One thing about Mac Rebennack — he was definitely a people person. And perhaps the greatest testament the late Dr. John is the massive number of musicians who chopped it up with the New Orleans icon in the studio and on stage.
It’s a lineage that dates back to a 13-year-old Mac performing with Professor Longhair in the ’50s on through to his appearances on such classics as Frank Zappa & The Mothers of Invention’s Freak Out!, the Rolling Stones’ Exile On Main St., the first Rickie Lee Jones album and Ladies and Gentlemen We Are Floating In Space by Spiritualized. And the Doctor would always have friends guest on his own catalog of work, be it fellow New Orleans legends Art Neville and George Porter, Jr. of The Meters on 1973’s In the Right Place and 1974’s Desitively Bonnaroo (both produced by the mighty Allen Toussaint), Toto’s Jeff Porcaro on 1989’s In A Sentimental Mood or Dan Auerbach of The Black Keys, who produced Rebennack’s last album of original material, 2012’s acclaimed Locked Down.
Billboard spoke with several artists who had the pleasure of sharing the studio or stage with Dr. John at some point over the last 30 years before his passing at age 77 on June 6. And just like his discography that everybody should be discovering or rediscovering this summer, it’s as thick and flavorful as that gumbo he used to make.
Dr. John was a great artist and a huge influence. We are all going to miss him and his music very much. The man could play any song and make it his. It was great to have him be part of the Stevie Ray Vaughan tribute at Carnegie Hall back in 1984. That version of ‘Cold Shot’ he’s on is something else. – Jimmie Vaughan, performed at Carnegie Hall with Dr. John and Stevie Ray Vaughan & Double Trouble in 1984
Mac lived out in the Hamptons for a little while, and we would play a lot of gigs out here together. We played a bunch of private parties, one was for Liz Tilberis, who was the publisher of Harper’s Bazaar. It was the only time I’d go to these celebrity parties out here, when I was accompanying him in his horn section. But I got to talk to him in private at these things, and I was shocked by how much he knew about everything. He just wanted to talk about music. I had no idea he knew that much about jazz and its history, and also what was going on currently. He knew what was happening in hip-hop and the whole bit. – Randy Brecker, appeared on 1994’s Television
My memory of recording Anutha Zone was arriving at Abbey Road Studio. We were in Studio 2, which was where the bulk of the Beatles’ stuff was recorded. So I remember going in there and setting up my kit in what is effectively the Ringo Starr spot. I put my kit in place and they set the mics up around me. Then they wheeled the grand piano into the studio and placed it really close to my drum kit. I was really surprised about that. So as I sat behind the drums, I could look straight across over to Mac as he was playing. So when he arrived and sat down at this grand piano, I did ask the guys in the studio to give me plenty of his voice and piano in my monitors, and I had the time of my life. Everything he did was just so musical. He and I just got to jamming all the time. We would do a lot of jazz tunes. And John Leckie kept having to get on the talkback mic and say, “Guys, this is all great but we’re supposed to be making an album here!” He had to tell us off for jamming too much (laughs). For me, it was a real treat, because he represents so many musical connections that I’m just inspired by. That crossover between blues, jazz and rock n’ roll was like nothing else out there. – Clive Deamer of Portishead, appeared on 1998’s Anutha Zone
Many, many sad feelings about the passing of Dr John. I did this record with him in 1998. It was twenty-one years ago. It was a lot of fun and music all the way. Mac was supercool to hang with and all the Brit guys and USA blokes were very supportive and gave their best. How did it happen? It began with the phone call from Parlophone and me getting my ass over to NYC and meet with Mac. I went with my wife at Christmastime and we were welcomed. He gave me a DAT with 40 songs demoed. “You choose the songs…you know these guys.” Miles Leonard at Parlophone had filled me in with the plan to record at Abbey Road studio 2 with top Brit luminaries such as Spiritualized, Supergrass, Primal Scream, Paul Weller and anyone else I could get in the room. We were all really keen to lay down tracks with Mac. It was awesome and we did it and it led to many future connections. I found Clive Deamer knowing Mac would like his drums and he called Adrian Utley who whizzed down from Bristol. I called Gasper Lawal whose number I had from way back with Fela Kuti and the Nigerian bands at Abbey Road from the ’70s. He still lived in West Hampstead and had played on Dr. John’s Sun, Moon and Herbs with Clapton in Trident in 1971. He was there in seconds. The Kick Horns played on every track and London Community Gospel Choir did backup vocals. We did lots of songs. We all learnt to talk N’awlins. Mac wanted to finish record in New York with his touring band. I was there recording and mixing at Avatar Studios and staying at The Paramount and getting the record done to everyone’s delight. It was with Mac’s touring band and the level of musicianship was high. And so was I. Dr. John and The Lower 911 toured the UK and I was on the bus, lashing up a couple ADATs every night to whatever PA desk they had, and recorded every show. We ate breakfast, lunch and dinner together. (Greens on a Tuesday. And ‘never leave the house without a hat and a cane.’) Later it was New Orleans Jazz Fest and I was in Blues Heaven. Last I saw Mac in 2003 in LA up to his tricks at Hollywood Bowl… or was it Glastonbury Jazz Stage and the generator was freaking with the Hammond’s tuning and it was Jools Holland and it was live on BBC TV. (It was also 1968 in flat in Westbourne Groove tripping to The Night Tripper…) – John Leckie, produced 1998’s Anutha Zone
So saddened by the loss of one of the great musical energies of all time, Dr. John, a.k.a. Mac Rebennack. He epitomized the very spirit of New Orleans music with his soulful funky piano playing, singing and songwriting. A one-of-a-kind, unique hipster character, truly a force of nature, he was a MAJOR influence and inspiration to my music and I’m so grateful for the many collaborations we shared over the years! I know he’s in that heavenly band now. But we sure are gonna miss him down here! Speaking of heaven, check out “Laying Right Here in Heaven,” a duet we did a few years back…. Really gonna miss you, Mac! – Maria Muldaur, recorded with Dr. John for her 1992 LP Louisiana Love Call
Mac Rebennack aka Dr. John was one of the last in a lineage of true New Orleans piano players. He not only incorporated the stylings of Professor Longhair, James Booker, Fats Domino, Tuts Washington and more, he carried the lineage a step further. He brought his showmanship using New Orleans traditions borrowed from the Mardi Gras Indians, Voodoo and second line to introduce New Orleans music to the world. As a pianist steeped in New Orleans music he inspired, educated and encouraged me to keep that piano lineage alive as well. I would say it’s the same for every other contemporary New Orleans or New Orleans-influenced pianists including Jon Cleary, Davell Crawford and more. Thank you Mac for all you gave and I know you will be leading the second line in heaven!” — Mitch Woods, performed in concert with Dr. John
Dr. John aka The Night Tripper, aka Mac, aka Keeper of the Flame… This loss gives me pause. It’s a hard one, because he took his music so personal. This man’s contributions to music will remain incomparable. One of the most gifted and wildly talented musicians of our time — with a heavy left hand. Not only was he an ambassador for the music and cultural traditions of the bayou and the great city of New Orleans, but to my ear, Dr. John was one of the greatest influences on modern music and beyond. In this business — especially rhythm & blues and funk — you could say it’s more than a badge of honor to be given a nickname that is internationally recognized. Let alone three. There are clear reasons for this and all one has to do is listen to the man’s music to begin to recognize his gift. I am privileged to have crossed paths a few times with the good Dr., opening shows or appearing on the same festival. I would always stand uncontrollably grinning while he brought that same funk, soul and bayou to his bandstand. One time, during a Hall of Fame ceremony in Memphis, when introduced, he shook my hand, leaning in to tell me with that New Orleans drawl… “You is fine…I mean you is one fine lookin’ chicken…” We both laughed after he said it. That was a huge compliment for me as a woman in blues and artist. There was zero disrespect in his compliment and I was thrilled to receive it! I have lived a rich and full life and there are very few things on my personal wish list, at this point. One of those things was to have an opportunity to make some music with Dr. John. It looks like I get to tuck that wish away, or hope there is a heaven — I believe it just got a whole lot funkier in tha house! And if there is and I get there, I won’t mind waiting in line for the good Dr. – Janiva Magness, performed in concert with Dr. John
It was 1973 and I was living in L.A., as was John. I called him that. We were both signed to Atco. His “Right Place, Wrong Time” was just taking off and my “Your Turn To Cry” had just come out. He and I used to hang. He was getting ready to go on the road. I was broke and he asked if I wanted to come and sing back up with him on the road. I had never sung back up for anyone before. So I go to rehearsal. The song hits the part where the background singers go “ooooooooooooh.” But I heard a holler there, so I hollered. He said let’s try that again. We did. Same result. After a couple of more times, he said “Bettye LaVette (all of my contemporaries always called me by my full name. I have NO idea why. lol), this is just not gonna work out.” So he gave me a couple hundred dollars and about an ounce of smoke. He went on the road and that was that. I never saw him again until around 2005 when this fifth career of mine started to take off. We were on a festival together somewhere and ran into each other. He came up to me and said “Bettye LaVette, you gotta stop telling everybody that I fired you.” We laughed and hugged and that was it. We remained close ever since and would always talk when we ran into each other. He’d always laugh when I would ask him how he learned to talk the way he did. – Bettye LaVette
I got to record with Dr. John for one afternoon. I was kind of… didn’t know what to expect. So after I did a first take I asked him if what I was doing on percussion was okay. He jumped on the floor of the control and started to do a crazy dance laying on the floor with belly up. After we went to eat. While others did overdubs, he gave me a long explanation to me on how to make gumbo. We had a connection but was very hard to understand each other. I just understood a few words like shrimp and coriander. It was very funny me and him having a conversation. He really liked Brazilian music and told me he used to play with Brazilian musicians back in the day. He also talked about drugs that screwed him up. He showed me his tracks on his arms. It was very emotional. – Cyro Baptista, appeared on 2000’s Duke Elegant