‘What a soul for New Orleans’: Allen Toussaint talks Dr. John ahead of Saturday tribute concert

Ever since he drug up out of some Louisiana swamp — or was it landed from outer space? — as part of the late-1960s underground, Dr. John has cut a mysterious figure.

His 1968 Atco Records debut Gris Gris, recently reissued by Real Gone Music, was put together on the fly — using available studio time originally allotted to Sonny and Cher. And just who this Dr. John was remained entirely unclear, though we now know he’d been hanging around studios for some 15 years (as Mac Rebennack, of course).

Within a few years, Dr. John had begun a fruitful relationship with New Orleans producing legend Allen Toussaint, who would add a clever pop sheen to his bubbling gumbo of hallucinogenic blues rock, eruptive Congo Square rhythms and free-form imagination. In the Right Place and Desitively Bonnaroo, both released on Atco in 1973-74, secured Dr. John his first radio airplay — bringing his seductive hoodoo to a national audience.

“Dr. John is, of course, a wonderful disciple of Professor Longhair,” Toussaint tells us, in an exclusive SER Sitdown, “but there are so many other good things that come along with him. He could do the whole thing — write, arrange, just do it all. What a soul for New Orleans. He’s been the city’s best ambassador since Louis Armstrong.”

Dr. John’s music — with a powerful assist from the Meters — became a well spring for the emerging genre of funk. Desitively Bonnaroo ultimately inspired the name of a four-day music festival held annually in Tennessee. And to think, Rebbenack originally wanted New Orleans singer Ronnie Barron to inhabit the Dr. John persona, while he presumably continued his career as an ace sideman. That history-changing moment was only averted when Barron was (luckily for us) unavailable at the time.

Dr. John, now 71, earned induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2011, Yet, as a recent collaboration with the Black Keys’ Dan Auerbach showed, Rebbenack remains his own thing — neither rock nor R&B, neither sanctified preacher nor haunted bluesman. He’s done a little of all of that along the way, of course. Even dabbled in big band music and standards. But there’s no pinning him down. And in that way, he’s become the very personification of his hometown, something that will be underscored during a special concert event to be held on Saturday, May 3, 2014, as part of the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival.

For Toussaint, who will be on hand, it’s a chance to reconnect with a magic period of creativity. “It was a lot of fun, a lot of fun,” he tells us. “For one thing, we always had a wonderful time. We didn’t always look at the big picture. We were making fun music, and doing it at our pace. It was pure joy.

Mavis Staples, Irma Thomas, Gregg Allman and Lucinda Williams are also among the featured performers for this weekend’s event, called The Musical Mojo of Dr. John: A Celebration of Mac and His Music and to be held at the Saenger Theatre. Don Was, musician and Blue Note Records label head, will serve as host.

Nick DeRiso

Nick DeRiso

Nick DeRiso has explored music for USA Today, All About Jazz and a host of others. Honored as columnist of the year five times by the Associated Press, Louisiana Press Association and Louisiana Sports Writers Association, he oversaw a daily section named Top 10 in the nation by the AP before co-founding Something Else! Nick is now associate editor of Ultimate Classic Rock.
Nick DeRiso