No musician embodies the depth and breadth of New Orleans music more than Mac Rebennack, better known as Dr. John. As a teenager in the 1950s, he played sessions with the city’s R&B giants. In the ’60s he brought the Crescent City sound to Hollywood, playing on countless sessions as part of the famed Wrecking Crew studio band. He also launched his solo career with Gris-Gris, an iconic album that fused roots music and psychedelia and introduced the Night Tripper, Rebennack’s voodoo-steeped alter ego.
But Dr. John’s career isn’t merely about his own recordings—he’s been a tireless advocate for his beloved hometown, its’ music, and its’ musicians. He spoke to us recently from his New Orleans home.

What first made you want to play piano?
My aunt Andrea taught me to play the Texas boogie, but I was so little, I needed both hands to play the bass part. The first record I fell in love with was Big Joe Turner’s “Piney Brown Blues,” with Pete Johnson on piano. There was a piano player who played on the corner bar near our pad on Jefferson Davis Parkway named Woo Woo [Herbert Moore]. He played the blues so great that I was intimidated and decided to study guitar.

all access dr.johnWhat was the ’50s session scene like?
I got to work with Earl King, Huey Smith, Joe Tex, and so many others. All those guys helped me learn to write songs. Huey Smith gave me books of children’s poetry. He’d say, “Take these and write something fresh based on them! If you get stuck on a melody, go listen to what the little girls are singing on the street.” The early dates I got to do with [drummer] Earl Palmer before he went out to California were special to me. One of the things I always loved about the old Yamaha drum machines was that they had some Earl Palmer beats!

They say Palmer was the first musician to use the terms “funk” and “funky.”
Yeah, he would always say things like, “Can we play it a little more funky butt?” or “Can we play it a little more funky knuckle?” He’d just say it with a twinkle in his eye, so that everybody knew what he meant. We were in the forefront of funky music back then. All the drummers who were playing funky in the ’60s copped to the fact that they had gotten something from New Orleans drummers, whether it was Earl, Hungry [Charles Williams], Smokey Joe Johnson, or Charles Woodruff.

In the ’60s you also went to California for session work.
Yeah, I played guitar, bass, piano, and percussion. I didn’t even know the studio band was called the Wrecking Crew! I just thought of us as “the studio band.” There were so many sessions: Phil Spector, Sonny & Cher, Dolly Parton, Dean Martin, Sammy Davis, Jr., Crosby, Stills & Nash. The music wasn’t always cool, but I did have a lot of fun.

You recorded your first album, Gris-Gris, while you were there. That was the debut of your alter ego, the Night Tripper.
We recorded Gris-Gris on some of Sonny & Cher’s unused studio time. The Night Tripper is one part of me. It’s just another side of the spiritual things that I’m about.

The Night Tripper returned on your last album, Locked Down, which was produced by Dan Auerbach of the Black Keys.
Dan is a very hip kid, and I love the way he’s producing stuff. He has a very old-school approach that felt very natural to me, like cutting vocal tracks live. I was used to that from the ’50s.

You’ve been playing Yamaha pianos for a long time.
Back in the ’50s I used those Yamaha studio spinets. You could add more tacks, which I always felt was a very hip thing. These days I get great Yamaha pianos for most sessions and gigs, and that’s a spiritually hip thing. [Dr. John usually requests Yamaha C3 6’1” grand pianos.]

What do you consider essential listening for people who want to learn about the great New Orleans pianists?
They should listen to James Booker, Jelly Roll Morton, Professor Longhair, Allen Toussaint, Huey “Piano” Smith, all those guys. I was lucky to play with all of them except Jelly Roll.

You’ve described Longhair as a father figure.
He was a good man, and he was special. He had a rough time. He had to do all kinds of weird jobs to get by, like mopping and typing—and he had no idea how to type! The best thing I ever got to do was produce a record for him, “Mardi Gras in New Orleans.” I’d have to say, I’m more proud of that record than anything else I’ve ever done.