[Viktor Forgacs/Unsplash]

Not Locked Down

19:00 April 22, 2015
By: Emily Hingle
AN INTERVIEW WITH DR. JOHN

The doctor is in! Dr. John, or Mac Rebennack to his close friends, has been making music since the 1950s. As a young man, he performed as a musician-for-hire at area clubs behind prominent musicians like Professor Longhair. Eventually, he became involved in the business side of music, helping to arrange music during recording sessions at local production studios, as well as gigging around town in a number of bands and being a session musician. Dr. John moved to Los Angeles in the early 1960s to get more involved in the burgeoning music business, worked as a backing musician for Sonny and Cher, and was a session musician on numerous popular albums, such as Frank Zappa and the Mother of Invention's Freak Out! and Canned Heat's Living the Blues.

Dr. John began creating his own brand of Voodoo-infl uenced music in the late 1960s; his stage name is derived from an infamous hoodoo man who rivaled Marie Laveau in the 1800s. His fi rst album as Dr. John, called Gris Gris, was released in 1968 and was popular for its strange, psychedelic tones and eerie feel. Rolling Stone cited the album as one of the 500 greatest albums of all time, ranking 143 on their list. He toured extensively the world over, wearing dazzling costumes with feathers and animal skins galore that hypnotized the audience into thinking they were at a real Voodoo ceremony.

The Voodoo mystique that Dr. John created had softened to allow for the more classic New Orleans piano-centric music and funk that are seen as standards of New Orleans music. His renditions of songs like "Iko Iko" and "Let the Good Times Roll" from the 1972 album Dr. John's Gumbo, and "Right Place Wrong Time" from the 1973 album In the Right Place are still played heavily today. He maintained his work as a session musician, albeit a popular one, on many fi lms and records for bands, including the Rolling Stones, Neil Diamond, Van Morrison, and many more.

Many albums, collaborations, and guest appearances later, Dr. John has revealed that the Voodoo still exists. His album Locked Down, released in April 2012, marked the use of the spooky swamp sounds and African beats that present on Gris Gris. The album was awarded a Grammy for Best Blues Album, and Dr. John was invited to perform at the show. I was able to talk to Dr. John about the album and the many others he has appeared on lately.

WYAT: Your album, Locked Down, came out nearly a year ago now. How have your fans and critics reacted to it?

Dr. John: I guess they reacted okay. Most say it's cool.

WYAT: You had musician Dan Auerbach from blues band The Black Keys work on the album. How did you get to know him?

Dr. John: When he fl ew to New Orleans, we made an attempt at writing songs, but later in the studio, I got to see the side of Dan I was looking for, and I hadn't made a record with tracks in years. I dug the way that his engineer and the guy that mastered the record did it. I was very down with that.

WYAT: Congratulations on winning a Grammy for the album! How was performing at the awards show?

Dr. John: I was very tired and I was grateful to see my ol' potna, "Weenie" (saxophonist for the Preservation Hall Jazz Band), who I hadn't seen in years. I dug playin' with Dan again.

WYAT: In the last few years, you've made appearances on some albums and films like Hugh Laurie's album Let Them Talk and Gregg Allman's album Low Country Blues. Is there any band or musician that you've always wanted to work with?

Dr. John: T-Bone Burnett called me for the session for Greg Allman ala' the B.B. King record we did together before Greg's record. I just play what I play and do what I do. Hugh Laurie's was different because I just sang whatever song I sang and I don't remember WTF it was. There's a lot of 'em, like Stevie Wonder, Gladys Night, George Clinton, KRS ONE, ?uestlove and Sting.

WYAT: You've performed all over the world, but you still manage to do a lot of hometown shows. Do you prefer playing at large festivals or small local venues like the Howlin' Wolf, Tipitina's, and House of Blues?

Dr. John: I dig big festivals and I still dig playin' some of the juke joints that you mentioned, but there's part of me that would like to be more connected to different kinds of festivals.

WYAT: Despite having these longtime live music institutions, the city is growing and changing every day. How have the city and its culture changed in your lifetime?

Dr. John: The city of New Orleans has changed a gang and a half of times over the years. It shifted a gear with integration and it shifted another gear with Jim Garrison. After Katrina, it shifted even more gears after so many people were stranded elsewhere in the country, especially from the Lower Ninth Ward. And after the BP oil disaster, it's caused tons of problems for Native Americans, and it goes on and on.

WYAT: Is there anywhere that you haven't performed yet, but would like to?

Dr. John: South Africa.

WYAT: Are you looking forward to seeing any bands or musicians in particular at Jazz Fest this year?

Dr. John: First off, I don't know who's playin' at Jazz Fest this year, and I guess that answers the question.

WYAT: Is there anything else you'd like to say?

Dr. John: I believe in my spirit music has higher goals than it is showing right now, and music takes on the spirit of dance and having fun, but where is the music that touts people on things they don't like to talk about, that they keep hidden? Maybe their mind can be open to something higher in the spirit kingdom, and not stuck in the meat world.

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