I’ve been thinking about who Dr. John was ever since, when I was a kid, I heard his beating, Right place wrong time, on the radio. Intrigued by sound – the idea of a funk-driven keyboard, sudden beats and raspy sound – and wondering if he’s a real Doctor? Hi, I was nine…
Five years later, I got a glimpse of the guy when I went to see The Last Waltz, where he performs a great show for What a night. I noticed how he played the piano and seemed older, more playful, and less of a rock-hard look than most musicians of that legendary stage.
A second-hand record store offered a copy of Grace Grace, the 1968 debut album of Dr. John the Night Trapper (as featured on the cover). Nothing would have prepared my young self for this strange sonic journey. Far from being harsh, Gris-Gris’s voice wasn’t anything like Right Place or Like a Night. Instead, the album evoked the night, changing states, lives on the journey, places and people I’d never been involved with, but felt wild and nervous. The lining’s notes were curious: “Our collection consists of Dr. Bo Pah Doe from Destine Tambourine…I’ll mix my fais deaux-deaux on everyone who buys my jingles.” It was like Dr. Seuss with drugs.
At the time, at the dawn of the ’80s, the music press was covering either superstars or up-and-coming post-punk bands. Few books have provided any information on Dr. John. I eventually learned that he came from New Orleans, created voodoo music and was born Malcolm John Rybenac Jr. (How can such a regular name make music so deceptive?). Also: Everyone called him “Mac” and he’d been composing music since the mid-1950s and didn’t become Doctor John until the late 1960s—playing countless sessions, with musicians among them. bb kingVan Morrison and Carly Simon. Well Well.
As the years went by, I switched to a Macspotter, listened to all of Dr John’s studios and live albums, two excellent collections of his previous Dr. John recordings (Mac Returns and the Good Times in New Orleans), checking out his group’s superlative efforts, tripartite (Mike Bloomfield and John Hammond Jr.) and Bluesiana triangle (Art Blackie and David Newman), tracing his session business and noting guest appearances. My soul benefited from his appearance in Cop Shoot Cop but when they and other British rock royalty made an appearance on his John Leckie-produced 1998 album, Anutha Zone, the results were pretty consistent.
I was able to see Dr. John perform nearly twenty times – first in 1990 and finally in 2012 (appropriately in New Orleans). At the concert it can be an inspiration, a stretch out, or just a routine. As well as his albums. The latest effort launched while he was alive, 2014’s Ske-Dat-De-Dat: The Spirit of Satch (Unexpected Readings of Louis Armstrong Numbers), is – to put it mildly – nonsense. Here, Mac was a hack, taking the money but not the inspiration for the project. After his death in 2019, it was announced that he was working on an album of Hank Williams songs. Looking at his atrocities by Armstrong, I shrugged my shoulders. However, upon learning of these posthumous sessions that were due to be released in the name of things happen this way, well, I had to listen.
I’m glad I did: things that happen this way are often charming with their low-key, inconspicuous style. Suffering from a heart condition, Rybenak retired from performing in 2018 and these latest sessions find him in a reflective mood — a public figure seemingly saying goodbye via the song. Opening with hilarious Willie Nelson How Time Slips Away, two songs by Hank Williams (Rambling Man and I’m So Lonely I Can Cry), Johnny Cash Guess Things This Way and Standard Gospel Gimme That Old Time Religion, all likely had songs he loved growing up (Mac told Charlie Gillette, the late British writer/presenter, “I was a true fan of hillbilly music, and didn’t get into R&B until my father lost his job.”) Three new originals, Holy Water, Give Myself a Good Talk and Sleeping Dogs Best Left Alone, are silly songs that know songs – the classic Mac.
Famous pianist John Cleary born in Sussex, and based in New Orleans, plays the piano and the organ on recordings. He explains that with Mac’s health deteriorating, he played all his roles. “I’ve known Mac since the early ’80s,” he says. “He was a teacher to me. I knew what he would play without being enslaved.”
Cleary sheds little light on the Mac’s later years. “Mack spent his last days in a nursing home and I went to see him regularly. I was taking a portable DVD player for about 45 seconds. By that time he had lost the ability to speak, so we were sitting there holding hands and listening to recordings of Professor Longhair, Huey Smith and Johnny Adams.” He sang or laughed with pleasure.He couldn’t speak but he could sing Lawdy, Miss Clawdy, and Tipitina.’50s New Orleans classics that meant so much to him.
“America’s Pure Products/Go Crazy,” wrote William Carlos Williams, and few products capture this exuberant madness better than Rybenac. How did a middle-class white young man develop into a major player in the frenetic New Orleans R&B scene in the 1950s? Mac was not simply a “potential,” but in his late teens, he was a multi-instrumentalist, bandleader, producer, songwriter, and talent scout. Where Elvis Presley and Jerry Lee Lewis were dynamic R&B translators, both men only worked with white musicians. Do not robinac. He skipped tracks, although this put him at odds with the separate New Orleans musicians’ unions and the police. Learning to play the piano from the age of three, he was also a guitarist in his pre-teens and took lessons from Walter “Papus” Nelson, then guitarist Fats Domino.
A quick learner, Rybenac began playing in bars at the age of 14, then exhibiting and producing New Orleans R&B/Rock ‘n’ Roll records from 1958. He began his solo career with the 1959 Storm Warning, a loud machine that sold well locally. On Christmas Eve 1961, when Rybenak tried to stop a Florida hotel manager angry at his singer’s pistol, the gun went off. cut off his left finger. Mac is no longer the guitarist in Crescent City, he has learned the organ to perfect his piano skills.
Papoose and Roy Montrell—another local guitar guide (and Domino employee)—were addicted to heroin and their teenage student followed in their wake, embracing street crime as passionately as music and opium. This will lead to his imprisonment in 1963 and his relocation to Los Angeles upon his release in 1965. Here Harold Baptiste A Muslim teacher, multi-instrumentalist, producer, arranger, teacher, and unsung hero of Dr. John’s story, Mac invited to join the Noma Society (The Society of New Orleans Musicians), where the exiles in Los Angeles practiced their trade. Battiste got Rebennack working playing pop sessions for Phil SpectorSonny and Cher Frank ZappaIron Butterfly and many more. Always blunt, Mac disparaged the aforementioned and described him as “gimps” who can’t swing. To escape studio bondage, envision a band playing R&B/Rock while painting on voodoo in New Orleans and Mardi Gras.
After his 1966 solo flop on A&M as Zu Zu Blues Band, Rebennack moved on to Dr. John. Historic Dr. John was a self-proclaimed “free man of color” who successfully traded voodoo trinkets, potions, and spells in the 1840s in New Orleans. In the fall of 1967, Batiste, who encouraged Rybenac not to worry about his lack of vocal prowess by telling him “Just talk, you don’t need to sing,” recorded free time in the studio via Sonny Bono at Gold Star Studios. Found all-night sessions on Rebennack (keyboards, percussion and vocals) and Battiste (producer/arranger plus bass, clarinet and percussion), accompanied by Noma’s line-up of musicians and singers (Jessie Hill, Shirley Goodman and Tami Lynn all released records). big R&B), as well as exceptional Los Angeles jazz musicians (including saxophonist Plas Johnson who played Henry Mancini’s gorgeous Pink Panther Theme).
Together they created a unique Afro-Caribbean soundscape – seen by Batiste’s extraordinary skills in using the studio as an instrument, the sounds fluttering in and out, the instruments trembling and screaming, which Rybenac, a kind of shaman, murmurs and cheers on. After he arranged and produced the songs of Sonny and Cher (which saved Atlantic Records from bankruptcy), Batiste contacted the company’s executives, Ahmet Ergun and Jerry Wexler, who reluctantly called Gris-Gris in January 1968. Appealed to nascent FM radio stations, and Dr. John’s live shows, And blending elements lifted from Mardi Gras shows and carnival shows, rock audiences embraced their voodoo myths as they do vulgar Satanism on a par with Black Sabbath.
Today, the white American musician, who names himself after a dead African American while using voodoo as part of his style, will face scorn. In 1968, no one objected. Mask has long permeated New Orleans—from the lacrosse community to Indian Mardi Gras bands—and Rybenac was beloved by many African-American musicians, even hailed as “the blackest white man in America.” Admittedly, Mac took advantage of the white privilege, Baptiste said Charlie Gillette: “He knew he got things by being white he wouldn’t have if he was black, he would get job offers, get paid more.” Rybenac resented Batiste for saying so, and his 1995 autobiography, Under the Hood, makes it clear that besides wanting to portray himself as an outlaw, he can hold a grudge.
Gris-Gris turns out to be one of those albums that can never be duplicated: Mac’s next three albums Night Tripper show diminishing voodoo rock returns. Reuniting with Battiste in 1972 for the cut Dr John’s Gumbo (an album of 1950s-era New Orleans R&B songs) rejuvenated Rebennack. The following year, In the Right Place collaborated with Meters and Aline ToussaintPerfect pairing. Founder of Toussaint and Meter Art Neville They were contemporaries of Mack, whose maverick funk helped him make a breakthrough to a wider audience.
A grumpy work ethic aligned with a turbulent creative impulse found Dr. John to cross genres: traditional jazz, soul jazz, standard, funk rock, southern rock, British rock, nods to disco and rap, and even nursery rhymes. Among my personal favorites is Dr John Plays Mac Rebennack’s 1981 album, an album of piano solos. Mac was an accomplished musician and the results were great. In fact, some consider his best works to have been as a side-organ and piano on Aretha Franklin’s Spanish Harlem, Bobby Charles’s Small Town Talk, Rolling Stones’ Let It Loose, and Willy DeVille’s Junkers. bluesas well as guitar on Professor Longhair’s Crawfish Fiesta and percussion on Aretha’s Rock Steady, to name just a few of his notable contributions to core recordings.
After more than 30 years of opioid addiction—Ricky Lee Jones wrote about first taking heroin at Mac and Jerry Wexler publicly angry at Rebennack for supposedly doing the same to his late daughter Anita—he recovered in 1989 and enjoyed a long win. Honored with Grammy Awards and honors, he moved to New Orleans after Katrina and campaigned for city wetlands and musicians, sang on the soundtrack to The Jungle Book, voiced fast food ads and made cameos on TV shows. He triumphed with Dan Auerbach’s Locked Down while he was constantly on the run. The musician once famous for being a arrogant, filthy junkie has emerged almost as a lovable statesman. Although one is adorned with purple suits and bone necklaces regularly stick in a graduated patwa bebop.
I’ve always wished to interview Mac, but the opportunity never came. I once even thought about writing a book on Dr. John, and now I wonder how, given either opportunity, I might have approached a topic determined to remain anonymous. John Cleary says Mac was “happy” in his later days, which is a relief to know. John’s mask didn’t slip by Malcolm Rybenac — at least not in public.