Towards the end of a two-hour set of funk at the Musikfest Café in Bethlehem, PA (one of the hippest venues in the Northeast), Dr. John leaned into the microphone and said, “Here’s a song by Lead Belly. He wrote this song in prison serving double-life at Angola. The governor said, `I don’t care if you’re serving triple-life, I’m getting your ass out of jail.’” With that, the band—two keyboards, bass/drums/guitar/trombone—revved up “Goodnight Irene” into a funkafied rock ‘n’ soul jam. It was only one of many such heavenly moments.
Dr. John, 72, is the living personification of New Orleans, a legend so mighty that his entrance to the stage—a slow strut with cane—elicited oohs and aahs, audible gasps from a sold-out crowd who knew they were in the presence of greatness.
Mac Rebennack left New Orleans in the 1960s to become a session musician in Los Angeles where he played on albums by Sonny & Cher, Van Morrison, Aretha Franklin and The Rolling Stones [Exile On Main Street, recorded in Paris but mixed and mastered with overdubs in L.A.]. During that time, he invented his Dr. John, The Nite Tripper persona on his 1968 Gris-Gris debut album. It was a heady intoxicating blend of mysterioso voodoo mysticism, funk, rhythm ‘n’ blues, psychedelica and Creole underpinnings.
He may not paint his face anymore but two human skulls grace his piano. And don’t think for one minute they’re not real. Starting with “Iko Iko,” the 1953 James “Sugar Boy” Crawford song that The Dixie Cups made into a 1965 pop hit, and Dr. John reinvented on his 1972 Gumbo masterpiece (from which he also played “Big Chief”), the band—master musicians all—fried the funk from “Food For Thought” to “The Monkey Speaks His Mind.” Then he got up, strapped on a guitar, and wowed the crowd playing lead and growling “Let The Good Times Roll,” another sterling moment. I shouted out for “Such A Night” and damned if he didn’t do it as the encore, another moment for the ages.
Earlier in the day, I had to gush and tell the great man how much I loved him. Hey, it might not have been professional, but I’m of the opinion that once you lose your inner fanboy in the pursuit of journalistic endeavors, you might as well just hang it up.
The talk, not an easy one, went something like this:
You were produced by Dan Auerbach of The Black Keys on your 2012 album, Locked Down. When, during the recording process, did you realize this guy was going to be ok?
Before the process started, I knew he was cool.
Is there anything in your near future that you could hip us to in the way of new albums or new projects?
I’m trying to do a couple of things but at the moment, I don’t know where anything is going so I’m just… I’m tired. Here it is: it’s hard to put my head into a space that ain’t happened yet. And I don’t want to badmouth nothin’ by sayin’ somethin’.
Fair enough. Who are some of the best young cats keeping the New Orleans tradition alive?
Those kids in the Rebirth Brass Band are doin’ great, but not just them, there’s so many of them right now that are all comin’ up. I love that, y’know.
Did you enjoy acting on Treme?
Listen, I don’t own a television, so I don’t have to watch any of that. I heard it’s really good but I have no idea what I did because I don’t watch no tv.
Your autobiography, Under A Hoodoo Moon: The Life Of The Night Tripper, was one of the greatest rock ‘n’ roll memoirs ever. Might you ever write a sequel?
I can’t tell you how much it means to me to meet you. Who were some of the people you were excited to meet early on?
I met Danny Barker when I was a little bitty weedhopper. Danny Barker was always in my corner ‘bout doin’ stuff musically. He really helped me in a lot of ways. He helped so many guys. He was a real guitarist but it had nothin’ to do with bein’ a guitar teacher. I did have some great guitar teachers but I learned the most from Danny Barker. [Danny Barker (1909-1994) wrote “Don’t You Feel My Leg” and “Save The Bones For Henry Jones.” He played guitar with Cab Calloway, Wynton Marsalis, Sidney Bechet, James P. Johnson, Lucky Millinder and Benny Carter. Curator of the New Orleans Jazz Museum (1965-1975), he helped a generation or two of aspiring players and wrote a book called A Life In Jazz.]
I also got to meet Cousin Joe, who showed me how to write songs. [Pleasant Joseph aka Cousin Joe (1907-1989) was a blues and jazz singer who played with Mezz Mezzrow and who used to say, “I’m hotter than a plate of red beans, ’cause I’m Cousin Joe from New Orleans.”
How’d you come up with your Nite Tripper persona?
I was just tryin’ to preserve the face of gris-gris.
And you did. You were the biggest Big Chief of them all.
I don’t know about any of that. I just think we’re all part of the same spirit and we all have our place in it.
Yeah, but when you first came out with the head dress and beautiful costumes, it brought attention to the real Big Chiefs back home who painstakingly put their beautiful costumes together but were still only local at that time, not having the kind of national exposure you brought them. People got interested in New Orleans culture, at least my whole generation, because of you.
Well, that’s a good sign. If that happened that way like you say, then good. All I can ever do is do my best and do whatever I feel.