While Mac (Dr. John) Rebennack has always been on a roll when it came to motivating his fingers across a piano keyboard, his career has recently also begun to roll anew.
After a decade without a major label contract, his 1989 "In a Sentimental Mood" album for Warner Bros. (including a duet of "Makin' Whoopie" with Rickie Lee Jones) put him back on the charts, and now he's preparing another set for the label. His Windham Hill "Bluesiana Triangle" collaboration with the late jazz drummer Art Blakey and sax man David (Fathead) Newman has been garnering rave reviews. And Rebennack has been popping up everywhere, from commercials for Popeye's Chicken to the new album by blues legend Charles Brown, with whom the 49-year-old pianist first worked when he was 15.
"Music goes in cycles, and things are bound to come back around sooner or later, it's just sometimes they come around a lot later than others," Rebennack said, speaking by phone from New York last week, before heading to California on a tour swing that includes a benefit concert Thursday at the Atrium Court in Newport Beach's Fashion Island. "But that's just part of the deal. If you're doing that pretty-boy poseur-rock kind of stuff, there's an instant market, like any other thing in that light bag. Our kinds of music don't have that, so you have to catch as catch can."
The New Orleans-bred musician began playing professionally when he was 13, having been tutored in the graces of the Crescent City's R&B music by such experts as Fats Domino guitarist Walter (Papoose) Nelson. Still in his early teens, Rebennack was playing guitar and keyboards with such legendary performers as Brown, Professor Longhair, Huey (Piano) Smith and Shirley & Lee. He concentrated chiefly on keyboards after he was shot in the hand when he tried to intercede with a fellow who was pistol-whipping his band's singer in a Florida nightclub in 1960.
Like fellow New Orleans masters Lee Allen and Earl Palmer, Rebennack moved to Los Angeles in the early '60s to participate in the active studio scene. He recorded with hundreds of artists, including producer Phil Spector and Sonny & Cher. The duo let Rebennack use their leftover studio time, with the result being one of the weirdest record debuts of the psychedelic era.
The 1968 "Gris-Gris" album introduced Dr. John to an unsuspecting world. The record was a spooky, swampy brew of incantational chants, hypnotic drums and Rebennack's gravelly vocals, which sounded as if they were being phoned in from a bayou graveyard. Rebennack gave his alter ego a colorful look that made him look half werewolf, half fruit salad. His concerts were a stagehand's nightmare of flying feathers and glitter.
Though to many listeners John's music was another lysergic byway of those freaked-out times; to him it was just down-home business as usual.
"To me, I was doing a hoodoo show, a Mardi Gras show. We were trying things that was real New Orleans tradition. I was just having fun with it. I feel it was at a time in music when there really wasn't much of nothing as far as a real show going on in show business, and we were trying to do something about it by bringing in that Mardi Gras tradition."
Rebennack has indeed since emerged as possibly the greatest touring exponent of New Orleans traditions. Along with his own fine piano stylings, he also has a command of the singular keyboard styles of Professor Longhair, James Booker and other departed masters. His touring band is made up of New Orleans musicians, including drummer Freddie Staehle and saxophonist Alvin (Red) Tyler, who go back with him over 30 years. (Tyler won't be at the Atrium Court date, which will feature West Coast horn players.)
Rebennack maintains two homes, one in New York--"where the business is"--and one in New Orleans. He feels the city's culture is unique because "it's a mixture of different cultures that in other places would stay to itself. Because New Orleans is a small place and people are so laid-back, everything gets kind of jammed together, all the different culture and musics and stuff. And it kind of winds up as one thing."
He expects to be sharing more of that one thing soon on recording projects with blues songwriting great Willie Dixon and fellow New Orleanian Aaron Neville. He's planning a new Warner Bros. album for the spring, one which he says won't repeat his last album, the successful "In a Sentimental Mood" standards set. "I try not to repeat the last anything," he said, "It's best to go on. You can't go back in life."
He feels fortunate to have been able to make the "Bluesiana Triangle" album, which was one of the Blakey's final recordings. "He was one of those very few one-of-a-kind people on the planet, as a drummer and as a person," he said. "It was a real honor and a privilege to work with the cat. It was real strange seeing him the night before he died. It just seemed 'This cat really has too much cheek and all to go.' Then the next morning he was gone."
It's frustrating to him that many musicians who devote their lives to their art never see a proper recompense for it, while others grow rich. But he also says it's part of the game.
"It's sometimes hard to look at things in a sensible way when you see stuff all around that just ain't got nothing to do with sense. It's like you spend all your life playing music and you see people that ain't playing music making a bundle, just doing the same thing as lip-syncing off a tape. It just depends on your priorities. Do you want to do that, or would you rather do what you're geared to do? Music has its own reasons. I always tell my kids, if they want to play music, it's something you do because you love it."