Mac Rebennack was born in 1941. Dr. John was born in 1967. What happened in between would color his whole musical career.
By Michael Hurtt
“In New Orleans, everything–food, music, religion, even the way people talk and act–has deep, deep roots; and, like the tangled veins of cypress roots that meander this way and that in the swamp, everything in New Orleans is interrelated, wrapped around itself in ways that aren’t always obvious.”–Mac Rebennack
In 1967, Malcolm Rebennack, Jr., exiled to the West Coast after a final drug bust that forbid him “to go to or through New Orleans,” donned face paint, glitter and plumes and emerged as Dr. John the Night Tripper.
His debut album Gris-Gris, and the stage shows that followed it, hawked a brand of psychedelic New Orleans R&B that mixed Mardi Gras Indian street chants with the primal gospel of holiness churches, the pianistic funk of Professor Longhair, heavy doses of hoodoo mysticism and nearly every shred of ritualistic South Louisiana culture that he’d absorbed during his decade and a half in the New Orleans music scene.
From the drag shows at the Dew Drop Inn to the electric guitar evangelizing of the Reverend Utah Smith, it was a netherworld far stranger and more colorful than anything the pioneer of voodoo rock could have dreamed up. His role in it, though often been eclipsed by his later metamorphosis, established a reputation that would inform every aspect of his later musical life.
Populated by high school greasers, high-rolling gangsters, down-and-out dope fiends and jive-talking record men, it was a world that had rapidly begun evaporating with the election of District Attorney Earling Carothers “Jim” Garrison in 1961. Prior to his widely known investigation into the Kennedy assassination, Garrison made his name locally by leading a systematic crack down on Crescent City vice that padlocked night clubs, juke joints and gambling dens. He often led the raids himself, pistol in hand, and by 1963 had managed to single-handedly dismantle the around-the-clock-party that had been Rebennack’s entire young life. It had been one of after-hours jam sessions that lasted well into the next day, followed by “record dates” that produced aural snapshots that just reeked with crazed rock ‘n’ roll atmosphere: Jerry Byrne’s frantic “Lights Out” and “Carry On,” Roland Stone’s narcotic anthem “Junco Partner,” and Mac’s own sinister, tremelo-charged “Storm Warning.”
“If we didn’t have an artist and we had some studio time we’d just be the artist,” Rebennack says of the sessions that produced hundreds of singles under monikers from Ronnie and the Delinquents to Drits and Dravy. The former’s 1959 “Bad Neighborhood” was a greasy period piece if there ever was one. Meant to commemorate “the end of the zoot suit era,” its gleeful lines of “Lie, steal, drink all day / good folks try to keep away,” was an outright celebration of the lifestyle that Garrison sought to eliminate.
And the Delinquents moniker was really no joke. “When we hired Ronnie Barron to be the singer with us, he was a li’l thug,” says Rebennack, who’d had remarkably bad luck with great front men thus far.
“We lost more singers to the penitentiary,” he says, naming nearly everyone who preceded Barron with the exception of Frankie Ford. “Deadeye went to the joint for manslaughter, Jerry Byrne fell and went up for statutory rape, then Roland Stone went up on narcotics.”
Local disc jockey Jim Stewart once recalled that Rebennack’s teenage bands “were always high, always late.” But somehow through the haze, Mac would manage to simultaneously wear the hats of talent scout, A&R man, composer, producer, arranger, session musician, and when the need arose, singer. It might have stayed that way had Barron not refused to take on the Dr. John persona, which was invented with him in mind.
Rebennack had started flirting with drugs when he was 12, already well seasoned in the art of skipping school and Mass to catch the street car to the early morning R&B jams at the Brass Rail. Since his father owned an appliance store that serviced jukeboxes, his childhood was spent wearing out stacks of hillbilly, jazz and blues 78s when they came off the boxes. Schooled on “Pinetop’s Boogie Woogie” by his piano-playing aunt, he soon took up the guitar. By the time rock ‘n’ roll hit during his freshman year at Jesuit High School, he was more than ready.
At Jesuit, Rebennack formed his first band the Dominos, with Henry Guerineau, then joined Guerineau’s the Spades with whom he played “the Holy Father Circuit,” as he refers it, starring at CYO dances from Redemptorist in the Irish Channel to Saint Anthony’s in Mid-City. His teachers were current and future Fats Domino guitarists Papoose Nelson and Roy Montrell, who took an axe to young Mac’s brand new green and black Harmony guitar. “He broke it all up, called my Pa and said, ‘Mr. Rebennack, I ain’t teachin’ your son on that piece of shit. Go pick him out something nice.’ I thought I was going to get killed. My Pa was hip, though. He knew it wasn’t about the guitar as much as having that guitar to bring on the gig.”
Montrell took Mac to a pawnshop where he picked out a Gibson that he worked off lugging appliances for his dad. “My father didn’t say a word til later,” Rebennack wrote in his autobiography Under a Hoodoo Moon. “Apparently Roy had taken him aside and told him, ‘I taught your son a lesson, that you don’t get things because of the way they look. You get them on how they work.”
“He had a way of teaching that kept me coming back for more. During the lesson, he strung me along with ordinary riffs–but then right at the end he’d play some killer lick, his back turned so I couldn’t see his fingers, and say, ‘Hey, wanna learn that shit, kid? Come back next week. Now get the fuck outta here.”
Having already met studio owner Cosimo Matassa, who was a friend of his father, Rebennack spent his schooldays honing his songwriting skills. “Man, I used to go to school, I had a couple of comic books where the outside cover looked like a loose leaf binder. And I’d sit there in class reading that. They thought I was doing something in school but I’d be sitting there writing songs, ripping them off from Mad or Tales from the Crypt.”
He’d also begun hanging out at Warren Easton High School on Canal Street, a hotbed of hip musical activity that had already birthed New Orleans first bona-fide white rock ‘n’ roll band, the Sparks. It was here that he first encountered saxophonist Leonard James, whose band was blasting out a set of Sam Butera songs in the school gymnasium. It turned out that James knew all about the Brass Rail too, and dug the same hard-driving sounds as Rebennack did. They were soon rehearsing at James’ house in the notorious St. Roch park neighborhood with guitarist Earl Stanley–now playing the recently introduced electric bass–and drummer Paul Staehle.
“Leonard lived on Robertson not too far from the park and Stanley used to live around there on Dauphine,” Rebennack says. “One of the things St. Roch Park was known for was as a good cop spot. St. Roch church was famous, too, because they’d take the grease out the bells by the cemetery, mix it with some graveyard dirt and some gun powder, add extra nitrate and put that all together with Patchouli oil to make goofy dust. Now, what you did with it was according to how rank a motherfucker you were.”
The mysterious worlds of drugs and hoodoo fascinated young Mac, but in his new musical partners he found an even deeper magic. “Paul Staehle was bad. I remember him having drum battles with Edward Blackwell and all the top drummers. And Stanley had a finger-plucking style of guitar like Snooks did, North Mexican shit that he’d learned from his daddy. He was into Earl King and Guitar Slim just like I was. We liked those cats because they did something different.”
Rebennack had picked up on the flamboyance of his guitar heroes a little too acutely for the priests at Jesuit, who’d brought his high school career to a halt after a Christmas talent show where they accused him of making “lewd gyrations” with his instrument. The real beef, Henry Guerineau later told Tad Jones, was that they were playing R&B instead of big band swing or Dixieland. “At the time,” he recalled, “it was heresy.”
Stanley, who became the Spades’ guitarist after Rebennack left the band, was having his own issues over at Nicholls High. “I used to hang with the gangsters, all the tough guys,” Stanley says. “I was so bad they threw me out of Nicholls but they couldn’t throw me out of school. So they asked me to leave and I went to McDonough on Esplanade for a couple of months, then I quit when I was 15. That was in ’55.
“I didn’t know Mac when he was in the Spades. I just remember seeing him playing guitar at the dances. I thought, ‘That guy’s pretty good.’ Then I got with Leonard and through Leonard I met Mac. They had a guy playing piano with them, Hal Farrar, he went by the stage names ‘King Helo Attaro’ and ‘Spider Boy.’ Now Hal was a character, he was the character of them all; the main lunatic. He liked to drink vodka, he could care less about anything, just a wild man. He used to have this Cugat jacket he’d wear and he’d play piano and try to do all of Little Richard’s stuff. He even had the little moustache. In fact, he recorded the original demo of ‘I’ve Been Hoodood’ (later to become the flip side of the Dr. John hit “Right Place, Wrong Time”) with Leonard.”
Vocalists Wayne “Deadeye” Herring and Jerry Byrne were also drifting into the group at this point. “We used to do the old low-down blues,” Herring told Jones. “There weren’t too many white bands that could do it. Back then if you sat in with a black band, boy, they’d jump on your ass when you come outside. People took a dim view of that but we did it anyway.”
While band names revolved from the Skyliners to the Loafers to the Night Trains to the Thunderbirds, the foundation remained James, Rebennack, Stanley and Staehle. “Crippled” Eddie Hynes and Eddie Shroeder often floated in on trombone and baritone sax respectively.
“Whether it was Leonard’s band or my band, it was all pretty much the same crew of guys,” says Rebennack, “Nothing really changed other than we changed the name of the band quite frequently. It kinda helped us get some gigs and win some talent shows. We lost them under one name and won them under another.”
The core foursome debuted on wax with an album of raunchy guitar and sax instrumentals, Boppin’ and A Strollin’ with Leonard James, recorded for Decca in 1956. Rough, ready and loose, the LP was the perfect soundtrack of noir New Orleans; at once evocative of French Quarter strip joints, high school dances and hood hangouts like the Rockery Inn. Along with discs like the Saxons’ “Camel Walk’ and the Sparks’ “Merry Mary Lou,” it stands as a testament to city’s incredibly potent–but often obscured–white rock ‘n’ roll underground.
“Leonard always took pride in combing his ducktail perfect,” recalls Rebennack. “I mean, he would stand in front the mirror for an hour and then put his be-bop cap on–perfect. He had his little zoot suit pressed, more than the rest of us. We’d just wear them. They were the kind that didn’t wrinkle any way.
“Leonard was a great hustler. He used to walk in joints where they never had a band in their life. I remember us getting a gig in the Ninth Ward at a grocery store. Leonard conned this guy into hiring us but he wanted country music. We didn’t know any country music so we’d play ‘Comin’ Around the Mountain’ or whatever. As long as we were working, we didn’t care nothing about none of the rest of it.”
From dives like the Club Leoma, the Blue Cat and the Jet Lounge, they moved up to the Clock on St. Charles Avenue and finally, the Brass Rail. “While we were working there Paul Gayten says, ‘If y’all want to keep the gig, you’re going to have to quit playing songs like the record.’ And that became kind of a theme with our band. We didn’t play them like the records, we played them our way.”
Gayten also took issue with their slightly out-of-date stage wear. “We had the same suits for so long that I don’t think anybody ever considered getting new uniforms until Paul started fuckin’ with us: ‘Nobody wears zoot suits in Chicago; they wear continental suits.’ Man, here we had all our money invested in these royal blue zoot suits. And what do we do? We got some new suits from Harry Hyman’s or old man Sutton’s on South Rampart–continental suits–and we wore them in Gretna when they had a gang fight at Cass’s Lounge. They throwed us all in the drainage ditch out behind the joint. We ruined our new suits and we hadn’t even paid for them yet!
“When we worked at any of them joints on the West Bank, shit happened. At Spec’s Moulin Rouge, old man Spec used to have guys walking around with pieces dressed like police but they wasn’t official police, they was just guys who worked for old man Spec. Gang fights was, like, prevalent. When the Choctaw Boys and the Cherokees would have their annual beef at the Wego Inn on the Hill, it would be around Carnival. And it would be like, ‘Goddamn.’ You know the shit’s going to happen; it’s just when it’s going happen. I would be trying to play close to the slot machines that were on the bandstand because I figured the slots could deal with the slugs better than me. When I saw anything that looked like it could be trouble, I’d back up toward the slots. But this is the kind of shit you had to endure back in them days because you were dealing with a bunch of crazy motherfuckers. And we were crazy, too.”
If there was one song that distilled the insanity into the length of a 45 RPM record, it was Rebennack’s “Lights Out,” cut by Jerry Byrne for Specialty in 1958. Punctuated by stop-time drum breaks, a foghorn-like saxophone riff and a searing piano solo courtesy of Art Neville, “Lights Out” has justifiably been called “the perfect rock ‘n’ roll song.” Byrne’s breakneck vocal nods to a personality so bent on bringing the house down that fights–and sometimes worse–often ensued.
“Jerry was one of them suckers who worked the house,” says Rebennack, “but he was a piece of work. He drove me crazy a number of times in my life. He was special with that. Hey, guys wanted to shoot me over things Jerry did. He had the ability to kick up more shit with more motherfuckers than anybody I know.”
In 1959, Byrne cut Mac’s equally boisterous “Carry On” and then got sent to prison on a trumped-up statutory rape charge. Deadeye was already behind bars. “It was a never-ending thing,” says Stanley, “just make a record and things happen, you know?”
Despite the trouble, says Rebennack, “our band was really popular.” They’d toured with Frankie Ford behind “Sea Cruise” and Byrne behind “Lights Out” as well as backing the traveling rock ‘n’ roll caravans at both the Municipal Auditorium and Pontchartrain Beach Amusement Park. And the records kept coming, from Bobby Lonero’s “Little Bit” to Morgus and the Ghouls’ “Morgus the Magnificent.”
“I don’t think any of us thought that much about doing a record date,” reflects Rebennack. “The gigs were the fun part. When I started working for Joe Ruffino’s record company, Joe asked my daddy if I could be the president of the company and my daddy says, ‘What are you crazy? This boy can’t even find his fuckin’ shoes!’ But there were so many guys we did sessions for like Andy Blanco at Drew-blan in Morgan City and a bunch of other guys that had different little labels in the country. We played on all of Cos’s Rex stuff and then we did a lot of crazy stuff all through the days we were working for Johnny Vincent over at Ace. I remember we stole ‘Jimmy Crack Corn’ and called it ‘Ain’t No Use.’ We cut ‘Row Your Boat’ with Big Boy Myles. And I don’t know how many different versions of ‘Junco Partner’ we cut with Roland Stone. We were some plagiarizing motherfuckers.”
Stone, the most prolific of Rebennack’s vocalists on record, had already blazed the white R&B trail with local luminaries the Jokers when he waxed the regional smash “Just a Moment” with Rebennack in 1961. His entrance roughly coincided with the departure of Leonard James, who was replaced by Charlie Maduell after he joined the Air Force.
“Charlie was just as crazy as Leonard was, but Leonard never got high. On the other hand, Charlie fit right in with the rest of us because he liked the narcotics, too. Probably the only one that wasn’t a really serious drug addict was Stanley. If we were somewhere in the country, we would burglarize drug stores. When we were in the city, we forged ‘scripts. We were strung out dope fiends, what the hell you going to do? There was a pharmacy on the corner of Dorgenois and Canal that used to sell to all the dope fiends. You had to go in there and ask for certain things, that’s when I started getting my collection of Mad comic books together. If I got a comic book and a bag of pork rinds, that meant I wanted some opiates. Everything you ordered meant something else. We used to have so much fun that who’d have ever thought we’d wind up in jail?
“My favorite gig was when Roland was singing with us and we started working at Little Club Forest on Jefferson Highway. At Club Forest, you could tell what audience hit because when all the junkies would come in, they’d just want to hear ‘Junco Partner’ over and over. When the whores came in they’d want to hear whatever their song was that night. So there were all these songs that fit the set. That gig was so fuckin’ off the hook, so much crazy shit happened at that gig alone, I couldn’t even describe it.
“Between Charlie Maduell and Paul Staehle, they would always hide the stash for the band. One night they had a raid and Paul had the whole band’s stash in his sock. They didn’t shake us down, but the FBI came in and they emptied the joint. Somebody paid everyone’s bond and before the night was over, Wes, the Jefferson Parish narc, was selling the customers back their dope in the band room! This is how out there it was.
“And then Charlie went out and walked the bar and did the dance of the Seven Veils. He’s out and there doing a striptease walking the bar. It’s one of them gigs that’s printed in my brain. And we always had what we used to call our ‘band-aids’ back then. Before they called them groupies, we called them band-Aids.”
When Stone fell for one of the young ladies a little too hard, friction arose. “I told Roland, ‘Hey, listen, you can’t marry this girl. She’s our girl. She belongs to the band.’ I thought I was doing him a favor but it backfired. He was obviously pissed.”
Stone showed up for his next recording session with three henchmen in tow including prizefighter Pepi Flores. “They stomped my ass. Charlie went out and got a gun and was firing in the air. I says, ‘Charlie, quit shooting in the air! Shoot these motherfuckers!’ He didn’t even have real guns. They were replica weapons he’d loaded up! But we all went to work the next night together. Me and Charlie wound up having to wear shades and makeup to hide the black eyes. That’s when I learned, hey, when it comes to matters of somebody’s heart, stay the fuck out of it.”
The good times had to come to an end and they eventually did. Stone was busted on a narcotics charge, as was Maduell, who remains in Angola today. Within just a few years, Paul Staehle would die of a drug over dose. Rebennack’s own luck ran out on Christmas Eve of 1961 when he intervened in a scuffle between Ronnie Barron and a jealous club owner who accused Barron of having an affair with his wife.
“I walked in to get Ronnie at the last minute because Ronnie was like Leonard James, he’d take forever to get himself all perfect. So I go to get him and the guy’s pistol-whipping him. Miss Mildred, Ronnie’s mama, said if anything happened to her son on the road she was going to take a butcher knife and chop my cajones off. So I’m thinking, ‘Man, if anything happens to this guy, his mama’s going to fuck me up.’ And hey, she was much more frightening to me than this guy was. I thought I had my hand over the handle of the gun, but it was over the barrel. I’m beating his hand on the bricks and as I’m hitting it, all of a sudden the gun went off and my finger’s just about to fall off of my hand. It was hanging by a piece of skin and then I went crazy. I took Paul Staehle’s ride cymbal out the case and just fucked up the guy’s face. I was trying to pull his eyeballs out his head.”
Doctors managed to reattach the finger, but Rebennack had trouble playing guitar with the intensity he’d become known for. He concentrated on the keyboard, playing organ on virtually all of Huey Meaux’s New Orleans sessions, most notably those of Barbara Lynn and Jimmy Donley. The first–and perhaps wildest–chapter of his musical career officially came to a close when he was busted and sent to federal prison in Fort Worth, Texas. Upon his release in 1965 he headed to California and his future as the Night Tripper.
“You know what the kicks of it was?” Rebennack asks. “We wanted to play music so bad that we didn’t ever think about it. We were trying to make a hustle just off of the gigs and that was part of the fun of it. Everything we done, we had fun doing it. That was the one thing that I always treasured about them days. It was just something that happened. When you’re young and crazy and stupid, you do a lot of crazy, stupid shit. But a lot of that shit is great because you’re too stupid to know better. I know that we made it a point to always have kicks, to always have good times no matter what was going to go down. We never thought, ‘Oh, this is a suck-ass gig we’re going on.’ We went on all kinds of suck-ass gigs! But while we were doing them, we had a ball.”
By Michael Hurtt
Originally published in Offbeat Magazine’
For the 2008 Ponderosa Stomp, there was a very special set with Mac Rebennack doing all pre-Dr John Rock N’ Roll material with Wardell Quezergue’s band and Mike Hurtt. The show was recreated at Lincoln Center as part of a tribute to Wardell Quezergue in 2009.