Sunday, March 27, 2011
He never intended to be Dr. John. He didn't even want to lead the band.
Malcolm John Rebennack Jr. aspired to be a professional songwriter, producer, session musician and sideman, like the utilitarian New Orleanians who forged his creative worldview in the 1950s.
Forty-three years after he reluctantly stepped into the spotlight as Dr. John the Night Tripper, his peers have welcomed him into rock's most exclusive fraternity.
Tonight at the Waldorf-Astoria in Manhattan, Rebennack will be inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame alongside Neil Diamond, Alice Cooper, Tom Waits, Leon Russell and '60s singer Darlene Love.
This year alone, the Recording Academy handed out 109 Grammy Awards. By contrast, only 605 people have been voted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame since its 1986 inception. They include Rebennack's fellow New Orleanians Fats Domino, Dave Bartholomew, Allen Toussaint, Lloyd Price, Jelly Roll Morton, Professor Longhair, Louis Armstrong and Mahalia Jackson.
Sainthood is not required for rock immortality. The young Rebennack was gangsta to a degree that would likely shock Lil Wayne.
But over the course of a remarkable life and career, he has evolved.
From addiction to 21 years and counting of sobriety.
From sordid escapades as a dealer and pimp to Disney soundtracks and the model for sleepy-eyed, jive-talking Muppet musician Dr. Teeth.
From hometown outcast to one of its most outspoken advocates.
Along the way he developed his own peculiar "fonkified" variation on the English language, ignored divisions between races and musical genres, and compiled what is arguably the richest catalog of New Orleans music of the past 40 years.
Despite considerable wear and tear, at 70 he is still going strong, still writing his tale of redemption.
"Redemption. I like that word," Rebennack said one recent afternoon in a friend's apartment off Coliseum Square. "I made so many bad maneuvers in my life, it's like an epic saga of what you don't do.
"We all make blunders, we all make faux pas. But it don't mean we can't redeem our merits."
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Born in 1940, he grew up in the 3rd Ward. As a baby, his face adorned boxes of laundry detergent. As a young boy, he served as a page in a children's Mardi Gras court -- possibly his first encounter with a plumed hat.
His father owned an appliance store and repaired PA systems on the side. A guitar from Werlein's on Canal Street, a host of music-minded relatives and visits to nightclubs with his father nurtured his musical ambitions.
He formed his first bands at Jesuit High School. He quit Jesuit to hit the road and hang out at Cosimo Matassa's recording studio. He learned how to produce records from Red Tyler, how to write songs from Earl King, Huey "Piano" Smith and Joe Tex, how to play organ from James Booker.
He rambled around the underbelly of New Orleans, rubbing elbows with pimps, prostitutes, thieves, thugs and addicts. A trio of strip clubs on lower St. Charles Avenue were "ridiculous gigs, but I learned how to play Duke Ellington songs there." (Years later, he tapped into those lessons on his "Duke Elegant" record.)
To supplement his paltry musician's income and feed a heroin habit, he operated a low-rent brothel on Airline Highway. As chronicled in his brutally frank 1994 autobiography "Under a Hoodoo Moon," his hands got very dirty.
In Jacksonville, Fla., in 1961, he engaged in a brawl triggered by vocalist Ronnie Barron's interest in a motel manager's wife. The ring finger on Rebennack's left hand was nearly shot off. Enraged, he attempted to tear out the shooter's eyeballs.
In rowdy West Bank barrooms, there were "shootouts on a regulation basis." Rebennack ducked between the onstage slot machines and hoped nobody shot low. Drugs provided a "fiction-ary, phantasia-erized wall between me and reality."
District Attorney Jim Garrison's crackdown on vice resulted in fewer gigs and more arrests for Rebennack. He was eventually shipped to a federal prison in Fort Worth, Texas, with a program for addicts.
Upon his release in 1965, he lit out for Los Angeles. He fell in with a gaggle of expatriate New Orleans musicians, including producer and jazz saxophonist Harold Battiste.
Battiste was the musical director for Sonny & Cher. Rebennack played piano and guitar on recording sessions, wrote songs, hustled.
He intended to assign his old friend Barron, the vocalist, the moniker "Dr. John the Night Tripper," after a legendary voodoo figure from New Orleans, and build an act around it. Rebennack had no interest in being the cat out front.
"I never liked front men," he said. "I never felt any different after I became one. The idea of what front men become is kinda obnoxious."
He also believed his gravelly drawl of a voice wasn't up to the task. "I always looked at singers as Johnny Adams, Aaron Neville, Chuck Carbo, Chick Carbo," he said, "guys that really sang."
Barron, however, declined. Richard "Didymus" Washington, the percussionist in Rebennack's band, urged him to become Dr. John instead.
"I said, 'Whaddya mean me? I can't sing,' " Rebennack recalled. "And he said, 'Look, if Bob Dylan and Sonny and Cheryl can sing, you can sing.'" (Cher's real name is Cherilyn.)
He agreed to record a New Orleans Voodoo-themed album. "I thought it would be a one-off deal and then I'd go back to producing records. It didn't happen."
He and Battiste concocted a collection of hoodoo funk dubbed "Gris-Gris." To everyone's surprise, the 1968 album, featuring a Rebennack composition called "I Walk on Gilded Splinters," found an audience among psychedelic rock fans.
The record company asked for a follow-up. He figured the politics and "truths" he spoke on "Babylon" would scuttle his career. Instead, the label sent him on tour to Europe, "and on and on. It just never ended."
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Eventually, the voodoo trappings gave way to a Mardi Gras-themed act. Rebennack embraced the New Orleans rhythm and blues of his youth on 1972's "Dr. John's Gumbo."
He recorded "In the Right Place," containing the hits "Right Place, Wrong Time" and "Such a Night," in New Orleans with Allen Toussaint as his producer and the Meters as his backing band.
The Meters also backed him on 1974's "Desitively Bonnaroo." (Twenty-seven years later, the title would inspire the name of the Bonnaroo Music Festival in Tennessee. This June, Rebennack is slated to reunite with the original Meters at Bonnaroo to perform "Desitively Bonnaroo" in its entirety.)
He took part in the Band's Last Waltz concert, wrote songs with the great Doc Pomus, jammed with fellow addict Eric Clapton.
He finally got clean in 1989. The ensuing 21 years have been the most productive of his career. His 1992 tour de force "Goin' Back to New Orleans" encapsulates the entire history of New Orleans music. He reimagined the Johnny Mercer catalog on "Mercernary," crooned ballads on "In a Sentimental Mood," got funky with Randy Newman and Willie Nelson on "N'Awlinz Dis Dat or D'Udda."
He is a triple threat: A pianist steeped in New Orleans tradition but not bound by it; an unconventional but deeply expressive vocalist; and a naturally melodic and clever songwriter.
Million-selling New Age pianist George Winston is a New Orleans piano fanatic; his repertoire includes multiple Dr. John compositions.
"People aren't aware what a great songwriter Mac is," Winston said. As a pianist, "he's way down in the pocket, almost behind the beat. It's real relaxed. He's like Professor Longhair with an ensemble; he always plays the right thing. It's uncanny."
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In recent years, he's continued to write, record and tour at a relentless pace. He sang "Down in New Orleans" on the soundtrack of Disney's New Orleans-set animated film "The Princess and the Frog."
Katrina awakened his sense of social responsibility. He vented his outrage at official ineptitude and negligence from the stage and on the Grammy-winning CD "City That Care Forgot."
After last spring's Gulf of Mexico oil spill, he led protests and railed against BP. He recently performed at a fundraiser for a "healing ceremony" for the Gulf.
The past year was, in his estimation, the "worse, craziest year I can remember." He suffers from bone spurs in his neck -- the result, he thinks, of years spent on methadone -- and arthritis and carpal tunnel syndrome.
"Music is the one thing that keeps me alive and happy. If it don't be for music, I think I would have threw in the towel."
His friend and songwriting partner Bobby Charles died early in 2010. Herman Ernest, the drummer in Rebennack's Lower 911 band and a confidant of more than 30 years, died March 6 after a brutal fight with cancer.
Several years ago, Rebennack bought "Roots" author Alex Haley's former home in rural Long Island, N.Y. He eventually sold that house and purchased another Long Island abode, which turned out to be rife with leaks. He's been unable for find a buyer for it.
He still keeps an apartment in New York City, but is once again spending most of his downtime in New Orleans.
"What goes around slides around, and what slides around slips around. As long as it's slippin' and slidin' around, we ain't got to trip through the shortcuts of life. We can take the long way around. It's the shortcuts that kill you."
All in all, he's "blessed that I can breathe and play some music."
He's looking forward to tonight's Rock and Roll Hall of Fame induction. Years ago, he toured with Alice Cooper; they each traveled with their own snakes.
He's less fond of Leon Russell. He won't discuss it on the record, but apparently some bad blood lingers from a Russell song Rebennack believed sounded a bit too much like one of his own.
How that will play out during the induction's traditional closing jam remains to be seen. A younger Mac Rebennack may well have settled the score with violence.
Instead, he'll likely accentuate the positive and concern himself with paying tribute to Ernest. And he'll accept the congratulations of his peers for a body of work inextricably bound to the city that raised him, nearly ruined him and then finally took him back.
"The best thing you can be 'like' in music," Rebennack said, "is yourself."
And there is no one else like him.
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Keith Spera can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 504.826.3470. Read more music news at nola.com/music. Follow him at twitter.com/KeithSperaTP.