I see my primary care provider once a year. He shows up at Seattle’s Jazz Alley with his band, the Lower 9-11. His name is Mac Rebennack, known to the world as Dr. John.
Dr. John, an expert at the kind of “feel good music” that sells out concerts and clubs, is also a deep repository of the history of New Orleans and its musical culture. His songwriting and producing abilities made him a valuable studio asset in the early days of rhythm and blues in the Crescent City, and he’s still in demand for those skills.
Spending just a few minutes in conversation with him before or after a show is certain to make you feel connected to the entire musical universe.
Having been at the Alley for opening night on Thursday, I decided to treat myself to a second helping of Dr. John and the Lower 9-11 on closing night. I brought with me an antique-shop treasure: a 45-rpm record from New Orleans label Ric Records from 1962, Johnny Adams singing two songs co-written by Mac Rebennack. I’d fallen deeply in love the first time I heard Johnny Adams sing. He had the most beautiful voice I’d ever heard, and he knew just how to use it. I’d been meaning to ask Mac about the song, about the co-writer and about the session in general, because the A-side (A Losing Battle) was Johnny Adams’ first appearance on the national charts (I know, I know, but radio geeks like me live for that kind of thing).
I showed the record to Mac, and he uttered an unmistakably New Orleans-style expression of amazement, which is too, um, colorful to include here. He set me straight on the co-writer of A Losing Battle, but then confided:
“I actually wrote the song with that guy’s girlfriend. She was showin’ me a stack of love letters that had passed between them, and that’s where I got the idea of fightin’ the losin’ battle, but havin’ so much fun tryin’ to win.”
Hmm…there’s obviously much more to that story. You dawg, Mac.
Asked about the band on the session, the infamous AFO Studio Combo, he started to reel off names of New Orleans musical royalty, like Battiste, Boudreau, Lastie and so on.
I reminded him that this song he wrote when he was 21 years old had made it to the national charts, and he said, yes, Berry Gordy had wanted to sign Johnny Adams to the Motown label based on this very record. But a meeting with Mr. Gordy went poorly, then Ric Records threatened legal action, and everyone back home said “there goes Johnny’s career” –and they were pretty much right. Johnny Adams did some great recordings in Nashville after that, but didn’t really get the national recognition he deserved until Rounder Records started to showcase him in the 1980s.
Overwhelmed by this wealth of information from The Source, I said, “It’s so wonderful that you remember all of this from back in 1962!” Mac flipped the record over to the B-side, and deadpanned, “What’s this? I don’t remember s**t about this here song! Did I write this?”
The good Doctor topped off my annual check-up with a booster shot from the stage, dedicating a great version of Basin Street Blues to me and my friend Sally. I’m vaccinated and verified, inoculated and indoctrinated for another year. Thanks, Doc!