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Mac Rebennack: Roots and herbs

When Dr John came into the Old Grey Whistle Test studio at the BBC Television Centre one night in 1972, he was in his Mac Rebennack mode. That was his birth name, the one he used as a young man on the New Orleans music scene until he moved to Los Angeles in 1965 and eventually devised the hoodoo-voodoo identity that brought him fame.

There was an upright piano in the studio. The programme was going out live. Mac came in and sat down, and after I’d given him a brief introduction, he started to play. For the next few minutes — maybe 10, but I wasn’t counting — he worked his way through the history of post-war New Orleans piano styles. He went from Professor Longhair through Fats Domino and James Booker to Huey Smith and Allen Toussaint, stirring a filé powder of his own into the gumbo of their artfully syncopated, wonderfully blues-drenched phrases.

Mac — who died yesterday at his home in Louisiana, aged 77 — was an authority on the subject, a repository of the lore and legend of New Orleans music, and it permeated his own playing. Sadly that Whistle Test performance seems not to have been recorded; unlike many less worthy items, it has never resurfaced, although I continue to live in hope because I’d give a lot to see it again.

It wasn’t until many years later, while reading the notes to a reissue of the magnificent solo-piano set he recorded for the Clean Cuts label in 1981, that I discovered why he had an aversion to performing alone. In his autobiography, Under a Hoodoo Moon, he said it aroused the memory of the fear “that I’d end up alone as a solo-piano lounge act starring at Holiday Inns or bowling alleys for the rest of my natural life.”

It was during the same visit in 1972 that I interviewed him at some length for the Melody Maker. Again he talked about his hometown piano heroes, starting with Longhair — “Fess” — whom he’d heard in clubs when his father, the owner of an appliance store, was fixing broken lighting and sound systems. Later, as a young guitarist (the instrument he played before someone shot off the finger he used to bend notes), Mac was called on to play a gig in Longhair’s band.

“Fess remembered me from the way I used to pester him to death when I was a kid. He played these real complex rhythm things — even today I can’t do some of them fantastic things I’ve seen him do over the years. He was such a strong focal point, an inspiration, for everything I was involved in.” There was a mystery, he said, to Longhair’s music, particularly in his introduction of a rhumba feeling into the rhythms. “There’s a missing link there somewhere, because none of the piano players I knew from before Fess’s time were in the direction he was on — the Rhumbalero groove. At some point he was a real innovator. He made up his own music terms. He called his music ‘overboogie’, and when he did this thing by crossing his hands he called it a ‘double-note crossover’. He had something called a ‘left-hand overdrive’, and when the horns made a punch, he’d call that a ‘spew’: his terms were very descriptive.”

You could throw a New Orleans name at Mac — Mel Lastie, John Boudreaux, Harold Battiste, Ed Blackwell, Walter “Papoose” Nelson, Red Tyler, Earl Palmer, Cosimo Matassa, Snooks Eaglin — and he’d have a story about them. When I asked him about being a white man in a black man’s world, at a time when the American Federation of Musicians still had segregated branches, he told me about a tour he made with Toussaint, Eaglin and Phil “Sea of Love” Phillips in the early ’60s: “It was one of the first integrated tours of the South, pre-integration. It was very treacherous. Some of those towns, like Polarville, Mississippi, they’d have had lynchings there — and I was the guy who had to collect the money after the gig.”

The interview was memorable in another way: Mac was on the methadone programme, and he kept nodding out. He’d be in the middle of an answer, shut his eyes and stop talking. If I kept silent too, a minute or so later he’d open his eyes and resume the answer exactly where he’d left off. It was a little unnerving, but it was a sign of recovery from his addiction.

A year earlier I’d seen him in much worse shape. I spent a night at Trident Studios in Soho, where he was recording tracks for what turned out to be The Sun, Moon and Herbs — his fourth album as Dr John — with a motley gang including Eric Clapton, Mick Jagger, Graham Bond and a few jazz musicians, including the tuba player Ray Draper, once a member of Max Roach’s quintet, and the Jamaican saxophonist and flautist Ken Terroade. The vibe was pretty down and depressing as the assembled company went through endless stoned jams. It was hard to believe they’d get anything out of it.

It was great, then, to see what became of him not just a year later but through the rest of his career, as he became an emblem of the city that had given the music its backbone. You can say that his half-dozen Grammy awards and his membership of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame were the least cool thing about him, but when you’d come through what he came through, I’ll bet they meant a lot.

If you haven’t done so already, click on the YouTube link above. This live version of his irresistible “Such a Night” from the Mountain Stage radio show on NPR in 1989 tells you how special he was — how much sheer warmth his music generated, whatever the circumstances — and how greatly he’ll be missed.

10 Comments Post a comment
  1. Thank you for your fascinating article on this great musician.

    June 7, 2019
  2. A beautiful tribute, Richard…

    June 7, 2019
  3. Richard Harris #

    Read that wonderful piece all the way through, nodding with agreement, especially at the solo piano album which I bought on chance on a cassette issue, then wore it to death. Then hit “MISSED” in the last sentence? I had NO idea. In amongst all the hokem, the jive, was a REAL someone and a great player in the tradition.

    June 7, 2019
  4. Lovely piece, Richard. And you found a great performance too. I watched the version from Last Waltz earlier, and enjoyed it, but this is way better.

    June 7, 2019
  5. Lovely tribute Richard. I’ll never forget seeing him for the first time in the early hours of Monday, June 29, 1970, the last act to perform at the Bath Festival at Shepton Mallet. Rain had interrupted the Sunday night line-up, headlined by Led Zep, and some acts scheduled after Zep chose not to play. Those who were made of sterner stuff opted to perform anyway and the music continued on and off throughout the night. Around 4am The Byrds played a lovely acoustic set and afterwards, as dawn’s light was breaking, Dr John, dressed to the nines in his Louisiana finery, arrived on stage with two girl backing singers. Many in the crowd would have been asleep or packing their bags but I wasn’t and I loved him, especially when he played an extended ‘Walk On Gilded Splinters’ which I hadn’t heard before. It takes guts to get up on an outdoor stage in front of 100,000 miserable, wet, departing festival goers at that time of the morning, and though I saw him twice in later years, in the USA, nothing beat that early introduction to this great piano man. (BTW, after his set I jumped into my car, drove straight to MM’s offices in Fleet Street and did a day’s work on no sleep.)

    June 7, 2019
  6. George Foster #

    There are two Dr John items in my desert island list:

    His debut album “Gris Gris” which I first heard in 1968. It was one of the first musically successful Jazz-Rock albums with its psychedelic swirling horns (esp the bass clarinet), two basses and multi-percussion rhythms. Surely this was an influence on “Bitches’ Brew” esp “Miles runs the Voodoo Down” recorded 2 years later?

    The other high spot is his solo version of “Blue Monk” in New Orleans style from the Hal Wilner compilation ” That’s The Way I Feel Now – A Tribute To Thelonious Monk” If one of the functions of art is in Victor Schlovsky’s words “to make the familiar strange so that it can be freshly perceived” then this is a masterpiece.

    June 7, 2019
  7. Bernard Lo #

    Sad news.
    I was introduced to Dr John by my older siblings, when I was about 8 years old in the late 60s. I absolutely loved his classic album “Gumbo”, even though I knew nothing of its NO background. When I went to boarding school in England, I was nonplussed to discover that nobody had heard of him! Their loss.
    I still play Gumbo a lot.

    June 7, 2019
  8. Vitor Fragoso #

    You actually met the great man, Richard!
    Gris, gris, may the Lord drive his soul to eternity.

    June 7, 2019
  9. GuitarSlinger #

    To be honest Dr John was one of those musicians for whom I had the greatest respect for …. but cannot say I ever liked or enjoyed . I could see why others would but the reality is his music and performances never quite resonated with me . Se la vie .

    Having said that … I’ll 2nd a previous comment .. great tribute Richard

    June 11, 2019
  10. Dennis Muirhead #

    I first appreciated Dr John on Charlie Gillett’s radio show Honky Tonk when he played “Right Place, Wrong Time” and “Such A Night”. I was an immediate fan and saw Dr John several times in concert. I didn’t meet him until 1976 when my client producer and engineer Eddy Offord (Yes, ELP, John Lennon’s Imagine, Lindisfarne, Ginger Baker) was recording Levon Helm’s first solo album “Levon Helm and The RCO All-Stars” on ABC Records at Levon’s RCO Studios in Woodstock, New York. The studio was in a lovely yet incomplete wooden house in the country on Plochmann Lane with the All-Stars coming and going.

    I was there when Mac Rebennack arrived late and wandered into the studio on a walking stick with “things” hanging from it. He was dressed in his familiar flamboyant New Orleans Voodoo gris-gris style. His unique gravelly voice came with him.

    I understood he was there to add percussion but he contributed keyboards, guitar and vocals as well. He wrote one song “The Tie That Binds” with Bobby Charles Guidry and arranged another with Helm for the album.

    The album isn’t what I’d hoped for. I checked it out in Barney Hoskyns recent book “Small Town Talk”. There’s a photo of the album cover showing the studio and the All-Stars. Very little is said about the music. As an experienced London drugs defence lawyer I knew what was wrong with the sessions both there and in LA. But on the trip I was introduced to the music of Jessie Winchester by Ian Kimmet. I knew Bobby Charles’ ‘50’s rock’n’roll songs and the later timeless “Small Town Talk” and “Street People”.

    Thanks Mac as the All-Stars called him. We will miss you.

    June 17, 2019

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