Song of the Day: “Life Is A Struggle” by Ronnie Barron, the original “Dr. John”

The “Song of the Day” features an unsung hero of New Orleans R&B, Ronnie Barron, performing Johnny Adams’ “Life Is a Struggle” in Los Angeles with a group including ex-Meters guitarist Leo Nocentelli and the late Harry Ravain on drums.

Mac Rebennack conceived of the “Dr. John” persona circa 1967 with the idea that his West Bank runnin’ pardner Ronnie Barron from Algiers Point would play the role of a tripped-out hoodoo man. However, Barron’s contract with RCA prohibited him from taking on the role, so Rebennack eventually morphed into Dr. John.

Born Ronald Raymond Barrosse in 1943, Barron worked with Rebennack during his early days as an A&R man for Specialty and Ace records in the late 1950s and early ’60s. Rebennack produced Barron’s first single, “Bad Neighborhood,” which was credited to Ronnie and the Delinquents. The pair later recorded “Talk That Talk” under the name “Drits and Dravey” for Harold Battiste‘s AFO label. Barron also served some time in a group called the Prime Ministers, featuring fellow New Orleanians Freddie Staehle (drums), Bobby Lonero (guitar), Eddie Zip (bass), Jerry Jumonville (tenor sax), and Wayne DeVilliere (organ).

After moving to California and declining the Dr. John role, Barron worked for Louie Prima for several years and concocted his own mystical stage persona, “Reverend Ether,” recording an album by that name for Decca.

By the 1970s, Barron had moved to Woodstock, N.Y., where he worked again with Rebennack as well as fellow Louisiana expatriate Bobby Charles, joining harmonica wizard Paul Butterfield’s Better Days group. This group cut a couple of standout albums – “Better Days” and “It All Comes Back” – featuring Charles and Barron compositions like “Small Town Talk” and “Louisiana Flood,” as well as great vocal performances from Barron. Besides doing some acting, Barron worked with BB King, Ry Cooder, John Lee Hooker, Big Joe Turner, Canned Heat, and Tom Waits. He died in 1997 of heart-related ailments.

As lagniappe, the video below is from Tom Waits’ “Heart Attack and Vine” album, which features Barron on piano and the late, great drummer “Big” Johnny Thomassie from the West Bank. Barron and Thomassie fuel this savage, swaggering exercise in total New Orleans junko blues, “Mr. Siegal.” Waits of course has worked with a range of other New Orleans sidemen, including Earl Palmer and Plas Johnson.

2 thoughts on “Song of the Day: “Life Is A Struggle” by Ronnie Barron, the original “Dr. John””

  1. Not to belabor the point, but NO’s own Herb Hardesty played in Tom Waits’s band for several tours in the 70s as well as “Blue Valentine.” Waits hass recognized–and been graced by–NO greats for a long time.

  2. Yeah, that’s my cousin, Ronnie. Gone but never forgotten. My Momma’s sister, my aunt Mildred’s lil’ boy. An absolute monster on the piano or Hammond organ. And his voice! I know of only a few singers brave enough to take on a Johnny Adams song. And Harry. Harry Ravain. Shortly before Ronnie passed away, Harry and I got to work together with a few acts. The Fabulous Boogie Kings included and that was a HOOT! Ronnie was one of the great influences in my life, along with my Father, brother Bob and fellow guitarist Emile Guess. I’ve been at it for over fifty years now. I thank them all for what I learned from them.
    As an aside, my eldest brother, Wayne (not a musician, but a painter of pictures), and Ronnie and Mac were runnin’ padners back in the day. You can see some of Wayne’s work in the cover art of Mac’s “Creole Moon” CD. All three raised homing pigeons as youngsters. They used to hang at the house, with other Algiers musicians and play their 45s and listen to WTIX and WYLD radio. It has been all around me, since my childhood. How could I not follow the Muse?

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