Twenty years have elapsed since Mac Rebennack set aside the extravagances of his “Dr. John” character to record the acclaimed Gumbo album, a relatively low-key homage to New Orleans R&B that included such pillars as “Iko Iko” and Professor Longhair’s “Tipitina.”
Now Rebennack has released another tribute album, Goin’ Back to New Orleans. More ambitious in scope and attention to detail than Gumbo, its 18 tracks follow the evolution of New Orleans music from classical composer Louis Gottschalk in the 1850s through Jelly Roll Morton, Leadbelly, and Fats Domino.
“This record is the music that set up the music of Gumbo, ” says Rebennack. “It’s like where that music came from.”
To mark the release of this joyous music primer, Rebennack staged two triumphant shows at Charlie B’s in June. A carnival-like atmosphere prevailed. The audience, packed with media and local music industry luminaries, witnessed a snakedancer draping her serpentine partner over Rebennack’s shoulders; local DJ/impresario Ready Teddy turned somersaults while oldtimer Joe “Mr. Google Eyes” August delivered an indecipherable-yet-oh-so-authentic monologue; jazz man Danny Barker, whose participation in the “Goin’ Back” project Rebennack insisted upon, promenaded in front of the stage, wearing a grin like only Danny can; and at one point, the plumage of a gang of Mardi Gras Indians engulfed the stage, and Rebennack himself ducked out only to return in full Indian regalia.
Two days later Rebennack rendezvoused with old friend Branford Marsalis on the set of the Tonight Show, performing “Since I Fell For You” and the title track from the new album. He chatted with Jay Leno about episodes from his technicolor life-being featured in ads as an “Ivory Snow baby” as an infant, the gunshot wound that curtailed his guitar playing back in 1960, the rattlesnake walking stick that has become a constant companion (“That’s a mighty fine walking stick,” quipped Leno. “That’s a mighty dead rattlesnake,” countered Rebennack). He even rolled out a fine Ninth Ward “Yeah, you right,” evidence that he is still a dyed-in-the-wool Yat despite spending much of his time in New York City.
His 35-year career has seen its share of peaks and valleys, from his early days as a studio rat, session player, and disciple at the end of Professor Longhair’s bench. Through his West Coast incarnation as “Dr. John” — costumed like a voodoo-flavored Elton John — he became a cult figure in hippiedom’s waning moments. After scoring big with “Right Place, Wrong Time” in 1973, his career became erratic. Rebennack was without a major label deal throughout the 1980s, releasing one-off albums on a succession of small labels, until signing with Warner Brothers Records in 1988. That association put his recording career back on an even keel with 1989’s jazzy, string-heavy In A Sentimental Mood, and now Goin’ Back to New Orleans, which may be the culmination of Rebennack’s lifelong, hands-on study of Crescent City music.
Rebennack figures there will be more albums for Warners. “In contracts today, there’s weird loopholes on both parties’ part. They could dump me if push come to shove, and I could probably dump them if push come to shove. But so far I ain’t got no reason to want to. ”
Meanwhile, he’s hit the road. Throughout July, he barnstormed Europe as part of a package that included Johnny Adams, Eddie Bo, Zachary Richard, Willie DeVille and the Wild Magnolias. In August, he returns to the States as part of a blueslover’s dream bill: he, B.B. King, Buddy Guy, the Fabulous Thunderbirds and other acts will tour amphitheaters. The only scheduled Louisiana stop is August 21 at Lafayette’s Blackham Coliseum.
The sun had just cleared up a stormy, late afternoon recently when Rebennack phoned from his hotel room in Nice, France, where it was almost midnight. He had the night off, and, after adjourning a band meeting, was ready to chat.
During the conversation, the line was disconnected twice; Rebennack dutifully called back, only drawing the conversation to a close after receiving a second message to contact his old friend Shirley Goodman (of Shirley and Lee fame). [She has] “been like a real spark of good things in my life,” says Rebennack. “She’s real New Orleans people, a real carin’ person”.
Rebennack spoke in his trademark slow, deep, gruff whisper, discussing the current tour, the trials and tribulations of his early career (including bad contracts and drugs), the chance encounter at a funeral that helped bring about the new record, and more. What follows are excerpts from that conversation:
The European tour is almost like you never left home – you’re surrounded by so many New Orleans musicians.
Oh, yeah, I’m seein’ so many guys that always tour over here that I don’t usually see at home. Lillian Boutte and Lloyd Lambert and Edward Franks and a lot other people from here. You get over here and it’s amazing how many people from New Orleans is always on these tours. It’s nice seein’ the cats over here working.
Do you watch the other performers’ sets?
Sure. I work. I play piano with Johnny over here, and I do watch Eddie Bo, and I’ve been doin’ a thing with the Wild Magnolias. And I watch the show just so I can make sure everything is workin’ right. I’m kinda all over the place. We’re just trying to present an old-time revue type of effect. We’re together most of the day every day. We travel together. It’s nice in that way.
With Monk Boudreaux and Bo Dollis, I was concerned that maybe if I could come out, it would make things a little better on the run for some of them. Hopefully it did some good; you never know. Maybe it’ll cause a little disturbance, so maybe when they come back they’d be treated properly, like the talents they are.
You guys are traveling on buses?
Buses, planes, trains, whatever.
Sounds like a movie title [Rebennack chuckles]. You’ve got to be excited about the upcoming American tour with B.B. King, Buddy Guy and the Fabulous Thunderbirds.
I was talking to B.B. [King] about it the day we played in Spain together. B.B. seemed excited about it, and that really made me feel good ’cause the old man’s been out here long enough, and he stays on the road. He’s one of the few people to stay on the road most of the year. That he was up for this really meant a lot to me.
We sat down before the set and talked about it a little bit. I was real pleased to see that this meant something to him, you know — that he felt something special about something after all the time he spent out on the road. The amount of dates he does a year, that anything could get through to him that way meant a lot to me.
You kind of approximated the black musical experience. That was responsible for some of your vocal style, some of your musical style. I guess you’ve run into some of the same criticism that guys like Paul Simon have run into, when people talked about “Oh, you’re just guilty of cultural piracy. You’re just trying to pick up something that isn’t naturally yours, trying to make it off another people.” Did you get that early on?
No, the only problems I ran into as a record producer early on was when I used to mix bands. They had two unions in New Orleans, and I got a lot of flack from the black and the white union about mixing musicians up. I used to hire cats — the guys I thought could cut the session the best — whoever they was. And I got a little flack from both unions about this.
Musicians, I never had any flack from. Some guys are more open about some things; some guys ain’t. I was real blessed early on to come into guys like [the late] Paul Gayten. He was always real open to just doin’ things. He was one of the first guys to use me on a recording session. He also used Sam Butera early on in recording sessions.
Paul was always tellin’ me about, “Hey man, you got to play music your own way. You can’t copy records.” Most of the guys I was around early on were very supportive. I used to get some ribbin’ cause I used to copy T Bone Walker, and some of the cats used to call me “Little T Bone.” There was a little dig to it. But that’s how things are.
One of the good things come of it, they hit me with things I wouldn’t be aware of. Same with Huey Smith and Allen Toussaint, Red Tyler, all the guys I had the good fortune of working with early on touted me on how things was realistically, not about the way I perceived things as a kid coming into it. I was real young and naive to what was going on in the studio scene. So in that way it was probably more the opposite.
They were willing to take you under their wings.
Well, these guys, they put up with a lot of crap ’cause I had a job early on in life as a record producer, and I didn’t know what the hell I was doing. [Ace Records owner] Johnny Vincent hired me as a record producer. I think to this day it was ’cause he figured if I was a songwriter, he could get his value out of using me as a producer some kind of way — because I wrote a lot of songs. But I’m sure I fucked up as many records as I did ok early on — because I really didn’t know what the hell I was doing.
On the other side of it, I think that the guys that were around me that groomed me in a lot of ways — all the guys I just mentioned and a lot more guys — did take me under their wing and wise me up to the real deal.
One guy in particular who squared the race thing out for me was Melvin Lastie [who played the cornet solo on Barbara George’s smash “I Know”]: Cats used to call me “Black Mac.” He said, “Man, that’s wrong, man. Mac’s a great cat.” Somewhere in between that shit — it was at a time when Melvin was first working record sessions and the AFO band [the house band for many of Harold Battiste’s All For One recordings] was just starting up and all [circa 1961] — through him and guys like him, they just made it easier for me.
You were one of the people who were taken advantage of as far as royalties and songwriting credits. The one that always comes up is the Lloyd Price tune, “Lady Luck.”
Besides “Lady Luck,” there’s a lot of songs that I wrote by myself – and I mean a lot of ’em – that has like two or three other names of people on ’em. In a lot of instances that I know from later trying to find out where all my songs and money went, a lot of these songs were given to disc jockeys to play records. I never met these people, but their names are on the records with mine. That’s just how things was when I was first writin’ songs.
Like the thing with “Lady Luck,” I had written a song, had a contract on it with Venice Music, but what I never knew was they didn’t copyright the songs until they recorded ’em. When Lloyd Price, I guess, heard the song when he was at Specialty Records, when he left to go to ABC/Paramount, he took songs that he copyrighted.
So you lost out on that one.
I lost out on a lot of deals early on. I mean, I had deal with Aladdin Records for a lot of songs. My parents signed the contract ’cause I was like 15, and it said, in real big print on the contract, which I recently saw, “Rate of royalty: nothing.” They only paid like three-and-a-half cents for sheet music. If you didn’t read it carefully, it looked like I was paid three-and-a-half cents royalty, but that was for sheet music. For royalties for the songs, they owed me nothin’.
You didn’t have any attorney look at it?
Well, I had an attorney for the Lloyd Price thing, but he happened to be Lloyd Price’s attorney too, and nobody in my family thought about that being a conflict of interest. That’s just the way things went.
I mean even now they tryin’ to screw Huey Smith out of writin’ “Sea Cruise” and all the songs everybody knows Huey wrote. It’s amazin’ to me, it still goes on; it’s an ongoing saga of people gettin’ ripped off in New Orleans to a degree that other people in other places — I know have been ripped off, but I don’t think it was as consistent or such an ongoing thing as still exists in New Orleans.
One of the other darker sides of music in those days was drugs. I’ve heard several different stories about you and all that. One of the most prevalent is that in the early ’60s you became involved and went into a Fort Worth rehab clinic in ’64. Is that anywhere near the truth?
Mmm-hmm. Yeah, it’s true.
Was it heroin?
Was that just a result of the atmosphere in those days? What was the situation?
Well, I don’t know. I just got caught up in a lot of things back then. When ya’ young, you think, “Well, it’s me, and it’s my life, and I can do with it whatever I want; it’s cool.” The law said different things, and I guess I fought the law, and the law kicked my ass.
But, ya’ know, I think a lot of things that happens in life — it’s like, you do it at one time, and you feel like, “Hey, man, I’m not hurtin’ nobody but me, if I’m hurtin’ anybody.” But as you get older you start thinkin’, “Well maybe I didn’t have my head wrapped too tight back in those days.” A lot of things that went on in the whole scene that I was caught up in back in the game was like things to do with street things, you know — just part of the lifestyle at the time.
Was that pretty much it in ’64? Have you been pretty clean since then?
[Pause] Yeah, well, I don’t do anything these days.
No. I don’t do drugs. I smoke cigarettes. That’s the extent of my vices these days.
Let me jump forward to your stage persona in the early ’70s. You look back on your whole act in those days – the costumes, the showering the crowds with glitter and all that – any regrets about that whole era, that whole showbiz thing?
When I did those first Dr. John records, I put on a show to the best of my ability. I had no experience trying to front a band. I had always been a guy who was a bandleader but had singers front the band. That was on-the-job trainin’ for me. It was like everything you try: Some of it worked, and some of it didn’t. When you don’t know no better, you go for what you can do.
I feel like over the years, I’ve been tryin’ to learn how to do what I do the best that I can.
And gettin’ better all the time.
I hope I get better. I hope I don’t get worse. But that’s really judged from other people’s eyes. ‘Cause the way musicians see things, we never satisfied. There’s kind of a code amongst most musicians that if you’re ever really satisfied with what you do, you must be dead — because you ain’t growin’.
Which of your albums from the late ’60s and early ’70s stand as your favorites? Which are you most proud of?
I don’t know… I felt like the Gris Gris album painted a picture of certain New Orleans music that I thought was important to preserve, and I felt like the Gumbo album caused some people to be aware of some stuff from New Orleans, and in some weird way it helped people like Professor Longhair get gigs. And the Right Place album in some weird way helped the Meters [the band backed him on those sessions]. It may have sparked some interest in New Orleans music just cause of the success of the record. At the time, anything any of us could do that got some kind of interest helped.
Those three records… but every record I did was the best thing I could do at that time.
Those are all out on CD now, Babylon and the others have been reissued.
I know when I first came to Europe behind the Babylon record, I mean, these people over here thought I was some kind of Che Guevara or some political guy or somethin’.
It’s like, it led to some other things. Like Gumbo maybe wouldn’t have happened had it not been for offshoots of that record.
Besides the records, you have lot of other significant entries in the mental scrapbook from those days. You played with Clapton and Jagger, you did the Last Waltz concert. You certainly had a stellar career just in that section, if that had been the end of it.
Those early records may have had somethin’ do with why guys like Eric and Mick Jagger and them came in to help me with the Sun Moon and Herbs album we were cuttin’ in London. In this business, guys will come out if they dig somethin’ you do or help with other things. That’s how music works, you know?
You’ve done it in the other direction. You’ve played on a lot of other people’s records in the last five years. I mean, every time you turn around…
Probably not as many as I probably played on the 30 years before that. For whatever reason, people seem to be a lot more aware that I play on other people’s sessions. I used to play sessions just cause I loved to play. Today, I probably pass on a lot of sessions that people ask me to do unless it’s material or an artist that means something to me. I used to just do things — ’cause everything was a big deal and [for] the experience.
You played with a Japanese band called Chicken Shack recently?
[Pause] Oh, yeah, I did somethin’… I did several things with different Japanese acts. The last thing I did was with this little guitar player. To be honest, I didn’t know his name or the name of the band. That might have been it.
Before In A Sentimental Mood came along, you had been without a major label deal for a number of years. How did the Warner Brothers deal come about?
Well, I tell ya, it was funny. I was talkin’ to [Atlantic Records chairman] Ahmet Ertegun about makin’ a deal back with Atlantic, and he had sent me to New Orleans to do some demos. I had brought them to him, and he said, “Hey, I like these demos. I think they’d be good for this band and that band…”
And I got mad. And I went down the elevator to the lobby, and I ran into Tommy LiPuma, who I didn’t even know was workin’ at Warner Brothers. And he told me to come up (to his office) for a minute and talk. One thing led to another, and I wound up makin’ the deal with him at Warners.
We was gonna make a second album [after In A Sentimental Mood]. It was gonna be a live record, and it was a whole weird bunch of things happened, and it didn’t happen. Then (LiPuma) left Warners to go work at Elektra, and I spoke to the people at Warners. We went through a little space of time where I presented them with a few ideas that I thought they would like, and I then I had like a couple in the back of my head, and Goin’ Back to New Orleans was one of them. But I really didn’t think they was gonna like this idea. ‘Cause I was thinkin’, “Well, they gonna probably think it is a home court deal — that I’m gonna give them a record they ain’t gonna be able to sell.”
Next thing I know, there was a spot where Doc Pomus passed away — and Henry Glover and Paul Gayten, all around the same time. At one of the funerals I was at, I ran into Stewart Levine [who would eventually produce Goin’ Back to New Orleans], and he was sayin’, “Man, I’d like to do something wit ya’.” And I didn’t realize he was serious. I just took it to mean that we’d do somethin’ one of these days.
And then later [Warner Brothers president] Lenny Waronker got in touch with me, and said, “Stewart would like to do this record.” I had just spoke with [engineer] Al Schmitt, and it worked out. Both of them were able to work on the project. It was a real special thing. Al’s one of my favorite engineers, [and] an old friend from years ago.
Life has its way of things happenin’ better for me today. Because if I think about ’em too hard, I’m probably short changin’ myself.
What I’ve found on these last two albums is Warner Brothers Records has given me a lot of play as far as doin’ somethin’ that don’t exactly fit a commercial mold and lettin’ me just run with it. I think it’s made me change my outlook of recordin’ companies. I used to be real bitter towards some of them.
I was able to put something together in New Orleans that wasn’t easy to do logistically. They were open enough to say, “If that’s what you want to do, do it.”
That had to be one of the most satisfying aspects of this record — that you were able to give exposure to a lot of these older cats. I mean, Red Tyler was working sessions when you were a kid hanging around the studio, and now he’s on this record. He played on The Tonight Show with you.
Red’s one of them guys who was always a band leader when I first worked sessions. Whenever there was confusion about a chord progression, Red’s word was always law. He’s still the guy I can always look up to. He was gonna come on this run [the European tour], but I told him it was too much of a ball buster. There’s too many one-nighters.
It’s funny that you recorded “Milneburg Joys” — about the old gambling district on the Lakefront — and Milneburg may become a reality once again, with legalized gambling out there.
Songs like that and “I Thought I Heard Buddy Bolden Say,” if I hadn’t had Danny Barker record with me, I would have never felt comfortable cuttin’ them songs without his input — tellin’ me stories about guys like Jelly Roll Morton and hippin’ me to where those guys were comin’ from.
I don’t think I coulda did this record without Danny Barker’s help. I’m real indebted to him. Him and Blue Lu [Barker’s wife] have always been very special people in my heart. Just to get a chance to work with him on one of my records was a very moving experience for me.
What was it about “Basin Street Blues” that you didn’t like about the original lyrics?
Well, dey kinda, you know, them old. They like, I look at ’em kinda like they was some ol’ kind of Uncle Tom lyrics or somethin’ — some jive shit, some racist stuff or somethin’. I just never was crazy about them. There was other people that cut it — did other versions of it — that I liked.
There’s a lot of them ol’ songs, you know? Louis Armstrong’s “Sleep Time Down South” was a great melody, and the lyrics was cool except for a couple of lines that were just kind of the way people wrote songs back then. In this day and age, they just not acceptable to me anymore. They might be acceptable to somebody. I kinda feel like there are offensive lyrics in a lot of these old songs. But that’s just the way people wrote songs once upon a time.
That had to be one of the toughest things with a lot of these old tunes — just charting out an arrangement. Like you said, there’s a zillion different versions.
I tried to take songs that was like maybe a tribute to the writer or the singer that made it popular — or maybe just somebody that meant something to me within the song.
Like “Goodnight Irene” was an old Leadbelly song. That’s a tribute to James Booker — an arrangement he did. That’s kinda the way I tried to do the album. “Blue Monday” was an old Smiley Lewis tune before Fats did it. But I was also trying to do it as a tribute to all the old great choppy blues piano players from New Orleans. I tried to use that as a theme. And what songs that I could do that would maybe tout people on some other people from New Orleans that they wouldn’t maybe be familiar with.
If someone were to do a tribute to you one day, which song would you want them to record as a tribute to the whole Dr. John thing?
That’s a weird question — something I had never thought of. Let me think [pause].
You did “Blue Monday;”Obviously that doesn’t tell all there is about Fats Domino, but it was a song that you picked that could represent him and what he did. What would be a good example of a song from your catalog that you would want someone to record on an album like Goin’ Back to New Orleans — a New Orleans album done 100 years from now — when you’re part of the history of it all. What would be a good representation of what you contributed to the whole thing?
It would be hard for me to say somethin’ like that for me …uh …on account of music is such a changing thing to me. If something lives on in my music, I would just hope it would be an example of New Orleans music. Maybe uh… [pause].
We’ve gone all this time, and I stump you right at the end?
Well, it’s like you ask me a question that I could give you a quick answer, say “Right Place, Wrong Time” or somethin’ like that, but I’m tryin’ to answer you honestly…
[Rebennack chuckles] I never considered…
To be honest, I look at my music as some kind of transient music that’s like here in a place. Maybe people go on to somethin’ else…
It’s like somebody asked me one of dem kinda questions the other day: “What would you like somebody to put on your tombstone?” An’ I tol’ the guy I didn’t know. I just thought it’d be nice if I had a jazz funeral, and after dat, whatever happened — if they wanted to cremate me — it wouldn’t make much difference to me by that time.
Thinkin’ off that way in the future, one of the things I try to do now is live for the moment and try to live in the now, you know? It’s hard to consider things way off in the future.
Maybe a song on the new album like “Fess Up,” maybe, ’cause it contains a lot of portions of Professor Longhair’s music — one of my main heroes in life. Maybe that song. It’s something fresh to me right now, but I think it contains an element of Professor Longhair stuff that’s not available on record, and maybe they will see that there’s more sides to him. I’ll just give ya’ that song for lack of a better answer.
It’s a mixture of stuff he used to do. It’s like pieces of stuff he used to do when he was workin’ at the One Stop Record Shop. While he was on his breaks, he’d just play stuff on the piano. Sometimes I’d try to show him a song I wrote for him or somethin’. I remember stuff like that he did, and it wasn’t really a song; it was just stuff. I put together pieces of stuff he used to do. That was something I could do in his memory, that, maybe, would turn people on to checkout some of his stuff.