The Desitively Well-Qualified Dr. John
Looks like Monday, November 21st, marks birthday #65 for Malcolm John (“Mac”) Rebennack a/k/a Dr. John; and, if he isn’t there already, he will soon also mark 50 years in the music business, having been a guitarist, pianist, organist, singer, songwriter, arranger, producer, hanger, hustler, and one man walking cultural phenomenon during the meandering course of his career. He has always proudly acknowledged, if not flaunted, his New Orleans roots. For a somewhat incomplete but fascinating overview of his life and times, I recommend his autobiography, Under A Hoodoo Moon. This man has probably forgotten more about New Orleans music than almost anyone else will ever know, and is extremely qualified to represent his hometown. As I will be taking the week off, I leave you with a great 1973 Dr. John album cut, plus, as short-term lagniappe (just ‘til I get back), a live recording of his band from the same era. Enjoy. And if you’re in the States, have a fine Thanksgiving holiday week, especially those of you lucky enough to be seeing the Meters in NYC. I expect a report.
"Qualified" (Jessie Hill & Mac Rebennack)
Dr. John, from In The Right Place, Atco, 1973
Hope you found it mos' scocious
Our feature cut, “Qualified”, comes from Dr. John’s LP, In The Right Place, that also contained his hits, “Right Place, Wrong Time” and “Such A Night”. The album was produced and arranged by Allen Toussaint, recorded mainly at Criteria Sound in Miami, and had the Meters as the core backing band. Toussaint’s touch allowed Rebennack to balance the heavy Crescent City blues, R&B, rock ‘n roll, and trippy folk-swamp atmospherics of earlier albums with the somewhat lighter pop feel of the hits, while his use of the Meters allowed their distinctive funk sensibilities to infuse the tracks and reinforce what the good doctor had going on. Co-written with Rebennack's long-time runnin’ partner, Jessie Hill, whose unique way with words is evident in the lyrics, “Qualified” is masterfully arranged and played. As Rebennack radiates his barrelhouse best on the 88’s, the rhythm section cooks. Take special note of Zigaboo Modeliste’s drumming here to see why he can’t be touched. That’s Gary Brown on sax, who did a lot of session and road work with Toussaint in the 1970’s, and played with Sam & The Soul Machine prior to that. On the congas is Allen Toussaint himself, according to the liner notes. See the full listing on the above LMF link to the CD re-issue.
The Night Tripper
"Quitters Never Win" (M. Rebennack)
Dr. John, live in Chicago, 1974
Time to quit this winner
In 1974, a second album, Desitively Bonnaroo, with essentially the same line-up and recording venue, was released on Atco and may have been a result of the same sessions as the previous album. But it was not as successful. Having recorded with the Meters, Dr. John toured with them and Professor Longhair for a short time, as a sort of New Orleans music revue. You can read about it his book; but one result he doesn’t mention is that they did a PBS Soundstage show with Earl King added into the mix in 1974. I actually saw it at the time; but my memory of it had faded until I found the show re-issued on video by Rhino in the early 1990’s. That’s where this audio excerpt comes from. The tape is hard to find these days (no DVD yet), but is worth the search. The Meters back up Fess and Earl on some signature songs, and do a medley of two of their own tunes, then Dr. John and his band do four of his numbers, including “Quitters Never Win" (from Desitively); and then Fess and Earl join them on “Big Chief” for the finale. The sound quality is not great; but I thought I’d let you hear what Dr. John’s road band at the time sounded like with Fred Staele on drums, Alvin “Shine” Robinson on guitar and backing vocals, and an uncredited bassist (maybe Jimmy Calhoun) and female backup duo. Sitting in are Fess’ conga player, Alfred “Uganda” Roberts, and Art Neville on organ.
If Mac Rebennack had only done the The Night Tripper, Mardi Gras conjure man stage act he developed in the late 1960’s and rode into the 1970’s, Dr. John would probably only be worth remembering as an idiosyncratic pop music footnote. But, from the outset in the mid-1950’s, he’s been a musicians’ musician with staying power and chops to spare, able to remain true to himself, play what he feels, and become an amazing repository and disseminator of New Orleans music history. Happy birthday, Mac. Keep on keepin’ on.