PITTSBURGH — Growing up as a New Orleans musician in the ‘40s and ‘50s, Mac Rebennack had a street-level view of the legend of Louis Armstrong.
“We’re both from the same neighborhood in New Orleans,” says the man who became Dr. John, “and every time my pa would pass his pad, he would say, ‘That’s where Louis Armstrong was born.’ He wouldn’t say ‘Satch’ or anything. He would say ‘Louis Armstrong,’ and that meant a lot to me as a kid.”
Dr. John’s dad had a general store that sold records, so “Louis was a slamming influence,” he says. “I remember when my pa was selling records — traditional jazz, bebop and Afro-Cuban music — and that was the three forms of jazz at the time. I can remember lots of Louis Armstrong.”
They met only once, in the office of their mutual manager, the infamous Joe Glaser, around 1967, three years before Armstrong died. He remembers their conversation being about a different store, Ralph Schultz’s Fresh Hardware, a popular gathering spot for any and all needs.
A few years ago, the two musicians had another conversation — of sorts.
“Louis came to me in a dream and said, ‘Do my stuff ... your way,’” Dr. John says. “I thought about it for a while. And then I just started doing it.”
The result is “Ske-Dat-De-Dat … The Spirit of Satch,” a vibrant, all-star tribute to Armstrong that comes out on Aug. 19.
Fittingly, it’s stacked with great trumpeters: Nicholas Payton (“What a Wonderful World” and “Gut Bucket Blues”), Terence Blanchard (“Mack the Knife,” “Wrap Your Troubles in Dreams”), Arturo Sandoval (“Tight Like This,” “Memories of You”), Wendell Brunious (“Thats My Home”) and James Andrews (“Dippermouth Blues”), along with the Dirty Dozen Brass Band (“When You’re Smiling”).
Dr. John, sounding as strong as ever at the mic at 73, gets vocal support from the Blind Boys of Alabama on “What a Wonderful World,” Bonnie Raitt on “I’ve Got the World on a String,” Anthony Hamilton on “Sometimes I Feel Like a Motherless Child” and Shemekia Copeland on a funk version of the insult-flinging duet “Sweet Hunk O’Trash.”
“It’s one of those songs he did with Billie Holliday that touched me big time back in the game,” he says. “When I was a kid, in the ‘40s, it was like, ‘Wow, this is a slick maneuver.’”
An early surprise on “Ske-Dat-De-Dat” is a hip-hop verse on “Mack the Knife.”
“We was rolling and I thought not only do I have Mike Ladd doing something on that song, but I have Telmary Diaz from Cuba doing a rap on another song (“Tight Like This”). And I just think you gotta put all the perspects in order.”
Of the long process of making the record, he says, “We did everything in sequential maneuvers. Hey listen, nothing is easy, but you gotta roll with everything in this racket, you know. After working with Joe Glaser, and when he was managing Louie Armstrong and Dizzy Gillespie, I had a feeling it was a good thing to do.”
He credits Glaser for giving “B.B. King and I good start.”
For Dr. John, it was in 1968 with “Gris-Gris,” a trippy album from druggy days that put a voodoo tinge on psychedelic rock. It’s ranked No. 143 on Rolling Stone’s list of the 500 Greatest Albums of All Time.
His more commercial breakthrough came in 1973 with “In the Right Place,” which featured his two signature songs, “Right Place Wrong Time” and “Such a Night,” latter performed at The Band’s landmark 1976 farewell “The Last Waltz.” It was one of the bigger showcases for Dr. John.
“I just remember that Robbie (Robertson) didn’t want the girl singers on that gig and then he had to overdub something, you know, with the Staples Singers and somebody. I can’t think right now. I’m sure I would have liked to brought my girl singers to spice it up a little, you know. And I had some bad girl singers back then.”
Along with churning out his own records at a rapid pace, he was a popular session musician for everyone from Sonny & Cher to Canned Heat. What stands out the most to him, he says, was “playing organ on Aretha’s ‘Spanish Harlem’ and using the same stop on James Taylor and Carly Simon’s ‘Mockingbird.’ Using the same stop on a lot of records, but it was Jimmy Smith’s organ and it had a good sound. That was the main thing about it all for me.”
Why was he using Jimmy Smith’s organ?
“I have absolutely no idea!,” he says. “But it seemed to be wherever I was at the time. It would be in California when I was there, it would be in New York when I was there. But that was cool.”
He has continued to be prolific, most recently with “Locked Down,” which was released a year after his Rock and Roll Hall of Fame induction in 2011 and won the Grammy Award for best blues album. On that record, he worked with producer Dan Auerbach, whom he gives high praise.
“He’s a damn good record producer because he’s got that open-mindedness. A lot of people who got that jacket of record producer don’t have it.”
Asked about the enduring presence of New Orleans music in the culture, Dr. John, a rather unpredictable and freewheeling interview subject, doesn’t wax nostalgic about the Meters or Professor Longhair or Satchmo or even himself.
“I just know that New Orleans is a place where a lot of people get ripped off,” he growls. “When I talk to my partner Huey Smith, he’s not getting his money and he wrote a ton of hits: ‘Rockin’ Pneumonia and the Boogie Woogie Flu,’ ‘Sea Cruise,’ just tons of hits. If he ain’t getting paid for that, you gotta think about it a minute because that’s my old partner, and most of my partners have passed away, but he is still on the planet and he’s not doing that great. That makes me feel weird. When I call him and talk to him, it’s like ‘Wow.’”
Asked about young musicians coming through the ranks in New Orleans, he says, “There’s a lot of people that are doing a lot of stuff that’s good. I ain’t gonna mention nobody because you’ll hear them when you hear them. You tell me what you think.”