Dr. John's sound is a musical gumbo composed of blues, rock, R&B, zydeco, jazz and standards, anchored by his own unmistakable voice and grooving piano work. He brought this unique blend to an episode of Piano Jazz that originally aired in spring 1989.
Dr. John was born Malcolm John "Mac" Rebennack Jr., in 1940 in New Orleans. "Mac" went to work in the music business at 15 as a backup guitarist for Fats Domino's band, but a gunshot wound to his left ring finger in a 1960 brawl ended his guitar-playing career. He began to seriously play organ and piano with help from James Booker, and moved to Los Angeles, where he became a first-call studio musician.
In the late '60s, he brought his R&B and New Orleans roots to psychedelic rock with a stage show that borrowed from the imagery and chants of Louisiana voodoo practice — Dr. John, a.k.a. Dr. John the Night Tripper, was born. Dr. John's best-known tune is his seminal funk hit from 1973, "Right Place, Wrong Time," produced by fellow NOLA legend Allen Toussaint with backing by The Meters. Over the past few decades, his unmistakable voice and persona have made Dr. John the go-to artist for producers seeking a bit of traditional New Orleans flavor. His music has made appearances in a long list of films, television shows and commercial spots; in 2009, he lent his vocals to "Down in New Orleans," the opening tune in Disney's The Princess and the Frog.
After Hurricane Katrina, Dr. John used his position as a musical spokesman for the Crescent City to raise awareness of the response to the disaster by composing an album with Eric Clapton and Willie Nelson, among others, called The City That Care Forgot. In this 1989 session, Dr. John performs his hit "Right Place, Wrong Time," along with some traditional New Orleans jazz, Mardi Gras tunes and a few touches of boogie-woogie.
Host Marian McPartland remembers Dr. John on the program, saying, "It was such a kick to watch him play. He had the most amazing rhythmic sense and that great voice."
New Orleans Flavor
Dr. John kicks off the set with a vocal and solo piano in "Right Place, Wrong Time," as he expertly comps his vocals with that grooving rhythm and a swift right-hand melody. "Pinetop Boogie" follows.
"I learned that song from James Booker in 1956, when I was about 16," Dr. John says. "I still was playing guitar at the time. It's always been a song that I enjoy, and I like to put a lyric in by Chris Kenner called 'Sick and Tired.' " Dr. John's take on this swinging boogie, with his incredible syncopation, is anything but sick or tired.
Dr. John and McPartland take the session back to the source with a couple of New Orleans tunes: They get together for an instrumental duet in "Do You Know What It Means (To Miss New Orleans)," and McPartland performs her solo take on "Struttin' With Some Barbecue," a tune favored by her late husband Jimmy McPartland, a contemporary and fellow cornetist of Louis Armstrong.
"Did you ever know Louis Armstrong?" McPartland asks.
"We met at one of the first New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festivals," Dr. John says. "It was a real thrill to meet him. He was a real sweetheart."
Becoming Dr. John
Mac Rebennack Jr. never had any aspirations to play the part of Dr. John. Originally, he was set to produce the project for another musician, who backed out on the advice of his management.
"I had it all planned and set to go, so I just did it myself out of spite," Dr. John says. "I never thought I would be doing another record. I never wanted to be a frontman. All of a sudden, I got into it, and it wasn't as bad as I thought."
Dr. John performs his take on an old Louis Jordan tune, also recorded by Ray Charles, "Don't Let the Sun Catch You Cryin'," and follows it with the Professor Longhair tune "Big Chief." The latter is a parade favorite among the Mardi Gras Indian tribes of New Orleans. The two pianists end the session with a rousing boogie-woogie take on "Swanee River."
"That was so much. I don't think I've played that tune for years," McPartland says. "That really makes a nice closer to the show."
Originally recorded Jan. 19, 1989. Originally broadcast May 6, 1989.