In his earliest memory of the Mardi Gras, Malcolm (Mac) Rebennack, alias Dr. John, watched in amazement as a frightful but fascinating apparition rode toward him on horseback.
His father, Malcolm Sr., had taken little Mac to see the annual Mardi Gras procession through their neighborhood, the Third Ward of New Orleans. The highlight of Mardi Gras was the traditional parading of black social clubs whose members dressed as Indian warriors in wildly colorful feathered-chieftain regalia--a tradition with close ties to the development of the funky sound of New Orleans R&B music.
"My first recollection, which still sticks with me today, was standing on Claiborne Avenue and seeing an Indian on a horse," Rebennack said in a recent phone interview from his home in New Orleans. "He was all dressed up in feathers, and he hid his face. He had like spider webs (painted) on his face and body. It was like seeing a Frankenstein movie to me. It was scary; it was like unreality. My father had to pull me out of the way--he was coming right at me. This guy had a sawed-off shotgun, and he was firing in the air to clear the streets for the tribe. I saw this puff of smoke and colored beads come out. It was beautiful to me."
Some 20 years later, when Rebennack made his first splash in the world outside New Orleans, it was with a musical persona swathed in the trappings of colorful, spooky "unreality" that had captured him as a boy. His character, Dr. John, the Night Tripper, emerged in 1968 on the album "Gris-Gris," leading a band of New Orleans players through one of the strangest sessions of a very spacey period in rock history. Sounding as if they were playing and singing in some mysterious, barely lit cave, Rebennack and friends took equal measures of voodoo lore and New Orleans funk, coupled it with a lysergic sense of the psychedelic, and announced themselves to the world.
For several years, Dr. John toured and recorded in his "Night Tripper" guise: wearing outlandish garb fit for a costume ball in Haight-Ashbury, sprinkling magic glitter-dust about the stage, and playing music that incorporated both the creepy voodoo chants and the buoyant, rhythmic funk of his hometown's tradition.
Dr. John hit his commercial peak in 1973 with the Top 10 hit "Right Place Wrong Time." But the Night Tripper persona wore thin after a while: "I gave up my identity . . . and it became a monster," Rebennack once said. "We became exactly all we hated about psychedelia."
So Dr. John went back to something more basic: a performing life as a consummate musician who is an important link in the long and rich tradition of New Orleans R&B. In particular, Rebennack is a member in good standing of the grand society of piano players who emerged in the Crescent City after World War II: a line that runs from founding father Professor Longhair through Fats Domino and Huey (Piano) Smith, Art Neville, James Booker and Allen Toussaint.
Now in his early 50s, Rebennack--who plays Saturday at the Rhythm Cafe--has led a wide-ranging musical life that seems to grow more varied as he goes along. All of his travels haven't softened his signature thick, low, rasping voice. Also intact is his accent, which, substituting "wit" for "with," "dem" for "them" and "boid" for "bird," makes you wonder whether New Orleans was originally settled by cab drivers from Brooklyn.
A roll-call of recent projects attests to that variety. In 1989, Dr. John released "In a Sentimental Mood," an album of blues and saloon standards. Its version of "Makin' Whoopee" won a Grammy Award in the best jazz vocal category for Rebennack and his duet partner, Rickie Lee Jones. The same year he served a hitch playing rock 'n' roll in Ringo Starr's "All Starr-Band" comeback tour.
In 1990, Rebennack collaborated with the late jazz drummer Art Blakey and saxophonist David (Fathead) Newman on an album, "Bluesiana Triangle." And in '91, he co-produced and played a key songwriting and performing role on "Johnny Adams Sings Doc Pomus: The Real Me," an excellent, highly emotional tribute recorded shortly after Pomus' death. Pomus, a well-liked New York songwriter who was posthumously inducted into the Rock 'n' Roll Hall of Fame, was a longtime friend and songwriting partner of Rebennack. (His death also inspired Lou Reed's album, "Magic & Loss.")
Last year, Dr. John looked back over more than 100 years of his hometown's musical history on the album "Goin' Back to New Orleans." The cover of "Goin' Back to New Orleans" can be seen as a visual echo of Dr. John's first memory of the Mardi Gras: this time he's the one wearing the opulent, feathery costume and headdress of a Mardi Gras Indian--garb befitting one of the chiefs of the New Orleans music scene.
Like the Mardi Gras Indian parades, New Orleans R&B is a black cultural tradition. Rebennack is white, but growing up he was uniquely well-situated to cross racial barriers and become an integral part of a scene created and dominated by black musicians.