Power Pickers
of the '60's

Musicians of the Flower Generation


High and Inside with Doctor John

Wikipedia’s biography of Doctor John, neé Mac Rebennack, says he came to Los Angeles in 1963, so that would have been when I met him for the first time. His arrival was announced with some fanfare, as I recall, because he was supposed to be the embodiment of New Orleans’ musical soul for his generation. I make this point because he brought with him Doctor Professor Longhair, probably in his ‘fifties at the time but looking much more ancient as he poked at the piano with long, spidery fingers and did his hunched-over, venerable genius thing.

Professor Longhair was considered to be the embodiment of the city’s soul for his generation and is widely credited by musicians of all ages and styles as being the guy who influenced everyone in the New Orleans scene from Fats Domino to Randy Newman to Alain Toussaint to, well, Doctor John. Anyway, here’s a Doctor John story.

I owned the guitar shop at the Ash Grove, L.A.’s premier, and by far most genuine, folk music club. I was stringing up a guitar one nite when several other Ash Grove haunters came running into my shop, breathlessly telling me I had to come into the lesson room to hear this fantastic guitarist everybody’s talking about.

“Country Al,” they cried, “you gotta see this guy. He’s from New Orleans, and his name is Doctor John. He’s like a Real Person and everything. You gotta see him.”

The Real Person reference was because all of us folkies were young, middle-class college students, mostly Jewish, and rabid acolytes of American indigenous music wherever we could find it. But we were hardly Real Persons. So, Doctor John was prima facie in the same league as Lightnin’ Hopkins and Earl Scruggs. Later, we learned the good Doctor had done some college time of his own, but for the moment he was a Real Person.

So I closed the shop, walked across the lobby to the lesson room, sat down and tried to make small talk with Doctor John. But Doctor John wasn’t much of a small-talk maker himself, especially with his patois that made R’s sound like liquid L’s, so that when he woke up in the morning and asked for his Seconals it came out, “Gimme some rweds, man, hurry up, I need some rweds.”

Anyway, the other Ash Grove Folk Music School teachers formed a little crowd around the two of us which sort of freaked me out because it looked like they were trying to face us off against each other, which they were.

“Do some McReynolds picking, Country Al,” goaded Dave Cohen, the head of the music school, referring to me by my facetious nickname and to a flashy cross-picking technique I’d adapted to guitar from Bluegrass mandolin player Jesse McReynolds’ style. (Historical note: another teacher at school, Ry Cooder, was working on his own adaptation of the technique.)

“Dave, he doesn’t want to hear McReynolds. He doesn’t play bluegrass or anything like that,” I said. Then, turning to the visitor, “You don’t want to hear McReynolds picking, do you, uh, Doctor…”

“Mac,” he said, “my name is Mac Rebennack.” It came out sort of sounding like Wabbenac. It’s hard to nail Dr. John’s patois.  Sometimes the “R” in words that start with  that letter come out very liguid.  Verwy liquid, ‘fya knowhuddamean.  Anyway, “Dat’s whut my frwiends call me,” he said.

“No, play it for him, Country,” said someone else, “he’ll like it.” In the meantime, Doctor John just sat there in his porkpie hat and almost-black shades saying nothing and looking at who knew what. The poor guy was probably stoned, assuming he’d gotten his rweds that night.

Anyway, I self-consciously picked a lick or two in McReynolds style and, to my total surprise, he was interested enough to take a closer look at what I was doing and ask me to show it to him. I was knocked out with pride. A Real Person was asking me to demonstrate something on the guitar. So I showed him a basic pattern, and he played it, very slowly and with great labor. The style was, in fact, light years away from anything a Rhythm & Soul musician like him would have encountered, in the same way Johnny Cash might not have been at home learning a Little Richard vocal curlicue. But he played it, Doctor John did. He had a good ear, of course.

After fussing around with it for a while he finally looked up from the guitar he’d taken out of the case and been playing, set it to rest in his lap and said something like, “Yeah, dat’s some rweally good shit you doin’ man. So that’s ‘McWeynolds pickin’, is that what you call it?”

I said yeah, whatever, and figuring the session was over, got up to go back to the shop when someone said, “Hey, Mac, show Country Al that thing you were playing a few minutes ago.” “Yeah,” someone else said, “you know, ‘The Boogaloo?’ “No, it was the ‘Swamp Beat'” said a another voice. I sat down again, guitar back in my lap.

“Nah,” said Doctor John, “dat’s alrwight, Countrwy Al is a Bwuegrwass pickerw, he don’ wanna hearw no gumbo music.” I knew right away I was going to hear gumbo music whether I wanted to or not, but I really wanted to. Besides, this was part of the ceremony. This was trading licks with a Real Person.

Anyway, Doctor John languidly (he was a Southerner, after all) tuned his “axe” up a little and started softly, almost inaudibly, playing a pretty lick that was mostly rock ballad in chord progression (G to e-minor to C back to G, for you guitar/keyboard players) but with just an edge of R&B to it. I thought it was nice, but it didn’t blow my mind, maybe because I actually did think I was a Bluegrass picker at time. However, as part of the ritual I nodded knowingly, said, “Yeah” a couple times and went to play the lick along with him. After a minute or two I stopped, and he stopped, and I said, “That’s outtasight. Now, is that the Boogaloo or the Swamp Beat or whatever you-”

“Nah, man, that’s just some gumbo, nothin’ special, just sumpin’ we play back at home when we sittin’ arwound jammin’ and stuff. No big thing.”

“Well, it’s really kind of sweet and funky at the same time,” I said. “It looks like you’re playing a G chord to an e-minor, but you’re doing something different on the upper strings, could you do it a little slower so I could… blah, blah, blah.”

“Yeah, well listen, man, like I said, it ain’t no big thing, just a little…” He started playing the thing again, not especially slowly but clearly enough that I could at least hear what he was doing. But then a funny thing happened: as soon as he got to the place where I needed to see what he was doing he pivoted away from me, like a batter does when he’s dodging a high, inside pitch. I could no longer see his left hand.

I didn’t notice the move as a move, and simple schmuck that I was went thru this whole cycle with him two more times before I figured out what was going on. I was really embarrassed, thinking I’d been had. But I also knew I had to try to look cool about it. I set my D-28 back into my lap, in non-playing position, shook my head and said something like, “Man, that’s a beautiful lick, you’ll have to show it to me sometime.”

Doctor John said, “Yeah, man, well you know, it’s no big deal like I said, it comes out diffrwent evrwy time I play it, so I don’ rweally….” His voice trailed off into a mumble while he put his guitar back into its case and looked around the room like it was time to go. I knew his part of the lesson was over.

I don’t know who else besides Doctor John, Dave Cohen and I got what had happened. Dave and I never talked about it, not sure why, but I’ll always wonder if he’d set it up; we were very competitive. Even tho later on I could feel good about a good musician thinking me threat enough to hide what he was doing from me, my face still burns every time I remember it the little exchange, and I remember it every time I hear Doctor John play.

One more thing, though. That chord progression, if not the funk of the way he applied it, was the one he used in his one breakaway pop hit, “Such a Night.” It’s a money lick, always has been (cf. Billy Joel, I Love You Just the Way You Are, Gladys Knight, Midnight Train to Georgia and about a thousand other career-charging songs), and I’m sure Doctor John knew all about that. I guess he was saving the lick for himself; fair enough, I have to admit.

One-liner Notes:

“You know how you’ve taken the straightener out of your hair? Well, I’m going to take it our of your voice.” Arranger/producer Mike Post to Sammy Davis, Jr., ca. 1967, when African-Americans were starting to try to get back to their roots.

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