Interview with Dr. John (Mac Rebennack), November 14, 1978, by Peter Stone Brown
This interview took place on Dr. John’s tour bus right before a show at the Bijou Café in downtown Philly. I’d been a fan of Dr. John at this point for about ten years, since his first album Gris-Gris, and had been lucky enough to see him on “The Right Place” tour a few years before in the same club which still ranks as one of the more amazing shows I’ve seen. Even though he’d had a couple of major hits, at this point, Dr. John had just switched labels to Tommy LiPuma’s Horizon label, and on this album and tour was working with another keyboard player Neil Larsen, and a legendary New York session guitarist, Hugh McCracken. (McCracken played the classic guitar lick on Van Morrison’s “Brown Eyed Girl.”) On this interview, Dr. John covers a lot of ground from his influences to various musicians he’s worked with to the state of music and the business at the time of the interview.
When did you start playing music and did you start on guitar or piano?
I started playing professionally on the guitar in the middle ’50s and I began playing the piano in the ’60s.
Who did you learn from?
From Professor Longhair and Huey Smith, Allen Toussaint, Fats Domino, all those cats, you know.
Could you tell me about the voodoo part of your music?
It’s religious music. We don’t actually play any actual voodoo music. We just play some music that’s non-religious music. We’re not off into the church thing on a gig, you know. We do stuff that’s reminiscent of the best voodoo.
You’ve done several kinds of music over the years on your records and they all seem in one way or another to lead back to the New Orleans sound. What is it about New Orleans that produces that sound?
I guess it’s 2/4 rhythms, and the syncopation is subtly different than other ones. It’s nothin’ very easy to pinpoint though, ’cause almost anywheres you hear 2/4 rhythms and you can hear syncopation rhythms, it’s just subtle differences. It stems from parades and Latin Afro-Caribbean rhythms, that’s the only other distinctions that you could make.
There’s many other musicians in New Orleans, whom you’ve paid tributes to on your records who are still largely unknown, like Professor Longhair and Huey Smith. Do you ever think that there’s any way that these people will receive the recognition that is due?
Well, Huey’s comin’ out of retirement when we’re playin’ New Orleans at Rosie’s this month and Professor Longhair’s got a new album that Paul McCartney put out on Harvest Records and other than that, I think only in foreign markets will they really be appreciated and in their own homes. Like, Huey Smith songs will always be covered and things like this, but as far as they’re makin’ some fantastic comeback, I don’t think that either one of ’em would like to get back into the Top-40 thing at this stage of the game.
You’ve played with quite an array of musicians over the years and two of the people who you did a lot of work with who I happen to like are The Band and Van Morrison. How did that come about?
I’ve been friend with Levon and Rick and them guys for a long time, from Ronnie Hawkins days, we used to be on the road together. I thought we was friends more than anything else and the music came as an offshoot of that. Whatever happened with music was strictly an offshoot of friendships and things.
With Van, I just think he’s a hell of a singer. He’s an amazing singer considering he’s from Ireland and all of this, that he sounds like he’s from West Memphis, Arkansas or something. I think the cat is phenomenal!
I thought Period of Transition was a lot better than a lot of people gave it. …
He’ll do some more classic records I’m sure in his time. He’s gonna have plenty, plenty product that’ll be fantastic.
Is there anybody that you haven’t worked with that you would like to work with?
Yeah, I think there’s a whole lot of people I haven’t worked with that I’d like to. You’d have to use musicians directories from a couple of locals to find some of these people. But I could go into lists of infinities
You’ve expanded your music quite a bit since the first album I heard, the Gris-Gris album, do you view this change as a constant on-going process?
You try to go forward. If you stop goin’ forward, you don’t just stop you backtrack, at which point you stop progressing with music. You either go forward or you stagnate and stew in your own juices, and that’s why we try to keep adding tunes to the book.
Is that why you did your new record in New York, to change the sound?
Not just to change the sound. We were doin’ a new record with some new people who had this new label which started this whole thing off, and I met Neil Larsen in Tommy’s office when I was talkin’ to him about cuttin’ a deal. He recommended we do somethin’ with Hughey McCracken and I thought this was gonna be a thing that would happen with the new label that Tommy had. I got excited, signed up, Neil signed up and here we all are.
From a commercial standpoint you’ve had a few hits, do you think after all these years there’s any way to predetermine what’s gonna be a hit?
I don’t think it would be very healthy for the music to just try to predetermine something as to be a hit or something ’cause if you make records you believe in, they don’t come into the considerations until after they’re made. Then people will give you comments whether they think something could be a single and give feedback. But some tunes when we go on the road, with the Meters at one time in the past, when we were playin’ “Right Place” and some of those things on the road, I had an idea that would be a hit just because of audience reaction even before we recorded it.
You’ve had a hand in some records which I felt had some incredible music that went unnoticed. Do you ever think that things will change that there will be an outlet for this stuff? That’s what I kind of try to do on my show.
Turn people onto some obscure stuff or something?
Oh, that’s good. You know it’s good to turn people on to some different things. They got enough stations for Top-40 and certain airplay formats. At one time you know they had free formats that was a lot more open the door to music. Now there’s so much Top-40 stuff, you don’t get much chance to hear other things, so it’s a healthy thing.
Neil Larsen: Plus it helps records make it sometimes. Just one station, a couple of stations get on something they really like and people start understanding and it takes somebody to believe in the shit.
Dr. John: It’s important to do this. It’s very important. There’s a lot of great music like Neil did when he had the Full Moon group. It’s like a cult following they had behind that one record and it’s like a collector’s item and all this now and these things, if it wasn’t for just some very hip people playing these things, it would go totally unnoticed, unheard.
You once did a session with Kate Smith that Joel Dorn produced. Was that ever put out?
Dr. John: Yeah, I think it did come out. I thought that was amazing. I always considered Kate Smith to be you know America.
Would you like to play organ for her at a Philadelphia Flyers’ game. She always sings “God Bless America” down here.
Well, if she hires me I’d be glad too. (laughter)
Out of all your records, is there any one that you like better than the others?
Not really. I can’t even relate to that stuff like that you know it’s just you go on and make some songs and you have fun with some songs on the gig, but it’s got nothin’ to do with what the record was or something. It’s just spur of the moment stuff.