MAC REBENNACK (aka DR. JOHN)
Born Malcolm John Rebennack, Jr., 21 November 1940, New Orleans, Louisiana
Guitarist / pianist / singer / songwriter / producer / arranger
Mac Rebennack is the embodiment of the rich musical heritage of New Orleans, incorporating rock n roll, jazz, funk, R&B and boogie woogie into his sound. Mac grew up in a world full of music. Several uncles and aunts knew their way around the piano and his father owned a small record shop. His first instrument was the guitar, with T-Bone Walker as his principal inspiration. Mac's guitar teachers were Walter 'Papoose' Nelson (who insisted that he learned to read music) and Roy Montrell, both of whom went on to play guitar in Fats Domino's band and died under similar circumstances (a drug overdose, in 1962 and 1979 respectively).
In 1954, about a year before dropping out of Jesuit High School, Mac began to get seriously involved as a player in the New Orleans music business. He joined a band called the Spades (later the Night Trains) and, through Papoose and Roy Montrell, he managed to break in as an occasional sideman at Cosimo Matassa's studio. Mac also started to write songs, first with Leonard James of the Spades, later with Seth David. The fantastic Jerry Byrne rockers "Lights Out" and "Carry On" (Specialty, 1958) are both Rebennack-David compositions. Byrne sang and toured with Mac's band until he got arrested on a trumped-up rape charge. Mac also claims to have written "Lady Luck" (under the title "Try Not To Think About You"), which was 'stolen' by Lloyd Price and became a # 14 hit in 1960 in Price's version.
But let's go back to 1957. In that year Mac started to work as a session man and producer for Johnny Vincent, the owner of Ace Records, who took advantage of Mac's ignorance and paid him no more than $150 a week for all his hard work. Among the artists Mac worked with were Huey 'Piano' Smith, Joe Tex, Jimmy Clanton and Frankie Ford. By the late 1950s Mac had become the first white musician to be accepted as a peer by New Orleans' top studio aces, like Lee Allen, Red Tyler, Frank Fields and Charles 'Hungry' Williams. His first record under his own name was "Storm Warning"/"Foolish Little Girl" for Cosimo's Ace-affiliated Rex label in 1959, two good instrumentals. "Storm Warning" is the rousing side, with a Bo Diddley beat ; "Foolish Little Girl" is tamer, but very melodic. Ace issued one other instrumental single under Rebennack's name in 1961, "Sahara"/"Good Times" (Ace 611), with Mac switching to piano and Lee Allen wailing on tenor sax. The piano became Mac's main instrument after an incident on Christmas Eve 1961 where Rebennack's left ring finger was almost shot off. Playing guitar was out of the question with a lame finger. For about a year he played bass and drums, then James Booker taught him how to play the organ. He had already mastered the piano as a youngster and decided to concentrate on keyboards.
Joe Ruffino, boss of the Ric and Ron imprints, hired Mac away from Ace by offering an A&R post in 1962. By then, Rebennack was heavily addicted to (hard) drugs. After spending some time in jail on a narcotics charge, he moved to California in 1965. "The scene in New Orleans was dead and a few of my old partners were already out on the coast, doing all right", he writes in his autobiography (p. 124). One of those old partners was Harold Battiste (then musical director for Sonny and Cher), who hooked him up with Phil Spector, Sonny Bono, H.B. Barnum and Jessie Hill. In those days, Los Angeles was THE place to be for a session player.
In 1967 Mac took on a new stage name, Dr. John Creaux, the Night Tripper (based on a voodoo persona from the 19th century), complete with wild Mardi Gras costumes and headdresses. With that new identity, he was signed to Atco in 1968 and recorded his first Dr. John LP, "Gris-Gris", which received critical acclaim but did not chart. Several albums followed in the same style, a fusion of his New Orleans roots with the emerging West Coast psychedelic sound, but too exotic for my taste. In 1971, Dr. John charted for the first time with the LP "The Sun, Moon And Herbs" (# 184). The next year he recorded an enjoyable New Orleans "roots" album, "Dr. John's Gumbo", produced by Jerry Wexler and Harold Battiste. It went to # 112 on the album charts and the single from it, "Iko Iko", was his first pop hit (# 71). His biggest US hit came in 1973 with the single "Right Place, Wrong Time", which reached # 9 on the Billboard pop charts. The accompanying LP, "In the Right Place" (produced by Allen Toussaint and with the Meters as his backing band), was also his best-selling, peaking at # 24. It spawned a second hit in the shape of "Such A Night" (not the Drifters/Presley number), a pleasant relaxed song that went to # 42. Subsequent work failed to achieve a similar status.
Dr. John continued to record throughout the 1970s and 1980s for numerous labels, among them United Artists, Horizon and Clean Cuts, the latter releasing Dr. John Plays Mac Rebennack, an excellent solo piano album (1981). In the meantime, he continued to draw sizeable audiences as a concert act across the USA and added radio jingle work to his live and recorded work (he continued to play on many sessions).
Despite employing a low-key approach to recording, Dr. John has remained a respected figure. His live appearances are now less frequent, but this irrepressible artist continues his role as a tireless champion of Crescent City music. He played on the "Crescent City Gold" album (1994) with Allen Toussaint, Lee Allen, Alvin Tyler, Edward Frank and Earl Palmer. Another good roots album from the 1990s is the Grammy-award winning "Goin' Back To New Orleans" (1992), with the semi-classical opening track "Litanie des Saints", a particular favourite of mine, especially in Wil Sargisson's piano version from 1998. After the Hurricane Katrina disaster in 2005, Rebennack immediately stepped up with both generous relief fund-raising concerts and recordings and angry public words of protest.
His most recent album is "Tribal" (2010) where Mac revived the Night Tripper persona, with guest spots for Allen Toussaint and the late Bobby Charles. In March 2011 he was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall Of Fame.
More info : http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dr._John
Autobiography : Mac Rebennack with Jack Rummel, Under A Hoodoo Moon : The Life Of Dr. John the Night Tripper. New York : St. Martin's Press, 1994. 264 pages. Recommended.
Acknowledgements : Bill Dahl, Richie Unterberger (All Music Guide) and the autobiography.
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