Voodoo funk craftsman Dr. John is enjoying his golden years like many of his contemporaries: drifting around the sunny Caribbean on a cruise ship. Cue the swanky lounge music.
However, the musician who, three decades ago, growled “Right Place, Wrong Time,” hasn’t traded his feather headdress for Bermuda shorts. Nope, he — along with blues and R&B luminaries Taj Mahal, Corey Harris, Derek Trucks, Susan Tedeschi and Little Charlie & The Nightcats — is the entertainment. As in forget Carmen Miranda — Julie and the Gopher are about to get fonky.
Old dog, new tricks
Dr. John, who plays The Orange Peel this weekend, is part of a new generation of older guys (think the Stones, Bob Dylan and Rod Stewart) who just won’t get off the stage and become doddering, cardigan-clan geezers. It’s hard to imagine Hendrix or Jim Morrison strutting around, mic in hand, crooning to the new millennium.
But is that because they seem so of a time — or is it because, considering their excessive lifestyles, it’s hardly surprising they died young?
Because the good doctor certainly burned his candle at both ends, too. Born Malcolm Rebennack in 1940, the young Mac grew up in New Orleans with more street cred than school credits. “By the time I’d made it to third or fourth grade, I had developed a taste for hopping the train … I wasn’t long into innocent kid stuff before I found better things to do,” the musician boasts in his 1994 autobiography Under a Hoodoo Moon (St. Martin’s Press).
Music was always part of Rebennack’s life. He studied with Fats Domino’s guitarist and played boogie-woogie piano with his aunt. “I had a picture of myself as a little-bitty kid looking like Liberace and playing music like Pete Johnson,” he told USA Today in 2000.
Despite cutting his teeth in bawdy pianist Professor Longhair’s band, Rebennack considered himself a guitarist — until a fretting finger was shot off in a barroom brawl. But even his subsequent forced move to organ didn’t put him on the path to fame — at least not right away.
In the ’60s he worked with the likes of Phil Spector in LA, but at the same time Rebennack, an ex-con, was shacking up with a prostitute in a shooting gallery pursuing his first love: heroin — an addiction he maintained until 1989. According to Rebennack’s autobiography, he supported his habit with petty crime: shoplifting, making porn films (he just manned the camera), and such unsavory entrepreneurial schemes as a back-alley abortion service and a whorehouse. “Turned out the only scam I was ever good at was forging prescriptions,” he confesses in his book.
But it wasn’t his familiarity with drugs that earned Rebennack his stage name: Dr. John the Night Tripper. Nope, that alter ego was in honor of a voodoo priest from his old stomping grounds.
When Rebennack finally got around to releasing his debut, Gris Gris (Atco, ’68), he’d planned to build a band around the Dr. John character, with soul singer Ronnie Barron playing the role. However, when Barron turned the gig down, Rebennack stepped into the spotlight. Attired in Mardi Gras Indian regalia, appearing on stage in a puff of smoke, he was as much about the show as the songs.
And, far from his Crescent City home, Rebennack managed to capitalize on the themes and scenes he’d grown up with. With songs like “Walk on Gilded Splinters” from Gris Gris and “Marie Laveau” from his most recent offering, N’awlinz: Dis Dat or D’udda (EMI, 2004), the musician delves into spine-tingling voodoo. Mardi Gras-oriented classics like “Iko Iko” and “Chickee Le Pas” get the party on.
But then there’s “Sweet Home New Orleans,” from ’98’s Anutha Zone — a song so fraught with cliche and commercialism it could’ve been requisitioned by the New Orleans Chamber of Commerce.
In fact, Off Beat‘s NOLA-based reviewer remarked, “For some of us, using words like ‘Creole’ or ‘gumbo’ in a song is the kiss of triteness.” And Rebennack released albums christened Creole Moon and Dr. John’s Gumbo. But then again, the man credited by Pulse as “America’s premier roots musician” moved to New York around 1980.
No matter. Off Beat still professes that “Dr. John, despite his auspicious musical career, is a ‘regular’ New Orleans guy when you get down to it.”
And N’awlinz offers musty classics a fresh treatment, updating “When the Saints Go Marching In” as a spooky dirge and infusing “St. James Infirmary” with second-line swing.
Of course, being a regular guy in the Big Easy is a little more eccentric than it is in points north. Which might account for Rebennack’s not-so-retiring golden years. And, to some extent, his 65-album discography (counting re-mastered records, best-ofs and retrospectives) has more to do with longevity than pop savvy.
“I obviously don’t hit with the majority of the public … I don’t think I ever did, and I ain’t gonna worry about it too hard,” he admitted to USA Today.
But for a man whose only actual hit came off his debut album, a four-decade-spanning career and tour dates including gigs on swanky cruise ships is nothing to sniff at.
“Musically, I’ve had a pretty even ride,” he revealed in the USA Today interview. Which seems like a huge understatement, considering the bumpy road he’s covered to get here.
Dr. John rolls into The Orange Peel (101 Biltmore Ave.) on Saturday, Feb. 12. 9 p.m. $28 ($25.50/advance). 225-5851.