“Around the time I began sitting in on my aunties' jam sessions and hanging around in the clubs, I began to get hipped in a little more to reality: There were an awful lot of good piano players, and not nearly enough jobs to go around. How was I ever going to compete with killer players like Tuts Washington? Salvador Doucette? Herbert Santina? Professor Longhair himself? And the list only began there.”
–Dr. John, Under a Hoodoo Moon
Of all the great musicians to come out of New Orleans it seems like a large number of them were piano players. Mac Rebennack–or Dr. John as he would be billed starting in the late 1960s–was destined to become part of that history. Although he had built a sturdy reputation as a teenage A&R man and guitarist, fate stepped in. On Christmas Eve 1961 Dr. John was involved in a fight between his bandmate Ronnie Barron and the owner of the Florida hotel they were staying in. As he recalls in his autobiography:
“I went to get the gun out of the guy's hand. We wrestled for it. I thought my left hand was over the handle, but I was actually grabbing the barrel. I beat the guy's hand against the bricks trying to get the gun away from him, and the gun went off. I looked down and saw the ring finger of my left hand, my fretting hand, hanging by a thread.”
Now fifty years later–and stitched together and as good as ever–Dr. John and his piano will headline both nights of this weekend's Long Beach Bayou Festival. Let's explore some of his inspirations within.
JELLY ROLL MORTON
The New Orleans piano tradition stretches back well over 100 years starting with Jelly Roll Morton, the flashy pimp and self-proclaimed “inventor of jazz,” who set the bar pretty high for those who dared to follow. He had a good nickname, a great voice, a penchant for recreational drugs and a powerhouse left hand that could demolish any song he felt like playing. That template proved flawless.
Although they were northerners, pianists like Meade Lux Lewis and Fats Waller followed Morton's lead and turned the piano into a rollicking piece of furniture. Fats Domino and Professor Longhair emerged from mid-century New Orleans equipped with the ability to take the music even further. Domino, the hulking showman, got all the record sales but it is generally acknowledged by other musicians that the more influential pianist was Professor Longhair.
“Professor Longhair was the guardian angel of the roots of New Orleans music,” wrote Dr. John. “He was a one-of-a-kind musician and man, and he defined a certain style of rhumba-boogie funk that was New Orleans R&B from the late 1940s all the way through to his death in 1980. All New Orleans pianists today owe Fess. He was the guru, godfather and spiritual root doctor of all that came under him.”
Fess' spidery right hand and driving left could move at any pace. Each note sliding effortlessly into the next. In the above clip, with a little help from the Meters, Fess shows off his glistening fills and unmistakable yodel.
What James Booker lacked in clever nicknames he more than made up for in flash. Although only a couple of years older than Dr John, Booker, with his bedazzled eye patch and mouthful of shark's teeth, was the ultimate dandy with the skills to back it up.
Dr. John couldn't have been more in awe: “Booker could play it all – stride piano, butterfly, boogie, all the other New Orleans styles, the Chicago styles, the Memphis styles, the Texas styles, the California styles, bebop, avant-garde jazz, classical, even pop! I consider him to be a genius.”
Despite his hard living, Booker had a graceful touch on the piano. His photographic memory could summon anything on a whim adding a playful quality that few others could match. In the above clip, he is more than ready for his closeup.
DR. JOHN (OF COURSE!)
Dr. John's style falls somewhere in the middle of these piano gods. For the last thirty years, alongside Allen Toussaint, he has carried the torch for the Crescent City sound. His barrelhouse hands, ring finger or not, can play virtually anything you throw at him and his smoky growl is one of the most distinctive voices in popular music. In this clip, despite looking a little dope-sick and disoriented, Dr. John still manages to slay Ray Charles' hit “Mess Around.”
“The hardest thing to do is let the spirituality flow and turn the meat on,” advises Dr. John. “Doing that is creating art, radiating the 88s. When you do that, you've achieved something.”