DR. JOHN: ON AND ON THE LIGHT GOES
If there is a living person who embodies the spirit of New Orleans, that person is Dr. John, a guitarist-turned-gunshot-victim-turned pianist who supercharged jazz and funk with his own special blend of voodoo mysticism, R&B, and rock’n’roll. His most recent album, Ske-Dat-De-Dat: The Spirit of Satch, is a collection of songs by and associated with legendary New Orleans musician Louis Armstrong, featuring guest performances by the Blind Boys of Alabama, Arturo Sandoval, Bonnie Raitt, and Pancho Sanchez. He performs Sat., Dec. 6, at UCLA Royce Hall and joined us along with his co-producer, Sarah Morrow, to talk about livers, kitchen knives and arguing with that Spiritualized guy. This interview by Kristina Benson.
You make it look so easy when you play piano. I know that the piano isn’t your first instrument. How long did it take you to feel comfortable and feel like a pianist?
Dr. John: Well, after I got shot in my finger it took me—that really had a real bad effect on me. I’m sure that some things happened along that route that was very—real weird to me. But back in the day, in Jacksonville, Florida, this guy was pistol-whipping this young singer with the band.
Sarah Morrow (co-producer): Literally with a pistol?
Dr. John: Yeah, and I was trying to get the gun out of his hand, cuz the singer with the band was Ronnie Barron and his mother had told me ‘If anything happens to my son while he’s on the road with you, I’m gonna cut your cojones off.’ And she was cutting some meat when she said that, and I saw this like—the knife she cut the meat with. Wow. And it just hit—oh wow, ok! And I remember that—right when he was pistol-whipping Ronnie I thought ‘Oh man, I can’t let this happen!’ His mother Miss Mildred was really a good lady, and I respected her a lot and I remember that so many people lived around Ronnie that was great musicians and great people and that was on the West Bank of New Orleans. It was a blessing because I did the best I could. I thought my hand was over the handle but it was over the barrel, and that was a mistake.
Sarah: Oh my God—you mean it was like a direct shot? I never knew that.
Dr. John: Yeah—it went just right through my finger. And my finger was hanging by a piece of skin.
Did you just shove your finger back on the other part of your finger and wrap it up and hope for the best, or what did you do?
Dr. John: No. They put it back on in the hospital and they sewed it back on very poorly and it never did work right.
Sarah: That’s why it’s crooked now. And it’s like a piece is missing. Oh my god. So how do you play piano so great? You need all your fingers to play the piano.
Dr. John: I try to avoid that finger when I play the piano.
Is it your left hand?
Sarah: It’s his left ring finger.
Dr. John: Bending strings with that finger on the guitar caused me a lot of problems on the guitar, and it still does.
Sarah: But you bend notes like I’ve never heard anyone bend notes the way you do it on the guitar.
Dr. John: It’s just that I have to bend notes. It’s something I don’t like to do.
You played piano with Spiritualized. You guys have such different styles, so what did you have to do to it fit together?
Dr. John: Did you know that I always argued with this guy from Spiritualized? I can’t think of his name now, but he was—we could argue forever and it wouldn’t be an argument, it would always turn into something that was … we both learned something from it. And that was something I enjoyed. This guy was in my life just to argue with me and that’s a blessing. I remember this guy Santos, and he used to be always arguing with me about anything. I told him, ‘Oh man, you can’t do that,’ and he says ‘come by my gate and I’m gonna show you something.’ And he worked in the morgue and he pulls up a liver and says, ‘See this liver? It has cirrhosis. You probably have cirrhosis.’ And I did have cirrhosis of the liver. And wow. It was like, ‘How did he know that?’ It was just an amazing revelation from me that some guy would just argue with me all the time and that guy from Spiritualized would argue with me all the time, and those are good things. And I enjoyed playing on that record with Spiritualized. I played on so many sessions, it’s ridiculous. I mean, when I think of—wow. Playing those sessions, you name somebody—Aretha Franklin or Dolly Parton—I worked on sessions with them.
That lesson about the dangers of liver cirrhosis sounds very effective.
Dr. John: I had a bad case of that, the next stage was death. And so that’s where my liver was at that time. But now my liver is not detectable. Your liver is the most healing organ in the body and one thing I have studied a lot of about is my grandmother knew a lot of things, she was a blessing. And I loved her very deeply, but she always would make me laugh even though she would get mad at me and tell me, ‘Go get that bamboo in the backyard and get one that’s got a little sting to it.’ And she would whip with me that, and I would rather my dad whip me. That’s how life was back when I grew up. Everything has changed in ways that I don’t feel is a good thing.
You’re named after Dr. John, a nineteenth century New Orleans medicine man who was I guess kind of a colleague of Marie Laveaux, the famed voodoo priestess. How does the spirit of the original Dr. John inhabit the new record?
Dr. John: Well. Wow. That question left me hanging. Wait a minute. Uh.
Sarah: That’s a good thing because he’s always asked the same questions so it’s good that you put enough thought into this.
Dr. John: I think my great-great-great aunt Pauline Rebennack did something with [the 19th century Dr. John.] And all I know, it was in a book by Lafcadio Hearn and that’s all I know, and I have never read the book, but I—only because that was on the tickets I did for [an early gig I did]. That I know that. And that’s a total accident that they put that on the tickets of the actual gig.
With this record you are taking a lot of songs that have been made known by really world-class musicians from New Orleans. How did you balance respect for their interpretations of these songs with your own ideas?
Dr. John: Sarah did a great job of arranging the record and she produced the album with me. And the best thing that she did to me was she just—she was amazingly hip in writing charts that I had no—she wrote a chart on ‘Memories of You’ early in the game, and I’ll never forget that chart. It’s something that will always stick in my head even though gig to gig I almost forget it but it’s something special. And I feel that, ‘Memories of You’ was written by—I can’t remember the guy’s name—but he was one of those old school guys that was like into—he wrote—I forget what they call it? Ragtime music. And he was a long long time ago. But I met the guy. I met a couple of those guys back in the day. He was a real special one but I met him and I met this other guy, they called him the Duke, and there was this other guy—an actor that wrote ragtime songs. They were real special to me.
Sarah: The best way you can give respect to a great artist is to do it in your own way. Louis Armstrong specifically came to Mac in a dream and said ‘Do my music your way,’ and what we can take from that is that the greats—they’ve already done it! They don’t even want us to do it like them, they want—there’s gotta be a certain amount of respect if we’re able to take what they do and then reinterpret it in a different way. So by doing that is respect t what they’ve done. And there’s always nods to things they’ve done too—there’s little things here in there that maybe the general listener won’t know, or even the educated listeners may not know unless they actually have a conversation with Mac and I in detail about each song. And say like ‘well on this song, we added this little lick here as a nod to such and such. Mac mentioned ‘Memories of You’—do you remember, Mac, that song … and I was trying to think of this the other day before we did the Grammy thing, there was something that you played for me that was Louis Armstrong and it was over a pedal chord, and it was just like improvised. Do you remember what that song was? And that’s how that pedal chord in the intro came about. And of course I went somewhere completely different with it, but it’s always a nod—
Dr. John: I think there was—there was several tracks that you did something that I think that the chart you did on ‘Mac the Knife’ and ‘Wonderful World’ were amazing. But I also thought that there was charts that you did like ‘Gut Bucket Blues’—I thought that chart was amazing.
Sarah: Mac wanted six horns. It was two trumpets, trombones, alto sax,tenor sax, and bari sax. It’s a lot! And there’s a few songs that have just four horns because we had to do this show at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, and he just had four horns and we just happened to keep those charts. And one, ‘Motherless Child’—I did that for three horns, but that was a musical choice. I wanted to create the overtones of Anthony Hamilton’s voice, so I used three horns and all the parts are kind of the overtones. But Mac was the one who said ‘I want this,’ and like ‘World on a String’—that was trombone, trumpet, baritone sax, flute, clarinet, and bass clarinet. That’s just insane! I just said to Mac, ‘let’s just use clarinet,’ and Mac said, ‘No, I want you to write for this!’ I mean that’s such an insane instrumentation but it worked and it worked great! But that’s Dr. John—just throwing it out, saying ‘I want this’ and then you just have to do it!
Dr. John: You put in a bass clarinet. Sarah did some really very deep and hip arrangements.
Sarah: But the thing is, if you hear it, you need to have background to understand ‘this is out of the range of the instrument.’ You have to know certain parameters but aside from that, if you can hear it, they can play it.
I imagine that in the 60s and 70s, and even the 80s, bands didn’t necessarily have the opportunity to pick their sound in the same way that bands do now. For a lot of reasons, bands today aren’t just drawing from and competing with their contemporaries—they’re being influenced by every band that ever was and every band that exists now. How did you pick the right mix from all these different sounds while not compromising the essence of Dr. John?
Sarah: That’s a good question. What we did is … through trial and error we kind of figured out that the best way to approach the recording of this music is to do it all live in the studio at the same time. That was out of respect for Louis Armstrong. That was the first step—realizing that we wanted to do it all live. And that was because that’s the way Louis did it.
Dr. John: One of the things that is amazing to me is that in doing all these great charts that Sarah brought, she got me out of the zone that I was pretty much stuck in for awhile and that was a blessing. I’m not knocking Dan Auerbach’s record that we did, but I’m saying that prior to that I had a little space of time when I got caught up in a rut, and that’s a problem.
What kind of a rut?
Dr. John: I was caught in a thing that was like … we made a record called Tribal prior to this record and that record, I let the band pick the songs. And that was not a good idea. But there was a lot of songs that … Bobby Charles passed away during the record and he couldn’t finish the recording with me and finish the songs to my satisfaction and I tried to make it all work anyway. But that wasn’t a great idea. But it opened the door for Lockdown and that was a good thing, but on and on the light goes—when you live every day and you appreciate all of the blessings that life gives you in every way, then it opens your nose up, everything up, your spirit and that’s a good thing. And I had gone through a lot of ridiculous stuff before that, but I feel like everything is going good.
What’s special about New Orleans in terms of the music scene? Historically it’s produced a disproportionate number of world-class musicians.
Dr. John: I started working in recording sessions a long time ago in the 1950s, and I think the first session I did was with Earl Palmer, and he became a studio drummer. He was in California, and then he came out here. There were a bunch of guys that was really great musicians played on that session. But then from there on, that was something that Paul McGillion produced. Over the years I got very close to Harold Battiste and we became very good partners and he produced the first Dr. John record for me. He produced Gris Gris and Bablyon and I from then on did a lot of other stuff.
What can people expect to see at a Dr. John show?
Dr. John: I write a different show every day and I try to keep everything fresh. That’s the most important thing to me.
DR. JOHN AND THE NITE TRIPPERS ON SAT., DEC. 6, AT ROYCE HALL AT UCLA, 340 ROYCE DR., LOS ANGELES. 8 PM/ $19-$69 / $15 FOR UCLA STUDENTS / ALL AGES. TICKETS AT CAP.UCLA.EDU. DR. JOHN’S SKE-DAT-DE-DAT: THE SPIRIT OF SATCH IS AVAILABLE NOW FROM CONCORD. VISIT DR. JOHN AT NITETRIPPER.COM.