dr John: The Complicated Inside Story of the New Orleans Legend’s Final Album

Was dr John first showed up in the late ’60s, it was as if a voodoo priest had risen from the swamps of Louisiana and landed a record deal immediately. It was an image the New Orleans-born singer-songwriter lived up to by dressing like a medicine man with an ornate feather headdress and performing around his piano with skulls and candles. His real name was Mac Rebennack and he was a 26-year-old session pianist for Sonny and Cher when he recorded his stunning debut album in 1968 gris gris, a bubbling gumbo of lysergic grooves, ritual percussion and bawled incantations.

Rebennack embraced his shamanic character over the course of a half-century solo career that has taken him to a variety of unexpected places. He appeared alongside The Band during their farewell concert film The last waltz 1976 and sang the theme to Disney’s Bayou Set The Princess and the Frog in 2009. His rich and engaging music was steeped in the many influences of his hometown, including blues, jazz, funk and R&B. Towards the end of his life, however, he felt that a piece of the puzzle was missing. In the years leading up to his death from a heart attack on June 6, 2019 at the age of 77, Rebennack set about fulfilling a lifelong dream by recording a country and western album. Titled things happen like this After a long and difficult gestation period, it will finally be released this Friday.

“He’s been talking about it for years,” says Shane Theriot, a session guitarist and Grammy-winning producer who worked on the record. Louisiana native Theriot – who is also the musical director of Hall & Oates – first met Rebennack in the 1990s. The producer was in his twenties at the time. “A lot of his friends who knew him long before I did said Mac was always talking about doing a country western album,” he tells me over lunch at an LA diner. “He loved Hank Williams. He loved Johnny Cash.” After hearing Rebennack talk about that long-held ambition, Theriot volunteered to help make it a reality. In October 2017, the pair met regularly at the producer’s home in New Orleans to begin cover selection and original material writing.

Rebennack with producer Shane Theriot: “Mac always talked about doing a country and western album”

(Shane Theriot)

The process worked like a time machine for Rebennack, helping him travel back to his earliest influences and moments of musical discovery. In the 1940s and 1950s, his father, Malcolm, ran an electronics store in New Orleans’ East End, repairing televisions and radios and selling records. “That store was a big part of his musical genesis,” Rebennack’s daughter, Karla Pratt, tells me over email. “He grew up listening to all kinds of genres, including what was then called ‘hillbilly music’. He loved Hank Williams for the stories in his songs. He also loved the sound of Johnny Cash, and Willie Nelson was not only a country music inspiration but also a longtime friend. Dad paid close attention to how these greats created songs that resonated and wanted to do it in his own style.”

Sitting on Theriot’s porch, smoking a cigar and listening to the music of his youth, Rebennack often recalled the Saturday nights spent watching the popular Louisiana country show Hayride. “He always had these great stories and anecdotes about the songs,” Theriot recalls. “He said, ‘I remember seeing Elvis in Louisiana Hayride, and I was like, ‘This sucks! This guy is going nowhere. He doesn’t even have a drummer!’” Theriot laughs at the memory. “Then he’d say, ‘Show you what I know!'” Rebennack’s inability to spot a rising star became a running gag between the two. “He said, ‘I remember seeing John Lemon with the Beatles.’ He named him Lemon,” says Theriot. “‘I thought: Your songs are terrible! You’re not going anywhere. Show you what I know!’”

Over the course of a month, the pair agreed on which songs to record things happen like that. Some were simply Rebennack favorites, like the traditional gospel classic “Old Time Religion” or Hank Williams’ “I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry”. Others, such as a cover of the Traveling Wilburys’ “End of the Line,” were suggested by Theriot. For the opening track, they settled on a slow-cooked cover of Willie Nelson’s Funny How Time Slips Away.

It’s about the rough life he led and his beautiful attitude towards it

Producer Shane Theriot

Like many of the songs on the album, including the title track, which was first made famous by Johnny Cash in 1958, Funny How Time Slips Away is a song about the passage of time. Though Rebennack didn’t know things happen like that would be his last album, Theriot states that the album certainly captures him in a reflective mood. “As the record took shape and Mac’s health deteriorated, it became strange how much of it was due to time,” he says. Fittingly, Rebennack adopts a musical style miles removed from the black magic and incantations of his most famous material. “It’s not about the Night Tripper, he did it all,” says Theriot of Rebennack’s flamboyant alter ego. “It’s about the rough life he led and his beautiful attitude towards it.”

In November 2017, Rebennack and Theriot moved from the front porch to Esplanade Studios in New Orleans, a converted church that Theriot describes as “the finest studio in town.” They recorded the majority of the album in just four session days in November and December before Rebennack’s condition worsened. “Mac’s health was really getting worse,” says Theriot. “So the rest of the record was finished at his house.” The producer set up a mobile studio at Rebennack’s home in Mandeville, Louisiana, 30 miles north of New Orleans. “He lived in a ranch house in a normal suburban neighborhood, it didn’t look very fancy,” says Theriot. “Then you go in and there are candles everywhere and all kinds of voodoo, like a shrine, and you’re like, ‘Wow!'”

Rebennack (and Skull) performing in Nashville in 2016

(Rick Diamond/Getty Images for City Winery Nashville)

Before the album was completed, Theriot sought guest appearances from a handful of key figures from Rebennack’s illustrious career. Aaron Neville of the R&B group The Neville Brothers, who has known Rebennack since the couple were teenagers, sings on “End of the Line.” Rickie Lee Jones, who won a Grammy with Rebennack in 1990 for her duet “Makin’ Whoopee,” joined Rebennack for a remastered version of “I Walk on Guilded Splinters,” the seven-minute epic that closed his debut album. Meanwhile, Willie Nelson joins Rebanack for a light-hearted rendition of Old Time Religion. “They act like two old buddies for what they were,” says Theriot. Recording was completed in October 2018 and the following month the album was mixed in New York by producer John Leventhal.

Theriot believed the album was complete and ready for release, but after Rebennack died in June 2019, control of the record passed to his family estate through his daughter. Theriot says several changes have been made to the album over the years since he’s been working on it. For example, Rickie Lee Jones’ contributions were removed and a new version of “I Walk on Guilded Splinters” was added. “It was very frustrating, I was hurt because of it,” says Theriot. “I put it together with Mac, and when Mac was gone, all of a sudden the estate came along and decided they wanted to change things up. I don’t know why and I was told not to have anything else to do with it.”

The version of “Guilded Splinters” that now appears on the album features Lukas Nelson and his band Promise of the Real. Rebennack’s daughter Pratt says she invited the band to appear on the album at her father’s request. “My father’s musical projects were always changing, and this was no different,” she says. “This album wasn’t mastered in his lifetime because Dad wanted to put the finishing touches on it and add Lukas Nelson. He instructed me to help him with this. My father told me what he wanted. After Dad died unexpectedly, I had to pick up the pieces. to be able to fulfill my duty to my father, his estate and his fans.”

She adds that further changes were necessary because “there was massive additional work to be done and this album could not be released without the necessary permits and clearances, which was made even more complicated by the Covid pandemic”. Michael Perlstein, an attorney for Rebennack’s estate, further notes, “The estate is the sole owner and controls all rights to the masters as Mac’s successor” and that “Karla, in consultation with Rounder Records, has authorized changes to avoid disputes over rights”.

Although it has changed since Rebennack last heard it, the record remains a remarkable and powerful final statement from a musician who is about to end by returning to where he started. At times it is reminiscent of Johnny Cash’s powerful late career American recordings. Pratt says she thinks “the album is a perfect final studio project to release,” stressing the importance of hearing her father sing with his old friends Willie Nelson and Aaron Neville. “For Willie’s son Lukas Nelson and Promise Of The Real to be able to record 50 years after Dad’s first album ‘I Walk On Guilded Splinters’ gris gris it really comes full circle,” she says. “You could never shut out Dad, and you can always count on his music to bring you joy.”

As for Theriot, the finished record may not be quite what he envisioned, but he’s glad the music is finally finding its way into the world. “I think it’s a beautiful record,” he says. “Mac’s a legend, man. How could you have a bad Dr. John record?”

“Things Happen That Way” by Dr. John will be released on September 23rd

https://www.independent.co.uk/arts-entertainment/music/features/dr-john-interview-final-album-b2171687.html dr John: The Complicated Inside Story of the New Orleans Legend’s Final Album


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