RIP Dr. John: Two Hands And A Hundred Years of History

Dr. John
(Photo by Andy Sheppard/WireImage)

Dr John performing at Under The Bridge on July 18, 2012 in London, England.

It was easy to take Dr. John for granted. He was a bona fide road warrior, the performer who seemed to be always coming through town to play a club, theater or festival, the sort of act that if you caught him, you’d swear nothing would keep you away from seeing the next time he came to town.

He slowed down recently but still played more than 50 shows in 2016 and nearly as many in 2017, everything from assorted blues festivals to Nashville and New York’s City Winery locations and the Hollywood Bowl. Dr. John, who died Thursday at the age of 77, still had marquee value five decades after he struck out as a solo artist, turning his back on a lengthy career as a studio musician in New Orleans and Los Angeles. (Pollstar Boxoffice today lists a whopping 1,112 shows in its database.)

Dr. John, New Orleans Icon, Dead At 77

For concert-goers who forgot about him there were reminders in other media — “The  Last Waltz” and “Blues Brothers 2000” films, guest spots on “NCIS: New Orleans” and “Touched By an Angel” a performance with the Black Keys  at the 55th annual Grammy Awards in 2013 and a recurring role as himself on HBO’s “Treme.”

Those performances, like marquees that simply said “Tonight: Dr. John,” didn’t reveal what was truly going on with this ever-evolving artist. Each time he toured, the good doctor’s musical gris-gris had a different flavor, the spell he was about to cast would use different repertoire that covered the grand scope of America in the 20th century. Everything he did screamed New Orleans, but did so in a way that never felt contrived or overplayed — wave your white handkerchief elsewhere, please — and within that foundation, he explored worlds that ranged from Duke Ellington to psychedelia, swampy funk to elegant readings of the Great American Songbook, faithful readings of ‘Fess and Booker to originals stepped in ‘70s black funk.

It’s been 40 years since I first saw Dr. John, that time it was a full-on funk affair with him seated behind an electric piano. There would be a solo show at New York’s Bitter End, a set with a full horn section to promote his Grammy-winning “In a Sentimental Mood” in New Haven, Conn.;  a Duke Ellington-filtered-through-New Orleans tribute at the Hollywood Bowl; multiple shows at the L.A. House of Blues and a Grammy Museum show that alternated between performance and insightful commentary. The last time I saw him was a single song performance as part of a 40th anniversary celebration of “The Last Waltz” at the Lincoln Center Out of Doors Festival in 2016. 

(It helped that he generally didn’t scrimp when it came to side musicians. It’s a world of difference when a local is behind the drum kit vs. a guy who learned from the old records.)

He arrived sui genesis in 1968. In a sea of guitarists and sex symbol rock gods here was a piano player conjuring images of 19th century voodoo priests. It’s almost amazing he was able to secure a deal with a major: Buffalo Springfield, the Bee Gees and Vanilla Fudge were among his labelmates at Atco Records. His debut album “Gris-Gris,” was a confluence of the Fifth Ward and the Fillmore West, a blend of Crescent City R&B and psychedelic rock that pleased a few critics but confounded the Atlantic Records brass and a rock public that found the blues-rock of Led Zeppelin far easier to digest.

Dr. John stuck to his guns releasing albums that went deeper into that same amalgamation —  “Babylon,” “Remedies,” “The Sun, Moon and Herbs” — until he stripped the hippie haze of the music to make the throwback “Gumbo” in 1972. In the year rock & roll went theatrical with “Ziggy Stardust,” “School’s Out” and a landmark Rolling Stones tour, here’s Dr. John shedding all signs of the Night Tripper and returning to his roots to perform the music of New Orleans legends such as Professor Longhair, Sugar Boy Crawford, Huey “Piano” Smith and Earl King. Nobody else was making tribute records in 1972.

A year later he would score his biggest commercial success with the album “In the Right Place” and its two singles, the title track and “Such a Night.” He used the Meters as his backing band; Allen Toussaint played piano, produced and handled the arrangements. More than a decade after anyone had a seen a “New Orleans record” on the charts here was Dr. John redefining what it meant to be a hitmaker from south Louisiana.

That he wouldn’t return to the charts wouldn’t have much of an effect on his career. He was able to record and tour regularly as he shifted between the funkier elements of his early work to music that celebrated standards and standard bearers such as Duke Ellington and Louis Armstrong. He carried a torch for greatness, and his celebration was through the repertoire and the associates he chose to work with, everyone from Tommy Li Puma to the Black Keys’ Dan Auerbach, who produced his spectacular 2012 album “Locked Down,” a record unlike any other in his oeuvre. Here he was, 40-plus years into his recording career making music that wasn’t tethered to any element of his past. It won win a Grammy, his sixth, and confirmed the appropriateness of his induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame a year earlier.

I once had the pleasure of interviewing Mac Rebennack (his birth name) while he was seated at a piano. He answered questions by giving demonstrations, showing the evolution of certain sounds, chord changes, solo styles and how certain pianists employ percussion and others reach for elegance. Two hands, a hundred years of history.  As much as we’ll miss his talent  and distinguished growl of a voice, we’ll miss the historian, the man who cared about every element of his hometown, from its musical greats to the horrible treatment of residents in the wake of Hurricane Katrina. There are few like him left.