Mac Rebennack, otherwise known to millions of music enthusiasts as Dr. John, can claim one of the more storied careers of the past half century, steadily shifting guises in an ongoing quest to satisfy his own music muse.
Born and bred in New Orleans, Dr. John became one of the most influential proponents of that city’s signature sound, giving him a prominence that’s placed him on equal footing with New Orleans’ other great hometown artists — Louie Armstrong, Allen Toussaint, Professor Longhair, Fats Domino and the Neville Brothers among them.
In the late ‘50s and early ‘60s, he played a key role in the Los Angeles studio scene, enrolling in the so-called “Wrecking Crew,” that fabled group of musicians who were the key component on so many hits that originated from Southern California during the time. However, he gained particular prominence on his own when he transformed himself into the persona of Dr. John the Night Tripper, a spooky musical medicine man whose elaborate costumes, glittery makeup, huge headdress, and elaborate mesh of bayou bravado and cerebral psychedelia made him a late-‘60s sensation, attracting the likes of Mick Jagger, Eric Clapton, and other rock luminaries to his rhythm and ritual.
As the ‘70s progressed, Rebbenack eventually discarded his mythical Night Tripper guise, focusing instead on recording songs with potential for wider radio success. One of those, “Right Time, Wrong Place,” became a standard of sorts, helping to establish Dr. John as a musician driven by reverence for his roots and a true appreciation for vintage jazz, rock ‘n’ roll, boogie, funk, R&B, and Tin Pan Alley. These days, he’s revered as both an archetype and an academic, an artist who offers homage to history while striving to keep it relevant and visible in the present.
Like many musicians, Rebbenack fell victim to the seduction of drugs, and the years he spent as a heroin addict have been well documented. He finally became clean in the late ‘80s, but not before I had my own awkward encounter with the great prior to a concert at the University of Miami in the early ‘70s. As a budding music reporter for the student newspaper, The Hurricane, I was given the task of obtaining an exclusive interview for the paper. Seeing him in full Dr. John regalia backstage in his dressing room made it auspicious enough. There he was, his face covered with layers of makeup, clad in a flowing robe bedecked with glittery appendages and multihued scarves and drapery. He sat by himself on a chair in the middle of the room, looking decidedly solemn as he stared ahead blankly, focusing on nothing in particular,
Being the trooper (as opposed to a tripper, night or otherwise), I gamely attempted to introduce myself. He offered little in the way of response, maintaining that oblivious gaze as if I weren't even there. In truth, he seemed totally disinterested in conducting any conversation whatsoever. Trying to hide the fact that I was totally intimidated and unsure of how to break the ice, I continued to ask questions but got no discernible response. I quickly became suspicious that the good doctor had ingested some of his own medicinal prescriptions, rendering him unable to communicate in any sort of reasonable manner.
Nevertheless, I pressed on, but it was quickly becoming apparent that the interview was going nowhere. Eventually, he ended it all by suggesting I speak to his road manager to obtain the information I was looking for. “He can answer all your questions,” Dr. John croaked in his mumbled N'awlins accent. Somewhat relieved, but also realizing that speaking to a member of the road crew isn’t exactly the same as speaking to the star, I retreated, eager to catch a breath and end my encounter.
Fortunately, the good doctor seemed to have recovered his faculties by the time he took the stage at the student union later that evening, spreading his mojo and juju with a wave of his walking stick while strutting about in a steady shuffle. It turned out to be one of the most mesmerizing performances I’d ever seen.
Rebennack apparently has revived the Dr. John and the Nite Trippers moniker, albeit with a slightly different spelling, perhaps to cash in on that notoriety that once trailed him all those years ago. Now sober after more than 25 years, one might expect a similar sojourn, sans the chemical additives.
Dr. John and the Nite Trippers, 8 p.m. Wednesday, October 7 at Parker Playhouse, 707 N.E. 8th Street, Fort Lauderdale. Tickets cost $37.50 to $57.50 via ticketmaster.com.
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