Three years after Mac “Dr. John” Rebennack died at 77 in 2019, Rounder Records released Things Happen That Way, a low-key, reflective album that favored country music over the piano-driven New Orleans R&B, funk, and jazz that had been his stock in trade. Some fans love the album, and the reviews generally were favorable. But the song selection (which included “Gimme That Old Time Religion”, something I would never have expected, much less wanted, from Dr. John), an unnecessary remake of his voodoo classic “I Walk on Guilded Splinters”, and the general aura of decline made the album a less than rewarding experience for this longtime fan.
Fortunately, Things will not go down in history as Dr. John’s last testament. With the release of The Montreux Years, we have a fitting tribute to Rebennack’s artistry that is a joy to hear. The album comprises 14 performances recorded from 1986 to 2012 at the Montreux Jazz Festival in Switzerland. The selections cover New Orleans R&B and funk, pop, and jazz standards, with four Rebennack compositions, among them his only Top 10 hit, “Right Place, Wrong Time”. The bands, including his long-running Lower 911, change over the 26 years, but each ensemble supports the leader with consummate skill.
Malcolm John Rebennack, born in New Orleans in 1941, began his life in music as a teenager in the 1950s, playing on sessions recorded by the legendary engineer and studio owner Cosimo Matassa. He mainly played guitar, but after he lost part of a finger in a French Quarter barroom shooting, the piano became his primary instrument. The young Rebennack met pianist Henry Roeland “Professor Longhair” Byrd, whose music, an irresistible blend of blues, boogie-woogie, and New Orleans rhumba, thrilled Rebennack and made him want to pursue a career as a performer.
Over six decades, Rebennack released 30 studio albums and nine live recordings; he won six Grammys and was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. His debut album, Gris-Gris (1968), introduced his voodoo-inspired Dr. John the Night Tripper persona. The album’s centerpiece was the eight-minutes-long “Guilded Splinters”, with Dr. John boasting of his mystical powers and warning his enemies of his wrath (“Walk thru the fire / Fly thru the smoke / See my enemy / At the end of dey rope”). With its spooky aura and humid atmosphere, Rebennack’s raspy, minatory vocal, the spectral saxophone wailing on the turnarounds, and the quartet of backing singers (Jessie Hill, Ronnie Barron, Shirley Goodman, and Tami Lynn) chanting “Till I burn up!”, “Splinters” was like nothing else released at the time, a stoner fantasia steeped in local culture and its mysteries.
Rebennack followed up Gris-Gris with three records that continued his exploration of New Orleans culture and voodoo lore, Babylon (1969), Remedies (1970), and The Sun, Moon & Herbs (1971). In 1972, he recorded Dr. John’s Gumbo, a collection of classic New Orleans R&B numbers, including three written by or associated with his mentor and friend, Professor Longhair. As he related in his memoir Under a Hoodoo Moon, Rebennack decided he’d “had enough of the mighty-coo-de-fiyo hoodoo show” and “dumped the Gris-Gris routine” to come up with a new act, “a Mardi Gras revue featuring the New Orleans standards we had covered in Gumbo“. Twenty years later, he recorded another album that honored the music of his hometown, with a title that couldn’t have been a more explicit statement of purpose.
Goin’ Back to New Orleans is more ambitious than Gumbo. Its 18 tracks span 200 years of New Orleans musical history, from “Litanie des Saints”, inspired by 19th-century Creole composer Louis Moreau Gottschalk’s “Souvenir de Porto Rico, to Jelly Roll Morton’s “Milneburg Joys” to the 1950s, with Fats Domino’s “Blue Monday” and the title track, first recorded in 1952 by Joe Liggins and His Honeydrippers. Rebennack works his magic on the Mardi Gras Indian song “Indian Red”, Louis Armstrong‘s “Basin Street Blues”, and Lead Belly’s “Goodnight Irene”. With its superb song selection, Rebennack’s boogie-blues-rhumba piano and signature vocals, and guest appearances by New Orleans stalwarts like the Neville Brothers, trumpeter Al Hirt and clarinetist Pete Fountain, jazz singer and guitarist Danny Barker, and saxophonist Alvin “Red” Tyler, Going Back to New Orleans is a high point of Rebennack’s career and my favorite Dr. John album.
Over the following years, the prolific Rebennack recorded a series of albums that ranged from mixed bag to excellent. (I’m particularly fond of Bluesiana Triangle, a 1990 jazz trio date with Art Blakey and David “Fathead” Newman, and the 2000 Duke Ellington tribute, Duke Elegant.) In 2012, he released Locked Down, produced by Black Keys guitarist Dan Auerbach, which won the Grammy for Best Blues Album. That year, he and Auerbach performed the album as part of a three-weekend residency at the Brooklyn Academy of Music.
Though the Night Tripper face paint and costumes were long gone, Rebennack remained a flamboyant figure, bushy-bearded, with a long braid down his back, rocking a purple suit and matching banded fedora, his African walking stick at his side. He moved slower than he used to, but his fingers were as fleet as ever. On the night of the residency dedicated to Louis Armstrong, he performed a few of the tracks that would appear on Ske-Dat-De-Dat: The Spirit of Satch, the 2014 Armstrong tribute that would be the final Dr. John album released in his lifetime.
Mac Rebennack’s last years were marked by ill health; a 2014 show in Central Park was canceled at the last minute; we watched in alarm as an ambulance showed up to take him to the hospital. At a 2017 “Piano Summit” at New York’s Town Hall, he shared the stage with another great New Orleans pianist, Henry Butler. Rebennack was overshadowed by the rousing, magnificent performance of Henry Butler, who also was ill at the time with terminal cancer. At times Rebennack just laid out, letting Butler take over.
Two years later, on 6 June 2019, he died from a heart attack. In 2020, blues singer Shemekia Copeland eulogized him as the “Blackest white man that you ever seen” in her tribute, “Dirty Saint”. Mac Rebennack specialized in the Black-originated music of New Orleans; Professor Longhair mentored him, and he worked with the genius pianist James Booker and many other Black musicians. He was born in New Orleans’ Third Ward, which was segregated, but as he recalled in Under a Hoodoo Moon, “this pattern of segregation didn’t follow no strict line”; instead, there was “a funky checkerboard of races… In spite of the best efforts of segregation, the races had a natural tendency to mingle and mix, jook and jive, rock and roll. Wherever you went—black neighborhood or white—there was a real feeling of community.” Mac Rebennack, in his life and work, threaded together the cultural strands of a predominantly Black and also polyglot city.
In his later years, he came to be seen as an elder statesman and an avuncular figure, the leading avatar of New Orleans music, a passionate advocate for his city, and, after Katrina, an angry critic of its neglect by the government. It can be easy to forget what a rebel and outlaw he was in his younger days. In his memoir, he’s remarkably candid about his early life, which was as wild and raunchy as Stack-A-Lee’s (minus the murder) or any other badass made mythic in the blues. Rebennack came up in the Mafia-dominated 1950s French Quarter entertainment scene. He was a self-described “dope fiend” for decades and served time in federal prison. He was a pimp. In the early 1960s, he fled New Orleans to escape district attorney Jim Garrison’s crackdown on “vice”. As a writer for the New Orleans Times-Picayune observed, Rebennack was no stranger to “crime, violence, hospitalizations, arrests, affairs, divorces, dirty dealing, sheer craziness”.
But he eventually kicked his heroin habit, leaving the gangsta life behind to concentrate on writing, recording, and performing. He also was a generous collaborator, working with the Rolling Stones, Van Morrison, Ringo Starr, Gregg Allman, Willy DeVille, Aaron Neville, Rickie Lee Jones, Levon Helm, Harry Connick, Jr, and many more. Rebennack attended to his troubled family life, reconciling with his estranged children. “My Children, My Angels,” from Locked Down, is a moving mea culpa for his parental failures.
Mac Rebennack never entirely shed the Dr. John mystique, but it didn’t outshine the music. The Montreux Years captures him in top form, from its dazzling opening track, the solo piano piece “Professor Longhair Boogie”, to the rollicking closer, “Goodnight Irene”. “Goin’ Back to New Orleans” leaves the Crescent City for the Caribbean to become raging salsa, with Rebennack playing guajeos (Afro-Cuban syncopated patterns) and Lower 911 saxist Ronnie Cuber (who appeared on some of pianist Eddie Palmieri’s greatest recordings) taking an extended, scorching solo. That Rebennack would make a terrific salsa pianist shouldn’t surprise; he absorbed the Afro-Cuban rhythms that have been part of New Orleans music since the 19th century, including the three-beat tresillo rhythm that drives many of the R&B hits of the 1950s.
The pop standards “Accentuate the Positive” and Cole Porter’s “Love for Sale” from 2007 are ingeniously arranged, especially the latter, which opens with David Barard laying down a bluesy bass line and Cuber on tenor sax. Rebennack remarks after the song ends, “That ain’t the way Cole Porter composed it, but it’s damn sure the way we do it!” The quietly emotive rendition of his ballad “Rain” (2007) shows off his tender side, while the seven-minute-plus medley “In a Sentimental Mood / Mississippi Mud / Happy Hard Times” is a tour-de-force of New Orleans pianism.
A young Trombone Shorty joins Rebennack for a raucous, joyous 2011 performance of “Big Chief”, the sprightly rhumba-boogie written by Earl King but most associated with Professor Longhair. The album ends like it began, with a solo piano performance. Rebennack dedicates “Goodnight Irene” to James Booker (whom he famously described as “the best black, gay, one-eyed junkie piano genius New Orleans has ever produced”) and, like Booker, he turns Lead Belly’s folk standard into romping boogie-woogie.
The 14 performances that make up The Montreux Years were recorded with clarity and depth, albeit with occasional variations in volume levels. The CD booklet has color photographs, track-by-track listings of the performances and the players, and heartfelt notes by producer Russ Titelman, a close friend of Rebennack’s. The Montreux Years gives us Mac “Dr. John” Rebennack at the peak of his powers, just as I, and I’m certain most of his fans, want to remember him.