wrote dozens of songs together; Adams is arguably the greatest of Nola's male singers. Remember Me (Orleans, 1994): Roland Stone was a childhood friend and extraordinary vocalist whose career was sidelined by drugs. This disc is an uncanny recreation of the classic Nola R&B sound, with the superb Johnny Vidacovich on drums.
Tom McDermott is a New Orleans piano player and composer. The most recent of his numerous albums is Tom McDermott Meets Scott Joplin.