Dr. John: A New Orleans Legend In The Hall Of Fame Five-time Grammy winner Mac Rebennack, better known as Dr. John, is a member of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame's 2011 class. In 1986, Rebennack joined Terry Gross for a conversation about his early days performing in the New Orleans club scene.
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Dr. John: A New Orleans Legend In The Hall Of Fame

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Dr. John: A New Orleans Legend In The Hall Of Fame

Dr. John: A New Orleans Legend In The Hall Of Fame

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This is FRESH AIR. I'm David Bianculli of tvworthwatching.com, sitting in for Terry Gross.

Dr. JOHN (Musician): We're going to do this with the most love and respect that we can for the tradition. Let's do this sucker.

(Soundbite of music)

BIANCULLI: That's Dr. John, the New Orleans singer, musician, composer and producer, one of the artists to be inducted Monday into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. On today's show, we'll feature interviews with three of them: singer Darlene Love, singer-composer Neil Diamond and our first guest, Mac Rebennack, otherwise known as Dr. John.

Mac Rebennack grew up in New Orleans but moved to Los Angeles in the mid-'60s to create his Dr. John persona. His mentor was Professor Longhair, and as Dr. John the Night Tripper, he led a wild stage production that combined voodoo, psychedelia and old medicine shows. Dr. John now appears as an occasional guest star on the HBO series "Treme," playing himself and contributing songs to the soundtrack, like this one.

(Soundbite of music)

Dr. JOHN: (Singing) Me got a fire can't put it out. That fire (unintelligible) make you shout. I'm going down to get my (unintelligible). We gonna buy a great big (unintelligible). Me gonna do everything me could. (Unintelligible) we gonna take'em for a ride. (Unintelligible). We gonna dance till morning come. (Unintelligible) near Treme.

BIANCULLI: When Dr. John began performing as a teenager, he played the clubs with older musicians who promised his parents they'd look out for him. Terry spoke with him in 1986, and he told her what that club scene was like.

Dr. JOHN: Most of the clubs were fronts for something else. It was like the -you know, there were the B drinkers and all, working prostitution out the backs of the clubs. They all had these motels connected to them. There was gambling going on. You can always hear it in the rooms around the clubs. And it was all pretty, like - what was great about it was that the owners of the clubs hired bands that played the music they that liked. And there was a lot of freedom. So bands in those days did not have to play for the public. They played for club owners that enjoyed music.

And what happened, there was a lot of clubs that had bebop music or different forms of music. It was great for musicians. We weren't under pressure to pack people in the club because these guys didn't even care if there was any people necessarily in the club because that's not where their money was necessarily coming.


Were there a lot of knife fights or gun fights at some of the rougher clubs that you played?

Dr. JOHN: Oh, yeah, some of the joints were real, you know, typical bucket-of-blood joints. And there was - some of the places that if my family knew I was working, then some of them would have just pulled me out of the whole scene.

I mean, there was nights that guys would push me behind, like, these one-arm bandits, you know, the little slot machines and would use them like shields and shove me behind them when they'd see the guns come out and stuff. And like, man, it was a night, you know, that somebody got shot, stabbed or whatever.

GROSS: If the guns or the knives were coming out, were you supposed to keep playing?

Dr. JOHN: Yes, we always were instructed to play loud and fast when trouble happened. That was kind of the rule of thumb. When trouble started, you played loud and fast.

GROSS: What was that supposed to accomplish?

Dr. JOHN: Drown out the trouble.


(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: Did it work?

Dr. JOHN: Yeah.

GROSS: The people wouldn't notice that much of what was happening?

Dr. JOHN: Yeah, so the bouncer could clear the people out of the place. And usually, nobody was the wiser, that somebody was murdered or whatever happened. It was usually not even noticed by the bulk of the paying people.

GROSS: I had read somewhere that you were shot in the fingers, I think, during a club date. What happened? What's the story with that?

Dr. JOHN: Well, I was playing a gig in Jacksonville, Florida, and Ronnie Barron, who was singing with our band at the time, he was like really underage. He was like a couple years younger than me. And his mother had told me: Look, you look out for Ronnie.

And I remembered how guys had looked out for me when I was first out there. Well, I went to get Ronnie for a gig. I walked in the room, and this guy's pistol-whipping him over, like, a jealous lover scene.

And I went to try to get the gun out of the guy's hand, and in doing it, I got my finger over the barrel instead of the handle of the gun, and as I hit the guy's hand on a rock to get the gun out of his hand, it went off and blew the tip of my finger off.

And I was fortunate that it was sewed, the tip, back on. But it's, like, affected me from being a guitar player. And it really took a toll. I really feel that a lot of the contribution of me getting into drugs was out of -connected with this incident, that I was very depressed about not being able to follow my career as a guitarist.

And even though I was - went into playing keyboards and other things that worked out later, there was a long space of time when I was very - like I just gave my life to being a guitar player, and all of the sudden, that was, like, gone. And it really messed my whole head up.

GROSS: How did you start doing studio work?

Dr. JOHN: Well, I hung at the studio, myself and James Booker and several other musicians. As kids, we just literally hung at the studio, hoping somebody would get sick or get hurt and that we'd get to sub for them.

And I mean literally, we made, you know, novenas to the saints that somebody would get ill, that we'd get a chance to play. And we'd wait. And occasionally, somebody would be late, and we'd get to play for a little bit. And usually, they'd come, and we'd get shooed out again.

But slowly but surely, we kind of got accepted into the clique, and it was, like, I think more to do with persistence than talent, you know.

GROSS: I want to play a recording from your "Gumbo" album, and it's "Those Lonely, Lonely Nights." Why did you choose to do this song?

Dr. JOHN: Well, I was looking for some Earl King songs. Earl was one of the -he and Huey Smith were two of the guys that encouraged me to keep on writing songs. And they were, like, the up-and-coming guys. Like Huey Smith was the young piano player coming up at that time, and Earl King was, like, called Little Guitar Slim, who was, like, the hero of the guitars at the time.

GROSS: And why don't we hear it? You're featured on piano and vocals.

Dr. JOHN: Right.

GROSS: On this recording of "Those Lonely, Lonely Nights," from Dr. John, Mac Rebennack's album "Gumbo.

(Soundbite of song, "Those Lonely, Lonely Nights")

Dr. JOHN: (Singing) There's been some lonely, lonely nights, oh baby, yeah, since you've been gone. Laid my head on my pillow. Oh, how I cried all night long.

The things you used to say to me, you said that we would never part. Well, you know I love you darling. Tell me, why you leave after dawn.

BIANCULLI: We'll hear more of Dr. John's interview with Terry Gross after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

BIANCULLI: Let's get back to Terry's 1986 interview with singer, composer, musician and producer Dr. John. On Monday, he's being inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.

GROSS: You went from this background of music rooted in jazz and blues and early rock 'n' roll, and then you became one of the leading figures in psychadelic music. And you'd created this persona for yourself, the Dr. John persona. How was that created? Was it your idea to do that?

Dr. JOHN: Well, I had always came up with album concepts. And the Dr. John thing was - the idea was that at the time, there was no real show shows that were out, around. And the concept was to take all of the tricknology that I knew of show business from over the years, like throwing glitter to make the effect of magic, and using a lot of concepts that were easily and cheaply adaptable to show business and to make a show that would be real mystical in orientation for people.

And it was a real, like, easy-to-do show. And all I had had to do was to get a group of dancers. And I got all these people from New Orleans who were real familiar with that kind of music. And we did the album, and the show was geared to snake dancers and all of the regular voodoo shows of New Orleans.

And for instance, when I first presented it, it was a little too authentic for the labels. They weren't quite ready for a guy biting a chicken's head off and stuff. So they - we modified the show down to a lot less authenticness, to more showbiz-style and took it on the road.

GROSS: I want to play something from one of your early Dr. John the Night Tripper records. And this is from the "Gris-Gris" album, and it's "Gris-Gris Gumbo Ya Ya." Do you want to say anything about when you started doing this song and how you'd get into it?

Dr. JOHN: Well, this was the introduction song. Like, on the show, I would step on a button and have a big puff of smoke and say: They call me.

And as the smoke cleared, it would look like I had just popped up. You know, it's an old magic trick. And that was like the introduction song to our show. And this also was, like, introducing myself to the audience as who and what Dr. John is.

(Soundbite of song, "Gris-Gris Gumbo Ya Ya")

Dr. JOHN: (Singing) They call me, Dr. John, known as the Night Tripper. Got my sizzling gris-gris in my hand. Day trippin' up, I'm back down the bayou. I'm the last of the best. They call me the Gris-Gris Man. Got many clients come from miles around running down my prescription. I got my medicine to cure all your ills. I got remedies of every description.

I got gris-gris gumbo ya ya. Hey now. Hey now. Gris-gris gumbo ya ya. Hey now. Hey now.

If you got love trouble, you got a bad woman you can't control. I got just the thing for you, something called control in the hearts of get-together drops. If you work too hard, and you need a little rest, try my (unintelligible) rub or put some of my (unintelligible) jam in your breakfast.

Try a little bit of gris-gris gumbo ya ya. Hey now. Hey now.

GROSS: What was your reaction to the psychedelic music scene? You'd come from a very different background.

Dr. JOHN: I was very turned off by it. Like, even though this became most of the venues that I'd work in later, the whole scene in general, it was like - it was more to me like the vibe of everybody being into the oneness of the planet, now that was great, and the vibe.

But it was like also, coming from Louisiana and being very paranoid and very leery of surface things, I felt like hey, this is something that doesn't sit quite right, and it doesn't feel like - there must be some real scurvy thing happening behind the scenes that I was expecting to flounce out at any moment.

And then I was watching the aftereffects of this. I mean, I'd see these runaway kids that would hook up with our band, and, like, here I was around like the Diggers who were like feeding all these runaway kids in the parks. And it was a real other side to this coin of all the love and the love beads and all this in the marketplace.

But there were kids out there starving and freezing and not covered and didn't know how to take care of thereself(ph), and it was very fortunate that there were guys like the Diggers and the Panthers feeding these kids and taking care of them.

GROSS: You were born Roman Catholic. What got you so interested in voodoo?

Dr. JOHN: Well, it's a real heavy part of the New Orleans scene. When I was coming up, it was like everybody I knew, you automatically, whether it was my grandmother or my grandfather, everybody did certain little gris-gris things.

It was like the herbal remedies we took as a kid were strictly gris-gris things. And I don't think - they look at the spells and the stuff, but that's a side of something, and it's very small part of what gris-gris is about in Louisiana. And it's just part of the culture.

GROSS: You were studying to be a priest in the Church of Voodoo and Witchcraft?

Dr. JOHN: Well, what I actually did was legalize it. I charted it so that the reverend mothers in New Orleans would not be busted for fortune-telling, for doing spells and whatever they did.

Prior to me having got a charter with the state of Louisiana, all these reverend mothers, who were some of the best people I ever knew, were getting busted on a regular basis for just going to hospitals and helping people. And it was ridiculous.

GROSS: Have you been seeing yourself as much of a pianist now as a singer or guitarist or producer or any of the other things that you've done?

Dr. JOHN: Actually, I just have always looked at myself as just a musician that plays in a rhythm section. I feel very awkward being called a piano player, a something because what I do is, like, not necessarily - I'm not a great piano player, so to speak.

I can play the piano, and I love to play the piano. I love to play music, but I just as much love to play the guitar, the bass or the drums or anything else in a rhythm section. And that's really my love.

I feel very awkward making piano solo records because there's no interplay. And I always thought of doing something like that as, like, the end of the rope. From there, I'm stuck with playing the Holiday Inn circuit for the rest of my life. And I'll be in some little club, somebody drunkenly asking me to play "Melancholy Baby" or something. And that was my vision.

Well, it didn't go that way, but that's a real underlying fear with this kind of thing to guys like me, who've seen that happen to friends.

GROSS: Thank you so much for talking with us.

Dr. JOHN: Well, thank you for having me. I enjoyed this.

BIANCULLI: Musician, composer and performer Mac Rebennack, known to his fans as Dr. John, speaking to Terry Gross in 1986. On Monday, he'll be inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.

In the second half of the show, we'll hear from two other new inductees, Darlene Love and Neil Diamond.

I'm David Bianculli, and this is FRESH AIR.

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