His real name is still Mac Rebennack. More than 40 years after inventing “Dr. John, the Night Tripper” as a persona for his initial solo recordings and outrageous, mystical stage act, this New Orleans legend keeps a clear distinction between the persona and the accomplished musician and record producer behind it, although both characters share a penchant for hip patois. Witness Rebennack’s outgoing voicemail message, which urges callers to “make it sweet” because “Mac don’t want to hear nothin’ beat.”
On Friday, September 20, Rebennack will take the stage at the Granada Theatre as Dr. John for an evening of musical gumbo, that idiosyncratic, infectious blend of zydeco, boogie-woogie, rock ’n’ roll, pop, and jazz that has made him a national treasure. His 2012 album, Locked Down (produced by The Black Keys’ Dan Auerbach), has been acclaimed as one of the best of his career, and, as always, Dr. John doesn’t go anywhere without a stellar band. I caught up with the gravel-voiced Rebennack by phone last week, and he set me straight on a number of key issues, from the meaning of the expression “locked down” to the origin of his Dr. John persona.
Could you define the expression “locked down”? It’s a lot of things. When you don’t need any more, and you’ve got everything in place, then anything is possible, and “locked down” is one way of saying that’s where you are at. When it’s locked down, it’s all good. Like with this band I am bringing to Santa Barbara; I’ve got Sarah Morrow leading the group, and it’s locked down, because she’s a killer.
You’ve made a lot of great records, both in your career and recently. Do you enjoy going into the studio? Yeah, I always have a good time in studios because I have been a record producer since day one. I’ve recorded so many places — in New Orleans, but also in Los Angeles, New York, Miami, London — and I’m comfortable just about anywhere I can set up with a good room and a mixing board.
When you started in New Orleans you were making rock ’n’ roll records under your own name, but when you came out to Los Angeles you created the persona of Dr. John. How did that come about? I had gotten the offer to produce my own record, but the group that I was leading had a singer at the time that was not me, and the executives at the record label kept talking about how we should sound, especially in terms of the vocal style. “It should sound like Curtis Mayfield” they would say, or “What about a Staple Singers sound?” So finally I was like, “like something?” Why would I want to record an album that was like something that was already out? And I decided that I was not doing that. At the time I had a conga player in the band, Mo Pedido, he was from Cuba, and we were close. We were in the studio with ATCO Records, and the group recording right before us was Sonny and Cher. Anyway, Mo and I were listening to them, and they were big at the time, and Mo said to me, “Listen to Sonny, or Bob Dylan — you don’t have to put some singer out front. It’s your music; you should sing it yourself.” And he was right. My voice out front was the right move, and the Dr. John thing was a way of saying that’s what I had decided to do.
Is there anything you would like to say to people in Santa Barbara about the upcoming show? Anybody who can get there, they should know that it’s going to be a free-and-easy type of scene. I like to see people get rowdy.
Dr. John performs at the Granada Theatre on Friday, September 20, at 8 p.m. For tickets and information, call (805) 899-2222 or visit granadasb.org.