At 71, Dr. John (aka Mac Rebennack) has accomplished just about everything one could in the music industry. He’s won five Grammys, been inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and has become successful in a multitude of genres, including blues, pop, jazz, zydeco and rock and roll.
Most who have followed his career know the infamous story about how his left ring finger was struck by a bullet while defending a friend, so he made the switch from guitar to piano and became a major musical icon.
“My success? I don’t have any answers but I have a lot of questions,” Dr. John said. “I might have been shot here or there or been shanked here or there, but I haven’t had it as bad as some of my friends. I wonder about all that has happened.”
His wonderings often make their way to his songs, as Dr. John often writes about things and events that others might not want to talk about.
“I try to write songs about things that I always believed in,” he said. “Songs that if you didn’t put into a song, maybe no one would accept or talk about. I try to do that a lot.”
Dr. John’s most recent album, “Locked Down,” was produced by Dan Auerbach of the Black Keys and has been critically praised as one of the best records of his career.
“I like doing stuff with Dan and I thought he opened a door to a younger audience, which is good,” he said. “ Some records are going to stick out because of certain things that happen. He had all these good session guys with hip instruments and that made something special.”
Never at a loss for trying something new, Dr. John and his Lower 911 band is currently on tour with five-time Grammy winners The Blind Boys of Alabama, and will be making a much anticipated stop on Saturday, Nov. 3 at the George Mason for the Arts Center.
“I write up a show every day that’s different than yesterday and it’s hard for me to guess what will be in any show,” he said. “That’s how I keep it from getting boring. I never liked to play in bands where they did things the same way and I didn’t have fun so I can’t imagine it being fun to do things any other way.”
With a show entitled, “Spirituals to Funk,” the night will feature the first-ever touring partnership between the two icons of American music, however, the two are no strangers to each other’s music. Dr. John appeared on the Blind Boys’ Grammy-winning CD “Down in New Orleans.” The Blind Boys meanwhile will be on Dr. John’s upcoming CD celebrating the 100th birthday of Louis Armstrong.
“I was trying to figure a way to do a tribute to Louis Armstrong and get it rolling and someone suggested I try it with the Blind Boys,” Dr. John said. “It was really good and we did this great tribute at the Brooklyn Academy of Music a few months ago. We’re doing variations on that now at our show.”
The night is expected to include a musical showcase that connects gospel, funk, jazz and the blues. Dr. John previews that tunes such as “Right Place Wrong Time,” “Let The Good Times Roll” and even “If I Had a Hammer” might be played.
The show will start with Dr. John, switch to the Blind Boys and then both acts will play the last half together.
“I love playing with these guys,” he said. “It’s been really great.”
A New Orleans legend, Dr. John has been a fixture on the radio and the charts for half a generation. Back in the late ’50s, he was part of a number of New Orleans-based bands, scoring his first regional hit with a Bo Diddley-influenced guitar instrumental called “Storm Warning” in 1959.
After he was forced to abandon the guitar, he moved to Los Angeles and became a popular session pianist in the area.
“I didn’t really know what I was going to do. This guy shot me in the finger and I’m thinking the worst and I didn’t know what I would do,” he said. “I thought I would still be playing a guitar and never considered being on the keyboard. I was lucky that James Booker taught me how to play organ and it was a real blessing.”
As a solo artist, Dr. John’s debut “Gris-Gris” offered voodoo rhythms and chants combined with a New Orleans music tradition and was ranked by Rolling Stone as No. 143 on its 500 Greatest Albums of All Time list.
Looking ahead, Dr. John offered that as long as he doesn’t have to fly, he won’t quit performing anytime soon.
“If people want to see the spiritual and funk, this is the tour. You can’t get too funky and you can’t get too spiritual for the people and I think they will love this,” he said. “Not only the Blind Boys but some crazy sons of bitches from Louisiana and I think that’s always a great combination.”