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.