Only Louis Armstrong and Fats Domino can lay claim to have brought New Orleans music into the mainstream as much as Dr. John, who died June 6 of a heart attack at the age of 77.
I saw the good doctor many times over the years. My favorite show was one he played with Eric Clapton in 1996 for the VH1 show “Duets.”
I was going back and forth between Colorado and New York getting ready to film “Scrapple.” I was on the Upper West Side around 57th Street when I turned onto Broadway and on a marquee that read “Eric Clapton and Dr. John VH1 Duets.”
That was a combo for the ages; the musical equivalent of when peanut butter and chocolate joined forces to make the Reese’s Peanut Butter Cup. I walked up to the theater and inquired if there was any way to get tickets to the show.
“Tickets?” the man laughed. “There are no tickets to this show. You can’t even buy a ticket. It’s all industry people. They gave away a small amount of tickets on radio stations in the tri-state area.”
It was about noon and I told my brother Chris that I was going to spend the day trying to figure out how to get into the show. I had a knack for that kind of thing.
I surveyed the surroundings of the theater and noticed a small group of people congregating by the side of the venue. I discovered these were the folks who won tickets on the radio. I knew that if it was going to happen for me, this would be my way into the show.
Everyone was telling stories about how they got their tickets. “I was the third caller on WPLJ,” one person said. “They played ‘Layla’ and I called and identified Eric Clapton as the artist and won the tickets,” said another. It was like the scene in “Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory” where the winners of the golden tickets explained their good fortune on television. I wanted a sonic Everlasting Gobstopper.
One gal waiting in line told me that she was listening to a radio station and heard the offer for two tickets and called in and won the pair.
“What was funny is that I never listen to this radio station,” she explained. “I was just cruising through the dial. None of my friends know much about Eric Clapton or Dr. John so I just came into the city from New Jersey alone.”
I could feel Dr. John sprinkling some gris-gris my way.
“Does that mean you have an extra ticket?” I asked. She nodded.
“Is there any way I can go with you?”
“Sure,” she replied. If ever I scored a miracle ticket, that was the day.
When the doors opened to let the crowd into the theater, ushers greeted our group of radio winners. My date and I were escorted down the middle aisle past Row P, Row G, Row D until we were plopped in Row A, seats A and B. Front and center.
Though the show that aired on VH1 ended up being only 23 minutes, the concert itself was two hours; an hour of Dr. John music and an hour from Eric Clapton. If you watch the video, you can see my long hair (with full Al Dean flow) as I dance to the music. It was such a night.
Dr. John was born Malcolm John Rebennack in New Orleans in 1941. He grew up in the Third Ward, the same neighborhood as Louis Armstrong. After a stint in a Texas prison for drug addicts in 1965, Dr. John spent the next several years living in Los Angeles working as a session musician with a group of expatriate New Orleans musicians.
In 1968, encouraged by producer Harold Batiste, Dr. John adopted the stage persona of Dr. John (The Night Tripper) and recorded his first album “Gris-gris.” The Dr. John character was the king of the Voodoo, replete with elaborate costumes and Voodoo charms, swampy songs that synthesized rock ’n’ roll, psychedelia and New Orleans rhythms, coupled with mystical lyrics. “Gris-gris” featured the song “I Walk on Guilded Splinters,” an anthem for the mystical practice called Voudon, which came to the United States from Haiti and Africa through the port of New Orleans. It was practiced in the mystical gatherings that took place in Congo Square and ultimately became known as Voodoo.
“I thought it would be a one-off deal and then I’d go back to producing records,” Dr. John once said. “It didn’t happen.”
In an interview that was shown when he was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2011, Dr. John explained the difference in his two personas. “The way I look at it, as Mac Rebennack, I’m your record producer, songwriter, studio musician. Dr. John is an entertainer and therein is the schizophrenic difference.”
In his live performances, Dr. John wore elaborate headdresses, Mardi Gras Indian outfits, and was sometimes accompanied by a live snake, scattering mystical powders and charms from his gris-gris sack.
My favorite Dr. John album is 1972’s masterpiece “Dr. John’s Gumbo,” which features mostly New Orleans classics such as “Iko Iko,” “Big Chief,” “Junco Partner,” “Tipitina” and more.
But it was his next album, “In the Right Place,” released just a year later in 1973, that featured his two biggest hits, “Such a Night” and “Right Place Wrong Time,” which charted in the Top 10. Allen Toussaint produced the record and Dr. John’s backup band was the famed funk quartet The Meters.
Dr. John continued to release records prolifically, sometimes two a year. His discography includes close to 40 studio albums.
Beginning in the 1990s, the former Voodoo priest took an unlikely turn and recorded several children’s songs that became hits, including the theme song for the PBS animated show “Curious George,” “Down in New Orleans” from the soundtrack of Disney’s animated film “The Princess and the Frog” and a version of “The Bare Necessities” for Disney’s 2016 remake of “The Jungle Book.”
Perhaps this thematic shift was spurred on when Dr. John finally got straight from a 30-year addiction to heroin in 1989.
Dr. John began to receive industry acclaim in 1989 when he won his first Grammy for the duet he recorded with Rickie Lee Jones, “Makin’ Whoopee.” He would win five more Grammys over the course of the next 30 years, including one for 2012’s “Locked Down,” which was produced by Dan Auberbach of The Black Keys and has been hailed as one of his best records.
Dr. John suddenly stopped performing in 2017. His performance at the Telluride Jazz Festival in August of that year was one of the last shows he played. He was very frail and it’s not surprising that he was close to the end of his career as a performer.
Dr. John was known all over the world for his colorful persona, incredible live performances and his enduring songs. But to Dr. John, his heart, soul and mojo were always in New Orleans.
“The roots of New Orleans music is deep in the drums, you can hear it in the funk and rhythms and the Spanish tinge of Jelly Roll Morton,” Dr. John said. “That funkified rumba that Professor Longhair played that echoed from the days of Congo Square. I love New Orleans. I love my roots. I love my culture and my heritage. I’ve tried living other places. That’s where my heart is still.”
While Dr. John was alive, his heart was in New Orleans, but even as he shed his corporeal shell, you can be sure that in the streets of the Third Ward, the alleys of the French Quarter, the stage at Tipitina’s and the fairgrounds at Jazz Fest, the good Doctor’s spirit will live forever.
Will he sprinkle the good juju upon you or the bad juju? It’s up to you.