Mac Rebennack didn't mean to play the role of Dr. John himself. But there he was in Los Angeles in 1967, playing on Jackie De Shannon and Canned Heat sessions, feeling homesick for New Orleans. Like so many of his hometown musicians, he'd been pushed out by district attorney (and soon-to-be JFK assassination pot-stirrer) Jim Garrison's 1963 campaign to close down the French Quarter's nightclubs. Rebennack longed for the days when he was playing guitar for such masters of New Orleans funk as Earl King and Huey "Piano" Smith, and he had an idea how to recapture that time. He would dress up a singer in the beads and plumes of a Mardi Gras Indian and name him after Dr. John, the legendary rival of the voodoo queen Marie Laveau.
When he plays Nashville tonight, Rebennack will appear as Dr. John. But in 1967 he wanted his high school pal Ronnie Barron, a terrific blue-eyed soul singer and keyboardist, to assume the role. In 1961 Rebennack had lost his left ring finger while trying to wrest a gun away from a jealous husband assaulting Barron at a Florida motel. The finger was reattached, but Rebennack had to give up the guitar and teach himself organ and piano. But with the good-looking Barron in costume and Rebennack leading a crack rhythm section of New Orleans refugees, they hoped to escape the hell of yet another Sonny and Cher session.
"Harold Batiste was hooked up with Sonny and Cher," Rebennack told me in 1985. "I had had some drug problems, and I was under a lot of heat back home, so I came out to L.A. I didn't dig it too much; it was like playing a bunch of arpeggios forever. If the music is good and the musicians are good, I enjoy it no matter what the style, but if the music is phony, it's not good to mess with it, even if you need the money. And I needed the money.
"So I had this idea that I could turn each gig into a mini-Mardi Gras, and I was going to make Ronnie Dr. John. I'd never had any training to be a frontman, and I liked to be the producer, like a movie director. But Ronnie's manager, Don Costa, didn't like the idea. That pissed me off, so I did it myself. The gris-gris show made me feel comfortable, because it's easier to draw on something that's part of your life than from some Fig Newton of your imagination."
He knew how to play a role, because he remembered the days before R&B was on television and before photos were on 45 sleeves, when unscrupulous New Orleans booking agents would send several Guitar Slims and several Huey "Piano" Smiths out on the road at once to take advantage of a hot single. He had seen Earl King pass himself off as Slim and James Booker pass himself off as Smith, so why couldn't Rebennack pass himself off as Dr. John?
But how much of a role was it really? If you interview Rebennack, he really talks like that, referring to the "Fig Newton of your imagination," the "tricknology" of songwriting, the "little walla, walla, halla" of Professor Longhair's stage banter and to blues songs that would make "a sucka jump outta window." On Rebennack's latest comeback album, Locked Down, recorded at Easy Eye Sound — the studio of The Black Keys' Dan Auerbach — with Auerbach as producer, guitarist and co-writer, the lyrics are prime-time Dr. John-speak. Just listen to "Big Shot" with its warning to all wallflowers: "If you don't follow that ratty second-line file," Rebennack growls in his gravely baritone drawl, he'll "snatch ya up, light ya up, make ya smile. If you're stalled at the wall, gonna be balled with style, send ya to the precinct for loitering, child."
What Auerbach and his handpicked band (drummer Max Weissenfeldt, keyboardist Leon Michels, bassist Nick Movshon, guitarist Brian Olive and backing singers The McCrary Sisters) have done on Locked Down is get Rebennack to recommit to the role of Dr. John. For obvious marketing reasons, Rebennack has slapped the Dr. John tag on every project he does, even when he's not playing the voodoo legend but rather a jazz pianist, Brill Building tunesmith or Crescent City Tom Waits. Rebennack is always interesting in these other roles, but seldom compelling. It's only when he dons the beads, feathers and bones of his Dr. John persona — as he does on the cover of Locked Down — that he truly shines.
"I kept changing shows," Rebennack admitted in 1985. "I made a protest show one time; I had an R&B revue, and oldies-and-goodies show. I threw different parties to keep myself from getting strung out on one thing. But people constantly want to see the gris-gris, so I nickel-and-dime a show out of Mardi Gras and the voodoo church whenever I can."
How did Auerbach and his posse get Rebennack back in character? Not only by cooking up some relentlessly muscular syncopation, but also by adding melodies with the African flavors of Mardi Gras funk. Don't forget that Auerbach's regular band got its start by translating the equally African flavors of Mississippi Hill Country blues into Akron rock 'n' roll. By doing something similar here, he provides the "gilded splinters" for Rebennack to walk upon. The good doctor responds with his best album since his classic 1972-74 trilogy of Dr. John's Gumbo, In the Right Place and Desitively Bonnaroo — the latter, of course, being the album that gave Tennessee's most famous festival its name.