The Doctor’s Visit
I was sad to hear the news that an old “acquaintance” of mine, Malcolm John Rebennack, had died of a heart attack. “Mac” was the inimitable New Orleans musician better known as Dr. John, the Night Tripper, the self-ordained funky Doctor of Voodoo.
On the Monday morning after he died, I sat on my back deck, relaxing with my laptop and a second cup of coffee. The sun had not come around to that side of the house. It was cool and breezy in the shade. The garden was in full bloom. It felt like the right place to reflect while streaming one of the doctor’s lesser known albums, “Dr. John Plays Mac Rebennack.” It was a solo album, just Dr. John with his gravelly voice and boogie-woogie piano. It had always been my favorite.
He hated it.
I’ve been a fan of Dr. John since 1973 when I first heard his only real hit record, “Right Place Wrong Time,” on a Baltimore AM radio station. The song had a great sound, different from anything else on the radio at the time. But I was not yet ready to broaden my rather pedestrian musical tastes to include the spicy flavors of the music that was rooted in southern Louisiana.
That would come a few years later when I found my way to New Orleans to attend my first Mardi Gras celebration. Amidst the parties and parades, I was suddenly immersed in the incredible diversity of music; cajun, creole xyzedco, early jazz, blues, rhythm and blues and rootsy rock n roll were all part of the musical feast that defined the Crescent City. Each was distinct but they all mixed together to create the exotic gumbo of sounds that fed the heart and soul of New Orleans.
Fortunately for me, personal and professional interests took me back to New Orleans often. I loved hearing the music everywhere; from festivals to street parties to café bars in the French Quarter or “divey” bars in Tremé. I made my pilgrimage to Preservation Hall and the Louis Armstrong Park. I strolled in the long shadows of Congo Square and Storyville. I saw the Neville Brothers and the Funky Meters at Tipitinas, watched street musicians in Jackson Square.
Music was inescapable.
At the New Orleans Jazz Fest, I got to see Mac Rebennack performing in all of his Dr. John splendor with full head dress, snakes, dancing girls and a fine and funky orchestra. Some of my favorite times in New Orleans were spent hanging out in old record shops; looking through bins, filled with new and used records by Louisiana musicians, many unknown to me but known and loved in New Orleans. I would linger for hours listening to the amazing, local music that was playing loudly and non-stop, through the stores’ sound systems. Dr. John remained my favorite.
In the late 1980s, a new job brought me to St. Louis and gave me the opportunity to book summer concerts at the St. Louis Union Station. Once the largest passenger rail terminal in the world, Union Station had been redeveloped and newly converted into a mixed-use “festival marketplace.” We held a series of “mainstage” parking lot concerts, sponsored by a variety of local radio stations. The music obviously reflected what was played on the radio stations and the shows were a success. The series developed a huge following, creating lots of “buzz” and business. But musically, they were not what interested me.
Fortunately, we also presented a second, smaller concert series, “Rhythm and Roots Lakeside Concerts” on a small stage floating in a man-made pond under the hundred year-old train shed. The Lakeside Concerts were co-sponsored by the Riverfront Times, the local independent weekly newspaper. Because the concerts weren’t beholden to any mainstream radio playlists or large corporate sponsors, we booked bands that we loved and wanted to hear. Many of them were from New Orleans; Buckwheat Zydeco, Boozoo Chavis, BeauSoleil, Zachary Richard, The Iguanas. It became a Louisiana lakeside dance party under the train shed on Friday nights in the summer.
In the spring of 1995, the concert promoter who handled the bookings for the shows, told me that Dr. John was touring with a sixteen-piece band to support his new album, Afterglow. Dr. John was perfect for the Friday Lakeside series but the band would not fit on its small stage.
And, the $17,000 fee plus production and hospitality, was way beyond the budget for the Rhythm and Roots Lakeside Concert Series.
None of the radio stations played Dr. John’s music, either. Even the oldies station never managed to play “Right Place Wrong Time.”
The concert promoter would call periodically to check on the availability of playing in St. Louis and eventually, he called to say there was another offer. My emotions and passion for the music triumphed over my business sense and we booked them, putting them on the big stage.
Dr. John was billed as a “lake stage concert that was just too big for the lake.” When the day came, Dr. John’s band arrived by bus and I picked him up from the airport. The budget was so tight, we couldn’t afford a limo for him.
Suddenly, there he was, dressed in purple and black, wearing one of his classic straw hats, carrying a small satchel, and using his walking stick. He looked more like the dapper Mac Rebennack, than the eccentric Dr. John Creaux and he was unrecognized by any one there, except me. His only companion was his bandleader, Ronnie Cuber. An amazing saxophonist, Cuber was a musician’s musician who had played with many jazz greats as well as top rock, soul and rhythm and blues stars.
As I drove them downtown, I told them about the history and architecture of Union Station. I explained the concert series and who else had performed, including numerous New Orleans musicians whom they knew well.
I told Dr. John of my frequent trips to New Orleans and my admiration for his work.
Then, I asked him a question that had been on my mind for years; about an album he had recorded in the early ‘80’s; “Dr. John Plays Mac Rebennack.” I noted that it was produced on a small label in my home town of Baltimore. I had discovered it on disc in a cutout bin of a used record store; a solo album with just him, singing and playing his amazing New Orleans piano. I told him that record was my favorite and asked him why he hadn’t recorded more solo piano records. I also wanted to know how, in the hell, had he wound up making a record with some small label in Baltimore?
Dr. John paused before he laughed. He told me that he hated that album and wished he’d never made it. He said he had been at a party and had too much to drink. Someone started talking to him and kept talking. He was from Baltimore and loved his music and would love to produce an album with just him and the piano.
“Well,” Dr. John explained, “After talking a while and having a few more drinks, I must have told him ‘yes’ and gave him my number. Actually, I don’t remember saying ‘yes.’ But I must have given him my number because the day after the party, I started getting calls from the guy. When I finally talked to him, he reminded me about our conversation at the party and wanted to know when I wanted to do the record I had promised to do. He was persistent. I really didn’t want to do it. But I guess I had said ‘yes’ at the party so I finally just did it.”
“Well,” I said. “I’m glad you did. Hearing you play the piano is the best part of every record you’re on.”
“Well, I swore I would never do that and I swear I’ll never do it again.”
I had to ask the obvious follow up, “OK, but why do you hate it so much?”
He said, “My whole life as a musician, the biggest fear I ever had was that I would end up an old man playing piano by myself in a bar at a Holiday Inn somewhere. I never wanted that to happen. So, no matter where I play, I always play with a band.”
His show that night was joyous. There were no snakes, no head dresses, no dancing girls. Just a fun and funky New Orleans style concert. And man, did he have a band with him. Thank you, Ronnie Cuber, for the mighty horns and amazing charts. The crowd was not huge but much better than I expected.
Dr. John signed a promotional poster for me that night; a reproduction of the album cover for Afterglow. I framed it and hung it upstairs in my house. When I heard about his passing, I took it off the wall and brought it downstairs to set it on top of a cabinet in my front parlor. On it, he wrote:
Kevin, Keep On
Dr. John, the Night Tripper
Thanks, Dr. John. You’ll be missed.
© Kevin Farrell
A native of Baltimore, Kevin Farrell is a long-time resident of St. Louis, Missouri, where he lives with his wife, Molly and their daughters, Nora and Madeline. He is retired from a career in economic development and marketing. This is his first published work of creative non-fiction.