Since Hurricane Katrina, Dr. John has experienced a renaissance of sorts. He got artists including Eric Clapton, Willie Nelson, Ani DiFranco and Terence Blanchard to contribute to City That Care Forgot (429 Records) and it won the Grammy Award for Best Contemporary Blues in 2008, his fifth Grammy. He also used the record to rail against the federal government's response to Katrina and to raise awareness of issues such as the continuing depletion of the Louisiana wetlands. USA Today said songs like "Land Grab" and "Time For a Change" made the album a "rambunctious and furious post-Katrina polemic that addresses government indifference, the diaspora and [Dr. John's] unwavering love for the Crescent City."
Mac "Dr. John" Rebennack almost literally sneaked into the New Orleans music scene at a young age, hanging around Cosimo Matassa's J&M recording studios at age 15 and listening to music at the Dew Drop Inn. Session work and gigs followed. His first hit came in the early 1950s on an instrumental, "Storm Warning," on which he played guitar. After his ring finger was shot off in an altercation, he switched to playing piano and resumed his recording gigs with ease.
In the early 1960s, Rebennack moved to Los Angeles to work as a session musician with many famous West Coast acts. He applied his own brand of funky New Orleans voodoo to the psychedelic sounds of the era on his debut album and masterpiece, 1968's Gris-Gris. After two more similar psychedelic records, Dr. John shed his Night Tripper persona in favor of one referencing his hometown. His next album Gumbo (1972) — an artistic milestone for both Dr. John and New Orleans — helped catapult "Iko Iko" into ubiquity. Dr. John then conquered straight funk in 1973, hiring Allen Toussaint as his producer and the Meters as his backing band for In the Right Place. The title track became one of his best-known songs.
This week at Jazz Fest, Dr. John will perform his usual solo set (3:10 p.m. Saturday, May 2, Acura Stage) and will join Tab Benoit, Anders Osborne, Cyril Neville, Big Chief Monk Boudreaux, Jumpin' Johnny Sansone and Waylon Thibodeaux as the Voice of the Wetlands All-Stars (2:05 p.m. Sunday, May 3, Gentilly Stage), a group of Louisiana musicians dedicated to raising awareness about the loss of coastal wetlands.
Even before the Fest began, Dr. John stirred up some media attention: A YouTube video posted earlier this month features him promoting a plane set to fly a banner over the Jazz Fest to berate Shell Oil, a major sponsor of the festival, over environmental issues. Though he issued a "clarification" of his harsh words two days later, the clip is still posted, and Dr. John is not backing down from advocating for the wetlands. As he told the audience at the Big Easy Awards, "If you don't stand for something in Louisiana, you're not gonna have anything to stand on." Dr. John isn't about to let New Orleans be the city thatcare forgot.
The Big Easy Music Awards named Dr. John Entertainer of the Year at its 21st annual ceremony April 19. Dr. John also took home the award for Album of the Year for City That Care Forgot. The record reflects Dr. John's lifelong devotion to New Orleans and its music.
As Jazz Fest approached, Gambit spoke to several notable locals who have known the doctor for decades. Here are some of their memories.
Cosimo Matassa, J&M Studios founder: There were a handful of people I had the pleasure to work with like Dr. John, Allen Toussaint, Dave Bartholomew, who were so at home in the studio, they don't seem to have to think about what they're doing, they just do it. ... I presumed [Rebennack] could do anything. If you invented an instrument, he could probably play it.
I first saw him in the studio when he was 15 years old. He'd hang around and get little gigs. When he was 18, the RCA guy came to town doing auditions. [Rebennack] got a reputation for being able to play anything.
Bunny Matthews, cartoonist, "Vic and Nat'ly": When he was a kid — he was barely a teenager — his parents would let him go hang out with middle-age black guys who played music but also were heroin addicts. His dad had a radio repair shop and worked with electronics, so he knew a lot of black people, but in New Orleans in the '50s, who would do that?
Bob French, musician and DJ on WWOZ-FM: I knew Mac as a musician before he was Dr. John. I didn't call him Dr. John, I call him Mac. To a lot of guys, that's who he is.
He used to hang out at the Dew Drop (when he was underage). It was a black club. Nobody bothered him, but the cops would show up and he'd get put in jail. He'd get out the next day, and he'd be back the next week.
Mac is one of a kind. There ain't no shame to his game.
Wardell Quezergue, composer: You had to learn his manner of speech. It was sometimes hard to decipher what he meant. He used his own word for children: "Sprouts." He'd say, "I haven't heard from my sprouts." I finally had to ask him what that meant.
Matthews: About 1976, Professor Longhair, even more so than being a pianist, prided himself for being the commander of Civil Defense Post 714. (What's funny is that is what was stamped on Quaaludes.) One night my friend Hank Drevich, who later founded Tipitina's, called me and said, "Let's go to this dance they're putting on at (Civil Defense Post) 714." He told me these two girls who were editors for Italian
Vogue were going to be there. That perked my ears up.
Dr. John showed up, because he was a lifelong friend of Professor Longhair. In between the sets, we were going outside to refresh ourselves with marijuana cigarettes. We were passing a joint around and at one point Dr. John said, "You betta watch out for the intoinal surveillance eunucks." I said, 'What are they, castrated undercover cops or what?' That's what I love about him. Even when I'm alone with him, he comes up with these great malapropisms. He's hilarious. And so many musicians I've hung around with, like Randy Newman, would sit around and talk about sessions with Dr. John and the way he talked.
Deacon John Moore, musician: Dr. John, in my opinion, is the consummate New Orleans personality. Look at the name. The original Dr. John was famous and powerful during the time of Marie Laveau. He became that persona — with the gris-gris, gumbo, Dr. John, the hoodoo. Everything about New Orleans he brought out in his songs. He's our cultural ambassador.
He used New Orleans musicians almost exclusively to get that New Orleans sound. He still does that. He's New Orleans just like Professor Longhair and Allen Toussaint. And he's helped musicians here by giving them good jobs. He's made it possible for a lot of musicians to have a better lifestyle. If we had a few more of him, the world would be a better place.
Quint Davis, Jazz Fest founder and director: Mac Rebennack — Dr. John — has been one of the great ambassadors of New Orleans music and American music for maybe the past 30, 40 or 50 years. He came out of a voodoo, funk, rock, New Orleans background which is totally unique.
Moore: I saw him at (the Big Easy) Awards and Dr. John was getting a little political. But when people like that say something, people take notice. He has all these causes: save Charity Hospital, save the wetlands. I applaud him for having the courage to stand up and say what's right.