Dr. John passed away last June, but his music just keeps coming. Two significant releases have been issued posthumously and these may only be the tip of the iceberg, since there are so many live recordings that remain in various vaults. We are unlikely to hear all of it, though an archived release project a la The Grateful Dead, Frank Zappa, Bob Dylan and Allman Brothers is not out of the question.
Mac’s lifelong friend and former manager Stanley Chaisson is responsible for two posthumous releases on Orange Music. The first, Live in Tokyo, Japan is a red hot funk set from 1992 with an all-star band including Freddie Staehle on drums, David Barard on bass, Smiley Ricks on percussion, Alvin “Red” Tyler on tenor saxophone and Hugh McCracken on guitar.
The second release, Big Band Voodoo, documents a Dr. John studio session with Germany’s WDR Big Band. The setting is WDR’s studio in Cologne, Germany. Dr. John is in top form with a crack big band and a great sound. The WDR Big Band is versatile and brings its full expertise to a mixed program of Dr. John material and American standards. Rebennack’s voice rides John Clayton’s sophisticated arrangements on ballads such as “Blue Skies,” “New York City Blues” and “There Must Be a Better World Somewhere.”
Chaisson knew Mac from his high school days when Rebennack played in local bands at school dances and Stanley would pick up his friend in his blue 1954 Chevy and ferry him around to and from gigs. Mac would later refer to him in his autobiography, Under a Hoodoo Moon, as “my old partner Stanley Chaisson,” a tantalizingly brief reference but one that underscores the fact that Chaisson knew Mac long before he became Dr. John and observed his progress in New Orleans as he grew from being a high school rock ’n’ roller into one of the more canny session players and producers working out of Cosimo Matassa’s J&M Studio in New Orleans.
“I met Mac in New Orleans at Catholic school dances and then at Cosimo’s studio,” Chaisson recalls. “It was St. Dominic on Friday, St. Bernard on Saturday and St. Anthony on Sunday. I liked to hang out with the bands before the dances. Mac would be hanging out outside the drugstore and occasionally he would go in and come out with some cough medicine. I would be the lookout, so to speak. Later I was involved with the local music distributor All South. I had my own label back then, Chase Records. I would go around to these dances and saw Mac’s bands frequently. He was easy to get to know. Mac was playing guitar then. He knew I was in the business; we knew each other through the schools.”
Chaisson’s friendship with Mac continued after Rebennack left school and started hanging out at Matassa’s studio, learning the ropes, subbing for other session players and eventually leading his own sessions.
“I lived in the Iberville projects so it was just a short walk to the studio from there,” said Chaisson. “Two doors down was the record shop. I got a job there dusting off the albums and sweeping. Cosimo’s was two doors down so I’d hang out there. I’d see Dave Bartholomew, I’d see Fats there, Little Richard, different people that would come around, “Red” Tyler, Mac.
“Mac and I were friends. He was doing a lot of work for Huey Meaux at Cosimo’s. I would go around there at Cosimo’s and be a runner, go get cokes or sandwiches or whatever. I would talk with Mac on breaks, y’know and we just hit it off. We became good friends. I used to tell him that he didn’t have to use the additives that he needed on certain occasions but that didn’t do any good, so we just stayed in our lanes. He would ask me things about what I thought would be commercial: ‘Listen to this, Stanley, I’m doing this, I’m writing this.’ I’d go to sessions he did with Barbara Lynn, a lot of ‘Red’ Tyler stuff like Lloyd Price. Then he had his own group. He did a record called ‘Chinese Bandits’ which was a reference to LSU’s defense. It was a popular record around town. I always wanted to go fishing with him but he never wanted to go fishing. So I was watching what he was doing, listening to a lot of his product, getting the opportunity to be in private with him when he was writing. I was learning a lot. He helped me get some small label deals. He helped me with a song that The Jakes did called ‘There’s Got to Be a Girl,’ which was the first release on my label, Chase. It was kind of a cha-cha. It was number one in New Orleans, Mobile, Pensacola…”
Chaisson’s most promising act on Chase Records was the Aubrey Twins, brothers who Chaisson heard at a local talent show. Chaisson began managing them and recorded a series of singles beginning in 1963, several of which charted locally. Some of the tracks were written by Rebennack, including “Hip-ity Hop” b/w “Take Me Home With You,” which was released on Huey Meaux’s Jamie imprint.
“My first artists were two Black children, the Aubrey Twins, which I got on the Johnny Carson show, and we did a Motown tour. The twins opened for Stevie Wonder. Mac and I and the twins and ‘Red’ Tyler, Professor Longhair, we would go eat places. I had the Aubrey Twins and I had Deacon John, who is absolutely phenomenal. I did that record with him, ‘Many Rivers to Cross.’ Wardell Quezergue was a dear friend. [So was] Johnny Adams, who I wish I had signed and I didn’t. Joe Assunto got him. We all used to hang out at the one- stop. So Professor Longhair would be there, Mac would be there, Earl King, Tommy Ridgely, Esquerita, some of the Clowns, and we’d all eat and discuss records and then we’d all go off and do our things.”
Mac went to prison for two years in ’63 and when he was released he went out to California to work with Harold Battiste. It didn’t take Chaisson long to reconnect with Rebennack. He arranged for Mac to come back to New Orleans to meet the Aubrey Twins.
“Mac flew into New Orleans, checked them out,” said Chaisson. “I told him bring his guitar and we went over 50 songs. He flew in in the morning and he left at night. We went and ate crawfish in between. He played 50 songs and I had to choose 15 for the album.”
Chaisson got the Aubrey Twins a deal with Epic Records and they went into the studio in L.A. in 1967 with Mac writing and playing on the sessions while Harold Battiste handled the arrangements. This was the same team that produced the original Dr. John sessions, so these Aubrey Twins recordings were some of Rebennack’s last work before adopting his persona as Dr. John.
Mac penned the first single, “Poor Boy,” and the B-side, “Give It Up.” He co-wrote the second single, “What Is Love?” / “Love Without End, Amen” with Jessie Hill.
The Epic sides were good—you can hear them on the Night Train release The Best of Chase Records, and it’s entirely possible that if the Aubrey Twins broke out nationally with this material, the Dr. John character may never have materialized and Rebennack would have continued his career as a go-to session man and producer. But his entanglements with drugs and the endless hustle led to chaos on these sessions and an entirely different road to travel.
“I was never really into the Gris-Gris phase,” said Chaisson without irony. “That world was just a little bit too heavy for me. Epic Records signed the Aubrey Twins. Harold Battiste did the arrangements and 95 percent of it was Mac and Jessie Hill’s songs. I felt loyalty to Mac because of our early relationship and the fact that he had good songs. So we did the album in California at Columbia Studios. Charles Green and Brian Stone were the producers and Harold Battiste was the arranger. Mac played guitar and piano and organ. He hadn’t quite reformed yet. He would slip. After he was doing all the Sonny and Cher stuff I would walk into the studio there, Gold Star, and Doc was the engineer and in the middle of a session Mac was falling asleep. Finally I pulled him aside and said ‘Man, this is ridiculous.’”
That was pretty much the end of Chaisson’s connection to Mac while the Dr. John project took flight, but they would meet up again when Mac returned to his New Orleans roots for the R&B tribute album Gumbo and its highly successful New Orleans funk follow-ups In the Right Place and Desitively Bonnaroo. As regional director of promotion for the distributor, Chaisson was part of the Atlantic promotion team that boosted singles like “Right Place, Wrong Time” and “Such a Night” into the charts.
Chaisson would reconnect once again with Rebennack in the 1980s, when he agreed to become Mac’s manager on the condition that he clean up for good and move to New York. With encouragement from Rebennack’s mother Dorothy, Chaisson helped Mac reinvent himself once again.
“I can remember going sometimes to five meetings a day with Mac,” he said. “I went with Mac when he got cleaned up. I just could not work with him knowing he was injuring himself and I always thought that he was creative enough without that and it’s been proven since, with all these established musicians who wanted to play with him. I have some letters from Dorothy. Dorothy was very, very pleased that Mac was starting to wear suits, which I convinced him to do, and she saw an improvement not only in his whole demeanor, but his playing and singing, and his way of treating people. She was very complimentary about our goal to keep this a straight-up, clean working environment.”
Chaisson’s run managing Rebennack included deals with Warner Brothers, which yielded the Grammy-winning Going Back to New Orleans album, and GRP. Chaisson also managed a grueling regimen of world tours. He documented a number of the shows and the WDR performance on digital tape. Chaisson eventually stepped down from his management role but kept in touch with Mac until the end of his life.
“We would talk on the phone from time to time or get together to eat,” said Chaisson. “I mentioned [the tapes] on occasion. We were discussing what was going down and we did a lot of reminiscing.”
When Chaisson knew Mac’s time was limited he mentioned these two projects again. “He was very sick,” said Chaisson. “I have other tapes but these two are the best. I did want to expose Live in Tokyo because that was one of the best bands that he had. His son Max told me the night before he passed that that was the best band that he had.”
But the real prize in Chaisson’s vault was the WDR session.
“Everyone should be able to hear the way he sings, instead of just being a Professor Longhair-type pianist from New Orleans,” Chaisson said. “This was the event. We rehearsed the night before. But they didn’t do concerts with him. It was a one-time deal. Mac was thinking about doing this. We were in his brownstone one night, and the WDR proposed since he would be over in Germany with his band, would we consider something with the WDR orchestra. He knew from 1920s music up to today’s music, listened to it all the time. The WDR Big Band record shows that.
“I miss Mac dearly. I hope enough people get a chance to hear this record. That’s the pinnacle of him right there. I don’t think he was captured in the same manner of playing and phrasing. This record brings him out. This is Mac.”