Named for a historical New Orleans voodoo healer, Dr. John Creaux was born in the bayous of a Los Angeles studio, in a clearing opened by an unused Sonny and Cher recording session. He shimmered onto the late-'60s musical scene with "Gris-Gris," a mesmerizing midnight gumbo of R&B, blues, jazz, gospel and sui generis sonic weirdness.
The record was a genre-defying launch for a career unbounded by easy categorization. The shape-shifting Dr. John — whose real name is Malcolm John "Mac" Rebennack Jr. — expanded his persona from psychedelic swamp shaman to rock star to jazzman to rootsy master of the tumblingly complex syncopations of Crescent City piano legend Professor Longhair.
Dr. John mastered the art of the professional musical chameleon as a member of the Wrecking Crew — an elite cadre of Los Angeles studio players who actually performed most of the hits publicly credited to Top-40 artists of the '60s. The charade extended beyond the studio.
"Back in those days, people didn't see what the acts looked like," Dr. John says. "Record companies could book acts in two or three cities if they had bands to play the gigs. That's why we'll always call this a racket. We used to have one guy that would pass for Little Richard and Little Willie Jones ... and another guy pass off as Guitar Slim or Chuck Berry. ... And on and on and on. ... There were so many acts that did that back in the game that it was just ridiculous."
As a sideman Dr. John worked with artists including Canned Heat, the Rolling Stones and Frank Zappa, who filed a professional complaint against him for "conduct unbecoming a musician" when he walked out of a boring "Freak Out" session. His frequent work with Sonny and Cher led to the "Gris-Gris" sessions, which Dr. John thought would never see the light of day.
"I was doing a session for Bobby Darrin," he says, "And [Atlantic Records President] Ahmet Ertegün came in and started cussing me out. The next thing I know they put it out. Which didn't make any sense to me, but that is how the record racket is."
The success of the record — which Rolling Stone named as its 143rd greatest album of all time — turned the disposable Dr. John persona into an established brand. More records followed, their increasing variety mirroring Dr. John's musical range. The 1972 release "Gumbo" was a brilliantly straightforward celebration of New Orleans tradition; "In the Right Place," perhaps his biggest mainstream hit, was pure funk. He's recorded standards and tribute albums to Johnny Mercer and Duke Ellington. His latest, "Locked Down," produced by the Black Keys' Dan Auerbach, transforms timeless boogie with up-to-the-minute intensity.
"I don't like to be labeled something," Dr. John says. "I always just try to make music I believe in. Some of the best records I ever made were not hits." He cites 1979's now out-of-print "Tango Palace" as a favorite. "That is the kind of thing that I feel that it is important to do, no matter what."
Venerable gospel group the Blind Boys of Alabama fit that ethos. Their joint tour, Spirituals to Funk, grew out of an upcoming Dr. John tribute to quintessential New Orleans musician Louis Armstrong. "I think that anyone who is aware [of them] at all knows they are down-home, the real gospel thing," Dr. John says. "It's cool, and it connects. I love those guys' spirits. All people that lose one of their senses gain another that other people don't have."
It's a near perfect crew to navigate a deep current flowing forward through American popular music. "Just the ideas that we are going from the spirituals to the funk is something of a spiritual nature," Dr. John says. "I think people will enjoy themselves to the utmost." S
Dr. John and the Blind Boys of Alabama bring their Spirituals to Funk tour to Richmond CenterStage on Tuesday, Nov. 13, at 7:30 p.m. $11.50-$42. For information, visit modlin.richmond.edu or call 289-8980.