New Orleans Legend Dr. John Looks Back on 60 Years in Music, From Professor Longhair to Johnny Cash

Bruce Weber
Dr. John

“I remember …”

That’s a phrase Dr. John, the growly toned, six-time Grammy-winning singer-pianist from New Orleans, often says. After his 60 eventful, prolific years in the music racket, his memory banks are full.

Born Malcom John Rebennack Jr., Dr. John celebrated his 76th birthday Nov. 21 at the restored home of one of his inspirations, Roy “Professor Longhair” Byrd. The building on Terpsichore Street in New Orleans serves triple-duty as the Professor Longhair Museum, an informal concert hall and home to Longhair’s daughter, Pat Byrd.

“I always remember that Pat Byrd was her daddy’s favorite sprout,” Dr. John said in New Orleans on a recent Sunday afternoon during a break from filming an IMAX documentary. He shot his scenes for the film, tentatively called America’s Treasures, with one of his New Orleans music peers, singer Irma Thomas.

Dr. John calls his friends “pardners.” Like Dr. John himself, they’re talented, colorful, unique characters. After playing their way into music history, many of them are gone now. Professor Longhair died in 1980 at 61, just as Chicago’s Alligator Records released his final studio album, Crawfish Fiesta. Dr. John played guitar for that project and, as revealed in the liner notes, provided “invaluable production assistance.” In 1959, the 18-year-old Mac Rebennack played for Longhair’s Mardi Gras season standard “Go to the Mardi Gras.”

“I never forget certain things about Fess,” Dr. John said. “He always said, not only to ‘frolic,’ but he said, ‘If you want what I got, just do what I do, and then you’ll be solid, through and through.’ And that was a certain thing that was special about Fess.”

Longhair set the template for such esteemed piano-playing, songwriting acolytes as Allen Toussaint, Huey “Piano” Smith and James Booker. All three of them were Dr. John’s pardners from way back in the music racket game.

For most of his 60-year career, Toussaint worked diligently, brilliantly behind the scenes. His many projects include Dr. John’s 1973 album, In the Right Place, featuring “Right Place Wrong Time,” a hit single then and evergreen in Dr. John’s shows ever since.

Toussaint, whose heart attack death last year at 77 shocked New Orleans, didn’t blossom into an international performer until post-Hurricane Katrina flood waters destroyed his home in the city’s Gentilly neighborhood. Though running parallel though Toussaint’s and Dr. John’s early careers, Smith (“Rocking Pneumonia and the Boogie Woogie Flu,” “Sea Cruise”), dropped out of music decades ago to pursue his Jehovah’s Witness faith.

“Huey was my partner and he will always be my partner,” Dr. John said. “I love this cat. He’s a piece of work-and-a-half. I remember Huey had ‘Don’t You Just Know It,’ ‘High Blood Pressure’ and ‘Well, I’ll Be John Brown.’ ‘You ruled me once. I was a fool for you. I ain’t gonna stand your foolin’ around. If I do, if I do, well, I’ll be John Brown.’ And ’dat is one of my all-time favorite records.”

“Well, I’ll Be John Brown” appears in the “Huey Smith Medley” on Dr. John’s 1972 homage to his hometown’s golden age of R&B, Dr. John’s Gumbo. So does Longhair’s “Tipitina” and Earl King’s “Those Lonely Nights.” Dr. John credits King, the singer-guitarist whose songs were recorded by Jimi Hendrix and Stevie Ray Vaughan, and Smith with teaching him how to write songs.

Smith, a mentor six years older than Dr. John, gave the teenaged Mac Rebennack a book of poems from which he could model lyrics. “Huey gave me something that was a treasure,” Dr. John said. “It was just a book of poems. Great poems. And every one of them made sense. Every one of them had this thing to do where it was a blessing. I remember that I got ‘A Losing Battle’ from that book. I got the lyrics for a lot of songs from it.”

A regular at Cosimo Matassa’s studios even before he became a young session musician, Dr. John remembers when Smith played piano for Little Richard’s first New Orleans recording sessions. Local songwriter Dorothy Labostrie participated in the sessions, too, rewriting some of Richard’s risqué lyrics. Labostrie’s cleanup cleared the way for the Georgia singer’s first hit, “Tutti Frutti.”

Labostrie and Dr. John connected again through Irma Thomas’ debut recording, 1960’s “You Can Have My Husband (But Don’t Mess With My Man).” He played guitar for the session, too. Together again to film the IMAX documentary, Thomas, feisty as ever at 75, did most of the talking during the street car scene. Dr. John has a name for talking, too -- jaw-jerking.

There was much less jaw-jerking when the film crew moved to the historic Little Gem Saloon. The thousands of Saints football fans who poured from the Mercedes-Benz Superdome onto Poydras Street made filming a challenge. Thomas and Dr. John retreated from the planned sidewalk shoot to the Little Gem Saloon’s second-floor balcony.

Whether he’s filming scenes for a documentary or playing one of his frequent shows, Dr. John keeps his creative flame lit. His latest release, the all-star, in-concert CD and DVD, The Musical Mojo of Dr. John: Celebrating Mac & His Music, celebrates the musician and the place from which he came. Filmed at New Orleans’ beautifully restored Saenger Theatre in 2014, “The Musical of Dr. John’s” dozens of guests include visiting stars Bruce Springsteen, Jason Isbell and John Fogerty and internationally known local talent Toussaint, Thomas and Terence Blanchard.

As for studio work, Dr. John is still deciding how to follow his 2014 Louis Armstrong tribute album, Ske-Dat-De-Dat: The Spirit of Satch. It’s too soon, he said, to do another tribute album such as The Spirit of Satch, which followed his 2006 album of Johnny Mercer songs, Mercenary, and his 2000 reinvention of Duke Ellington, Duke Elegant.

A jaw-jerk with wild card Dr. John can veer into unexpected territory.

“I’m thinking about making a country-and-western record,” the maestro of New Orleans funk said with a straight face. “A mountaineers and hillbillies record.” Back in the game (possibly the late 1950s or early ’60s), Dr. John witnessed a club show just outside of Nashville featuring Johnny Cash, Dale Hawkins (“Susie Q”) and Bill Monroe and his Blue Grass Boys. “I thought that this bluegrass guy’s band was slamming,” he remembered.

Classic country singer and poet Hank Williams Sr. is another, perhaps not unexpected, favorite. “I got a feelin’ ’cause I’m blue-oo-oo, oh, lord, since my baby said good-bye,” Dr. John sang, quoting “Lovesick Blues,” the song that made Williams a star in 1949. “I love that record,” he said. “And Vernon Winslow used to buy hillbilly records.”

Winslow is another major figure in New Orleans music. In 1949, he became the still firmly segregated Southern city’s first black disc jockey. In his broadcast guise as Dr. Daddy-O, Winslow introduced such homegrown talent as Fats Domino, Professor Longhair and Lloyd Price. Meanwhile, he bought country music records by white artists at Dr. John’s father’s business, Rebennack’s Appliance Store. For a time, Mac Rebennack Sr. stocked a deep selection of be-bop, Afro-Cuban, traditional jazz and hillbilly records.
“There’s no way Vernon Winslow would have bought it if he didn’t like it,” Dr. John said. 

On the horizon, Dec. 27 and Dec. 28 will see Dr. John and the Nite Trippers play another of their two-night, between Christmas and New Year’s stands at Tipitina’s, the New Orleans music venue that doubles as a Professor Longhair shrine. Last year’s second of two shows, featuring an all-local band, lasted a marathon three hours. As Dr. John would say, it was slamming.

“I’ve been blessed all my life,” he said.