Noteworthy: Remembering Dr. John and the Importance of NOLA Music

A city on the Mississippi River, New Orleans has opened its loving arms to a variety of cultures, languages, cuisine, and lifestyles, carefully spreading all of these ingredients into the bouillabaisse that preserves their joie d'vivre. We lost one of the great ambassadors of New Orleans music and culture in Mac Rebennack, a/k/a Dr. John, The Night Tripper. Crowds as far as the camera eye could see gathered together to walk with his spirit just one more time after news spread of his passing at 77. 

A few years into my music habit, it was Dr. John's music that crystallized everything about New Orleans and its music. Once the gleam of the shiny new destination and its promise of unadulterated freedom wore off, the smallest hints of the city's music bored their way into my consciousness. Seeing the parades and hearing the bands and tribes one after the other separated the strands of DNA within that high-stepping Second Line rhythm. The calls they made, their rivals and the assembled crowds unveiled a mystery.

The Meters and The Neville Brothers sunk these specks of language into their songs. To discover "a talking melody" in a Meters song, like "Cissy Strut" or "Hey Pocky Way," was to grasp the essence of this music. To listen to those intoxicating rhythms find their way into the lascivious bump of Bounce and hear those chants and call-backs resurface in the delirious "Triggerman" beat simply modernized a terse rhythm that can never be denied.

Mac Rebennack grew up on those New Orleans streets, raised in the Third Ward amid racially and culturally-mixed families. Music flowed from house to house, and no one ever dreamed of turning it down. The open door policy allowed Jazz to pirouette around Boogie Woogie, and the Blues was dominant in the R&B of his day. Growing up in a large, musical family fed Mac's growing appetite. At 13, he met Professor Longhair. By 16, he was writing songs, working his way into the legendary Cosimo Matassa's studio.

There is something magical about these early years of New Orleans R&B. Listen to sides from Irma Thomas, Lee Dorsey, Eddie Bo and Chris Kenner, and you can hear how when the Blues traveled from the Delta to Chicago, Detroit and Los Angeles it became sophisticated. However, if it stopped in New Orleans, it retained the indescribable local flavor of that city. I still dig into these singles looking for some lost transmission.

Mac made that trip to Los Angeles and found himself a member of studio legends, The Wrecking Crew. In 1972, he was drafted to play piano on The Rolling Stones' "Exile on Main Street" and so began his ascension. Having listened to "Exile," I backtracked and found Dr. John in a mess of Jazz records. Still, he played with the Neville Brothers, Pete Fountain and tossed in some Leadbelly and Jelly Roll Morton. Any musical historian is deserving of more excavation.

In the search, I found a dark and mysterious album. There was Dr. John. As I ventured into this world, voices echoed and haunted me asking, "Did I murder?" The grizzled voice sang of "Coco Robicheaux. " Flutes melded with Middle Eastern guitars and phantasmagoric voices emerged. 

I pushed forward to "The Sun The Moon and Herbs" where the Doctor's piano sounded a little closer to the Stones’ track that brought me here. "Black John The Conqueror" played like a psychedelic Gospel song with horns ever-threatening to explode. "Where Ya At Mule" contained that slow Creole stride I remembered; that is, until the swampy "Craney Crow" growled and wooed me back into that voodoo trance.

If the Doctor was serving "Gumbo," we were sure to have a good time. While I don't remember just where he plays “comet" on the record, I do remember that I had been exposed to snatches of many of these songs. Walking into Tipitina's, I saw everyone rub the head of a statue. When I heard the Doctor play "Tipitina," I had that eureka moment. Those heavenly piano rolls and the joyous holler were written to rise above the din of everyone around you. The childhood rhymes of "Craney Crow" found their majesty in "Iko Iko" – and I was hooked.

Years later, I was at a picnic on campus. Everyone was eating shrimp and crawfish; the meal tent smelled like heaven. While imbibing, I caught the faint strain of music from the front of a building. "Joc-a-mo fee-no ai na-ne." I wandered forward, where for the next hour, some group of usic business survivors ran through every New Orleans song I had ever heard.

Today, I have a wild and unkempt music habit. I am always stretching my boundaries and there is not a week that goes by without at least some Meters or Dr. John. Listen to that New Orleans music and those syncopated intertwined rhythms, the slow bumpity-bump-bump or the faster strut; your memories flood back like no other. Personally, I owe all of that to the Night Tripper whose combination of Boogie Woogie, Blues, Funk, Soul, and Psychedelia continues to cast its spell on me. 

Mik Davis is the record store manager at T-BONEs Records and Cafe and GED instructor.