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In his heyday, Dr. John would appear on stage in a puff of smoke, decorated in Mardi Gras plumes, bones and amulets, reciting voodoo chants while spreading glitter into the audience. (© William Coupon / Corbis)

Dr. John's Prognosis

The blues and rock musician shares stories of his wild past and his concerns for the future.

smithsonian.com

Mac Rebennack, better known as the musician Dr. John, has been impressing audiences since the 1960s with a stage show deeply rooted in the culture of his native New Orleans. In his heyday, Rebennack would appear on stage in a puff of smoke, decorated in Mardi Gras plumes, bones and amulets, reciting voodoo chants while spreading glitter into the audience. But he is also a highly regarded blues, rock and jazz artist considered a solid songwriter and session musician. In his most recent album, "The City that Care Forgot," he criticizes the government's response to Hurricane Katrina and plays with Eric Clapton, Willie Nelson and Ani Difranco. Rebennack, 68, spoke recently with Kenneth Fletcher about his wild past and concerns about the future

From This Story

What kind of music did you hear growing up?
Well, my father's records were what they called "race records", which was blues, rhythm and blues, traditional jazz and gospel. He owned a record shop and had a large black clientele. They would come by and play a record to decide if they liked it. I got the idea as a little kid that I wanted to be a piano player, because I remember hearing [boogie woogie pianist] Pete Johnson. I thought why not just be Pete Johnson?

But I started playing guitar because I thought I'd never get a job playing piano. Every guitarist I knew could get work easy. Somewhere in the early ‘50s I started doing recording sessions and after that I went on the road.

How did you get back to playing piano?
Around 1960, I got shot in my finger before a concert. A guy was pistol whipping Ronnie Barron, our vocalist. Ronnie was just a kid and his mother had told me "You better look out for my son." Oh god, that was all I was thinking about. I tried to stop the guy, I had my hand over the barrel and he shot.

So you switched to piano because of the injury. You must have been playing some seedy places.
They were pretty much buckets of blood joints. It was not a wholesome atmosphere where you could bring your family along. There were gang fights. The security and the police would fire guns into the crowd. It was pretty wild.

Bourbon Street was always the touristy scene, but Canal Street, Jackson Avenue, Lasalle Street, Louisiana Avenue- all of them had strips of clubs on them. Later [New Orleans District Attorney] Jim Garrison padlocked and shut down the whole music scene.

What kind of music did you play?
All different kinds. At one gig we might be backing up strippers and playing Duke Ellington stuff. One girl might want flamenco or maybe belly dancing music. Then the next gig we would play pop and R&B songs of the day. Later there would be an after-hour jam session. It was pretty great. We worked 365 days a year, 12 hours a night, and did sessions during the day. I've always thought that my chops were a lot better then than they ever have been since.

How did you go from Mac Rebennack the backup musician, to becoming Dr. John?
I was never fond of front men. I didn't want to be one. All my plans were for Ronnie Barron, the same guy who I got shot in my finger over, to be Dr. John. Then my conga player said "Look, if Bob Dylan and Sonny and Cher can do it you can do it." He talked me into it. I did my first record to keep New Orleans gris gris alive.

The Dr. John character is based on gris gris, or voodoo?
Well yeah. I always thought it was a beautiful part of New Orleans culture. It's such a blend of stuff; African, Choctaw, Christianity, Spanish.

I just figured that if I wrote songs based on gris gris, it would help people. A lot of the people practicing it were dying off and the kids were not following it. I was trying to keep the traditions going.

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