If you haven’t been able to locate the elusive “Dr. Feel Good,” look no further. When you hear the pounding, driving, thumping, gutsy sounds erupting from the keyboard with New Orleans’ native son Dr. John at the helm, you know you’ve discovered the good doctor’s whereabouts and are experiencing the essence of New Orleans’ “magical beat” emanating from his fingertips. His potion—guaranteed to cure whatever ails you—combines jazz, rock ‘n’ roll, funk and rhumba blues in a blend that defies description while filling the soul with a sense of the sublime.
Early exposure to the waves of multi-ethnic rhythms floating through the Crescent City made a strong imprint on the young Mac Rebennack. In particular, his adaptation of funk, which adds compounded rhythms and syncopation to a 2/4 beat, would later become Dr. John’s signature and his Rx for success.
Taking a look back, Rebennack was a major sessions player during the golden years of New Orleans music, adding licks and keyboard phrasings to a host of rhythm and blues recordings performed by the legendary Fats Domino, Shirley and Lee, Little Richard and Professor Longhair.
Dr. John’s long-time association with Professor Longhair, whom he considered to be like a second father, had a profound influence on both his musical development and business savvy.
“I started out playing boogie woogie in the New Orleans studio scene back in the ’50s. Charlie Williams, Professor Longhair and ‘Red’ Tyler were the supreme influences on my piano styling. All through the years Professor Longhair helped a lot of young guys that were coming up. He taught us how to survive in the music business,” says Dr. John.
During the formative period of his career, Dr. John paid his dues as a member of the studio band at Cosimo Matassa’s J&M Studios in New Orleans. Next, he worked a stint as an A&R (artist and repertoire) man for John Vincent’s Ace Records in Jackson, Mississippi, before developing an on-stage and recording persona that would eventually turn him into a cult hero.
Ironically, Rebennack moved into the limelight by coincidence when he filled in for another artist to become his alter-ego. “I was planning to produce a record and make Ronnie Barrons of Algiers the character ‘Dr. John,’ but his management at the time didn’t think it was a good career move so I became Dr. John, The Night Tripper, instead,” he remembers (historically, Dr. John was a famous voodoo practitioner in New Orleans in the 1800’s who held court weekly at Congo Square and was said to have great supernatural powers. Many of Rebennack’s tunes are permeated with voodoo influences).
“Harold Battiste and I were working on some sessions that became the ‘Gris-Gris’ album (a.k.a. ‘The Night Tripper’),” he notes, “and it opened the door for me to be doing what I’m doing now.”
“It was something I’d never prepared for. I was always working in the background or producing, but the ‘voodoo rock’ thing turned into a cult phenomenon. We played Love-Ins, Be-Ins, basically anything political or mystical. After six albums, the ‘Iko’ record (from the ‘Gumbo’ LP) cracked the Top 40. But the best thing to come out of it was to get people interested in the New Orleans sound. The city’s music has always been shortchanged because it doesn’t fit into the mainstream; it’s a little too subtle for the masses.”
Dr. John, who grew up in the Third Ward and Irish Channel neighborhoods here in New Orleans, has lived in New York City for the last six years. But he still keeps his fingertips on the pulse of the Big Easy’s music industry. “The hardest thing I’ve ever had to do was to leave New Orleans,” he explains. “But my family lives there and I get back down to play gigs as often as possible.”
“Being in New York reminds me of New Orleans in the ’50’s with the strips of music on Bourbon, St. Charles and La Salle streets, where all the joints had bands. It bothers me that’s not there anymore. The young guys comin’ up now don’t have the scene happenin’ that we did.”
Keeping the New Orleans sound alive is foremost in Dr. John’s mind today. He more than anyone else has continued to maintain Professor Longhair’s carnival tradition by returning to the Crescent City annually for his now-famous “Mardi Gras Mambo Show.”
“Ever since we did ‘Big Chief’ and ‘Mardi Gras in New Orleans’ with Professor Longhair, that music’s subtle blend of funk and hypnotic rhythms has mesmerized the audience. To create the sound, you play behind the beat,” he says.
An equally memorable accompaniment to Dr. John’s keyboard agility are his incredible soulful vocal renditions. Most recently, he has added his gritty quality to a plethora of television commercials and musical jingles.
But recording and performing continue to be his mainstays in the business. Last year, Dr. John teamed up with Bennie Wallace for three sizzling tunes on the “Bull Durham” soundtrack. Since then, he collaborated with New Orleans’ prodigy, Harry Connick, Jr., for a duet of “Do You Know What It Means to Miss New Orleans,” (a song the good doctor certainly knows something about) on the latter’s new LP “20.”
And after a five-year absence from a solo album performance, he’s back ‘big time’ with a new LP, “In a Sentimental Mood,” for Warner Brothers. With a playlist that includes “Accentuate the Positive,” “Saturday Night Fishfry,” “Don’t Let the Sun Catch You Cryin'” and a duet of “Makin’ Whoopee” performed with Ricki Lee Jones, Dr. John will probably redefine the big-band category with this collection of old standards (the album will be released on April 28 and Dr. John will sign autographs at the Jazz Fest on April 30 in the afternoon).
After thirty years in the industry, what does the future hold for Dr. John? “When something’s done, you can’t go back. If you’re looking back, you’re facing the wrong direction,” he says. “Each person out of New Orleans that’s making noise, like Wynton and Branford Marsalis, Harry Connick, Jr., The Neville Brothers, The Radiators, etc., are spreading the magic that New Orleans has to give to the world.”
Because of his desire to expand the audience for the Crescent City’s spicy gumbo of R&B, blues, jazz, funk, etc., Dr. John uses as many New Orleans musicians as he can on his various recording and producing projects. “I like to help out where I can to get the local music heard,” he adds.
Once again, Dr. John will bring his potent musical magic southward for a series of appearances during the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival. The 20-year veteran who has never missed appearing at the Jazz Fest will perform at the River Tent on April 29 on a double bill with Jimmy Buffett for two shows, at 7 p.m. and midnight. And, as he has for so many of the last twenty years, he will headline one of the closing sets for the Fest on Sunday, May 7th.
If you could use an uplifting musical experience, this is just what the doctor ordered!