Above: Dr. John doing an extended version of “Such a Night”, one of his best known hits. Good music and excellent photography. Perfect for setting the tone for a piece to remember a musical legend.
“Such a Night. Sweet confusion under the moonlight….”
–from “Such a Night” by Mac Rebennack (Dr. John)
Mac Rebennack, AKA Dr. John, (New York Times Article) the legendary New Orleans musician and performer died on 6 June 2019. He was 78 years old. We are not here to bury Dr. John, but to praise him, for all the good times, memorable songs, honky-tonk infused piano solos and to provide some audio and video remembrances of one of the greats of all time and someone with whom I have a rather long (listening) relationship.
It is spring, 1975, and I am trying to organize a new apartment.
The apartment is spare…only the essentials: a very high quality stereo system (the legendary JBL SA 600 powering a pair of JBL studio monitors. Up against the wall, my beloved, well-curated vinyl collection—over 2000 records that cover every form of music from Dixieland to symphony, courtesy of years spent working in media and broadcasting when vinyl was still the dominant music distribution medium.
There’s a bed, some pillows, a closet full of tennis racquets and workout clothes and shoes, one frying pan, and a small, one cup-at-at-time coffee maker. Plus…of course…an electric typewriter for writing.
Two Wassily chairs, a round breakfast table and four companion chairs, and a lot of art that needs to hung on the walls but that is, at the time, leaning against them.
But there’s one new addition: a box, professionally packed and shipped, on the breakfast table. It’s the monthly shipment of new records I should be listening to from my pal Niles Siegel, the music wizard from New York City. I’ve known Niles since the late sixties and was with him when he made a career change that turned him into a legend—going from a working NYC advertising photographer to a hustling music industry record promoter, getting the right tunes on the air at the right time. One of the side benefits of being Siegel’s pal, is that you’re on his mailing list, which means a package, once a month, of the latest and best music. You can read about Nile’s rather incredible career via this link. It was through Siegel that I discovered Keith Jarrett—the brilliant jazz pianist known for his solo concerts. Siegel’s range is wide and so you never know what’s waiting to be discovered.
I open the package and inside a short note: “Pierce….a collection of Dr. John’s music. Listen to all of it. You’ll love it. New Orleans musician but so much more. A very unique talent. Trust me.”
And so I spent the night listening to the music of Mac Rebennack, AKA Dr. John (Wikipedia), a New Orleans musical legend, the Night Tripper, the creator of a very singular blend of rockin’ voodoo blues flavored with New Orleans musical spices. A unique talent indeed.
Dr. John music is always special, colored by the cultures and sounds of New Orleans but looking forward, into rock and roll, and rock and psychedelics and, of course, jazz, and never slavishly repeating what had gone before. He had a fear of a great cultural gift—the music of New Orleans—being trapped too much in past and so he pushed it forward, taking the best parts of the old and combining those with the most adventurous parts of the new. He was the man for the job, because he had all the talent to do it, not just as a musician, but a doctor with a specialization in music tradition and combination.
Dr. John had a unique sometimes growling voice combined with the stage presence of someone who has spent most of his life in smoky, loud juke joints. His surprisingly expressive and very distinctive voice was paired with rollicking piano stylings, part rock, part honky-tonk, part blues, creole late night bar-and-club. He grew up under rough circumstances, lived a rather tap-dancing-on-nitroglycerin lifestyle, but found his groove—literally, initially—as a working studio sideman, playing on records with everyone from Sonny and Cher to Paul McCartney. He played with the Rolling Stones, James Taylor and Carly Simon, Maria Muldaur, The Band, Ringo Starr and His All-Starr Band, Niles Lofgren, Joe Walsh, Clarence Clemons, Billy Preston, Aaron Neville and Aretha Franklin. And on and on and on. While best known for his solo albums, he was the quintessential studio musician—one of the best of all time– full of new ideas, musically unique, and technically gifted enough to pull off anything he could conceive and he could conceive a lot. Dr. John was inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame in 2011 (John Legend did his honors) and received an Honorary Doctorate of Fine Arts from Tulane University in 2013. Also in his Tulane class: the Dalai Lama. If you’re known by the company you keep, Dr. John was music and cultural royalty.
To get an enlightened appreciation of the drama and impact of Dr. John, you are directed to Stephen Thomas Erlewine’s very fine appreciation of his work. Erlewine gets it.
Fast forward 42 years. April 2017. Oxford, Mississippi, the home of the University of Mississippi, better known as Ole Miss. It’s my annual trip to the town’s Double Decker Art and Music Festival. We go for the art, stay for the music and food. This year, as in years past, I’m shooting the music performances. The festival organizers have very graciously provided me with an all-access photographic pass and, featured tonight is the legend himself: Dr. John. It will be the best of all possible worlds for me—up close and personal access to his concert and his music as the background for the shooting. Sometimes, things happen because they are destiny and the connection created decades ago will now be closed as I have the chance to go face-to-face with the legend himself.
He’s slower than before—76 years old—but the trademark growl in his voice is as strong as ever, the voodoo artifacts occupy, as always, the side of his piano facing the audience, and he’s still wearing snakeskin Gucci loafers and checkerboard socks. A pony tail of significant length stretches out from underneath his straw Fedora. He is walked onto the stage by one of his crew and he seems weaker than I’ve seen him in the past. Moving slowly, he slides into position on the piano bench, adjust his song book and bench, punches in a few notes and chords and then comes alive as his oft-played collection of hits and classics pours out with striking little piano runs and solos delivered by the Doctor himself who’s backed by an effortlessly talented band that’s heavy on horns combined with a thumping rhythm section, and as the performance takes off, he gives me one last right-into-the-lens look and disappears into his life—his music, his singular sound–suddenly energetic and alive and in sync with his music and his audience, simultaneously he lifts off, lighter now than before, energized in the way that only performance can provide, and rises into the moment and the notes and the songs. It’s a form of magic when the greats take the stage and get into it, and Dr. John is one of the greats…and tonight he’s into it
Talking about Dr. John is one thing, having the privilege of photographing him in performance while listening to his music is another terrific experience, but the only way to truly get a grip on Dr. John is to listen to his music. And so we’re making that very easy, Big Easy easy, really, with a special playlist of some of his great tunes, courtesy of our friends at Spotify. Punch the button and get your groove on. But wait….there’s more…as this weekend we will be posting a Dr. John concert for our Summer Weekend Concert Series. As always with music through this site, run it through your big sound system, kick back, and have your own personal Dr. John concert. You’ll feel better.
The Fine Print. First, thanks to our friends at YouTube and Blues Piano Sheets for the really great video of Dr. John performing “Such a Night”, which was posted in 2015. All rights belong to respective artists….we thank them for sharing. Photos of Dr. John performing, (C) 2017, donald pierce. If you are interested in using any of these photos, drop us an email and let us know where, when, and how and we’ll get it sorted for you. Text (C) 2016 donald pierce. Special thanks to our pals across the pond at Spotify who make it oh-so-easy to create and post playlists. Also special thanks to the Double Decker Art & Music Festival in Oxford, Mississippi for enabling photographic access for the Dr. John shooting. You need to check that festival out if you like art and/or music. That’s all folks….read the story, link to the music, and appreciate the unique talent of Dr. John.