(Soundbite of song "Moon River")
Unidentified Singer: (Singing) Moon River, wider than a mile, I'm crossing you in style, some day...
DEBBIE ELLIOTT, host:
What happens when you take a pop standard and mix it up with some funk?
(Soundbite of Dr. John singing "Moon River")
DR. JOHN: (Singing) (Singing) Moon River, wider than a mile, I'm crossing you in style, someday...
ELLIOTT: Yes, that's the legendary Dr. John doing his hoodoo voodoo on the music of Johnny Mercer.
(Soundbite of Dr. John singing "Moon River")
DR. JOHN: (Singing) You heartbreaker. Where ever you're going I'm going your way.
ELLIOTT: The good doctor deconstructs Mercer's songs on his new album Mercernary. He joins me from our New York studio. Welcome to the program, Dr. John.
DR. JOHN: Well, thank you for having me Debbie.
ELLIOTT: I can't say I've ever wanted to shake my backside to Moon River before.
DR. JOHN: Well, I think all music is good for shaking your tail feather to; it's just whatever the groove is to it, there it is.
ELLIOTT: Your style is so different from Johnny Mercer's. What drew you to his music?
DR. JOHN: Well, I like that he wrote with a lot of different kind of people. People like Harold Arlen, people like that wrote, like Henry Mancini wrote Moon River, they all were great co-writers with him, but then he had some other guys that like people don't know so much about. He wrote - I'm very proud that he wrote with Danny Barker from New Orleans, my homeboy. And I'm very proud of that and we cut their song on the end of our record.
ELLIOTT: You were mentioning Harold Arlen who wrote a lot of these songs on this with Mercer.
DR. JOHN: Oh yeah. Right. But they wrote great stuff together. Even the ones that Johnny wrote by himself I like. Johnny wrote A Dream by himself, I'm An Old Cowhand From the Rio Grande, which I really wanted my old cowhand from an old funk band or something but they wouldn't let us do that. But you know, there's a lot of his tunes that he just wrote that I like.
ELLIOTT: You know that Old Cowhand song, you took it, it's like a western song and you took it and gave it an almost tropical feel. When you took one of his songs, what was your approach? What did you sit down at the piano and start to do?
DR. JOHN: Well, actually like with that song I had heard of how Sonny Rollins did it and it reminded me of something of from the Old West with some little wood blocks doing clippity cloppity horse sounds. And I about liked the way Sonny played it so I was thinking what could I do with it that would be kind of from another place and I put a little bit of some kind of Brazilian samba kind of maneuver on it. And I just have fun doing stuff like that.
(Soundbite of music)
ELLIOTT: Now I pulled up a list of all of Johnny Mercer's songs and it's just one hit after another, you know, the kind of songs that you start to hum in your head when you read the name of it.
DR. JOHN: Sure.
ELLIOTT: How did you pick which ones were going to go on your album?
DR. JOHN: Well, there was - I can tell you the ones I couldn't pick was the ones that I couldn't sing. The one that had too much range and stuff that just was - I couldn't pull them off but it wasn't even just the range, it was me selling the songs and making it seem like I felt them, you know? Some songs you can pull them off and some of them I couldn't pull it off. And maybe I was just too shy to pull it off at that point, but who knows. You know what I think, that we made a record and it's a kind of a tip of the hat to Johnny out of complete left field. And that's what I like to do. You know, I feel like Johnny Mercer - after reading his book, he was a left field kind of guy. And I - I feel like we came out of as being song hustlers and that's why I call this record Mercernary. And that the whole thing of what you got to do in this business to make a hustle ain't easy. And I see from reading his book he was never accepted amongst the Broadway guys, so he skirted around the back door and went in through Hollywood, which he lucked out doing that.
ELLIOTT: And won a lot of Grammies for his music written for movies.
DR. JOHN: That's right, and he did killer, but the fact is he always, his little thing - and I read that more than once in the book - was that he always wanted to get something going with Broadway. It never did happen. He wasn't a Tin Pan Alley kind of guy.
ELLIOTT: Now, you were talking about his book. You're talking about his biography that you were reading as you were making this record.
DR. JOHN: Right.
ELLIOTT: Did you learn anything about writing songs from him?
DR. JOHN: Actually, no, but you know what I did learn? I just learned that I felt more connect with him than I knew. I knew the guy was from somewhere in the south. Little things he said like pardon my southern accent or just my southern drawl or just the way he thought of those lines or the one in Moon River where he says my huckleberry friend. Nobody but somebody from like - you know in the south would say something like that. It's not like somebody would from Tin Pan Alley trying to say something like the south would have ever in their dumbest lines of life would have come up with. He was the real McGillicutty And what he said in like Blues in Night, it's a lot of them lines in there and a lot of stuff. One of my favorite co-writers was with Hoagy Carmichael because when they wrote like Lazy Bones, there's something about a down-home lyrics, and I can guarantee without knowing this, Hoagie and Johnny Mercer there was some offshoot of writing melody and words between the two of them, even though it says one wrote one. I know from doing it with Doc Palmers for years, there's times when it overlaps to get the song written. But there's Hoagy-isms in the lyrics and there's Johnny Mercer-isms in the music and it's good.
ELLIOTT: I think Lazy Bones is my favorite.
DR. JOHN: Oh, well, I'm glad you have a favorite because I don't know how to have favorites.
ELLIOTT: Let's listen to Lazy Bones.
DR. JOHN: All right.
(Soundbite of song "Lazy Bones")
DR. JOHN: (Singing) Long as you got a little gravy on your rice you figure everything gonna wind up real nice. As long as you got a little watermelon hanging on the vine you figure everything gonna turning out real fine. Lazy bones, sleepin' in the sun. How you expect to get your day's work done?
ELLIOTT: Now, I noticed you didn't hesitate to add some of your own lyrics here and there.
DR. JOHN: Hey, that's what I think - I do that with anything. I've been shucking my way through people's stuff for years. And pray that when I do throw something in the game that I - it was 'cause I meant it. And I don't they would've objected.
ELLIOTT: Tell me about your song on here, I Ain't No Johnny Mercer. It's the song that you wrote as a tribute.
DR. JOHN: I'm just makin' a joke. It's me doing his stuff and me singing or writing a song about him and there was some lines he had as one his songs, something about you're so sexy and you give you give me apoplexy. I would have never in my right mind thought a word to use in a song like apoplexy.
(Soundbite of song)
DR. JOHN: (Singing) You're the fairest of all women. I'll be your huckleberry. Will you be my apoplexy? First things firster, for better or worser. Baby, I ain't no Johnny Mercer.
ELLIOTT: Well, Dr. John thank you for speaking with us today.
DR. JOHN: Hey, thank you very much and I appreciate it verily much, Debbie.
ELLIOTT: Dr. John speaking with us from NPR's New York bureau. His new album is called Mercernary. You can hear his renditions of That Old Black Magic and Come Rain or Come Shine at npr.org.
(Soundbite of song)
DR. JOHN: (Singing) Now I ain't Johnny on the spot with tricks. Baby I ain't no mercernary. First things firster for better or worser. I ain't no Johnny Mercer. Baby I ain't no Johnny Mercer. No.
ELLIOTT: That's ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. From NPR News, I'm Debbie Elliott.