GRAMMY Hall Of Fame Inspirations: Dr. John
(To commemorate the GRAMMY Hall Of Fame's 40th Anniversary in 2013, GRAMMY.com has launched GRAMMY Hall Of Fame Inspirations. The ongoing series will feature conversations with various GRAMMY winners who will identify GRAMMY Hall Of Fame recordings that have influenced them and helped shape their careers.)
Many artists have talked about learning at the feet of the masters. Dr. John adds another twist to that. Looking at the music that most impacted his development and sensibilities, the experiences that opened his ears and his world, he tells of his teen years in New Orleans when he and pal James Booker — who also went on to become one of the Crescent City's most influential pianists — would go see singer Big Maybelle perform.
"Me and James Booker used to cut the corns off her feet at the shows at the Dew Drop Inn in New Orleans," he says in his thick New Orleans accent and distinctive patois making the listener wonder if he'd heard right.
Yeah, that's what he said, he assures.
"She always wore shoes that looked good, but weren't her size," he says, looking back on the time before he took on his Dr. John voodoo priest persona, when he was just a young music prodigy named Mac Rebennack. "Was tough for her. But I loved her."
That was nearly 60 years ago, but the inspirations of those years still influence him. His latest album, Locked Down, produced by the Black Keys' Dan Auerbach, incorporates African-influenced riffs and rhythms into the gritty gris-gris funk he developed first in the late '60s (as heard on his 1973 hit "Right Place, Wrong Time") for one of the strongest albums of his career. And Locked Down has earned him new accolades, including a GRAMMY for Best Blues Album at the 55th GRAMMY Awards. It also played a big role in Auerbach's selection as Producer Of The Year, Non-Classical.
Locked Down's wide-reaching sound keeps with Dr. John's past — he has won five previous GRAMMY Awards in four different genres. The album also caps a run of his music showing renewed fire — both in sound and socio-political content — resulting from 2005's Hurricane Katrina, which devastated his beloved native city, and the 2010 oil spill that despoiled the Gulf region again.
Now he's shifting gears for his next project, a tribute album to Louis Armstrong, with very personal re-imaginings of Satchmo's material, as well as a concert presentation featuring an all-star roster of guest trumpeters. But it's not really a shift at all, as it bears the essence of all Dr. John's music, whether hard funk, American standards, solo piano, or jazz.
"The spiritual thing is more powerful than the meat world," he says. "We're stuck in this meat world and if we don't follow the spirit we are caught in the wrong place. I was stuck in the meat for a long time. But for 23 years I've been on the right path."
"Big Maybelle was so influential in my life. She sang everything so high. I thought, 'Man, I got [a] hell of a lot of nerve trying to cut this song on my  In A Sentimental Mood record.' But I did it and it was OK. Maybelle, she was one of the great singers of her time and me and Booker just loved her to the max. We were youngsters, I guess 14, 15, something like that."
Louis Armstrong & His Hot Five
"That song was great to me because Louis Armstrong invented scat singing right there on that song. Well-known story about how the [lyrics] paper fell off the [stand] while he was singing and he just started scatting. That opened that door.
"But what was really weird to me was that Louis Armstrong came to me in a dream and said, 'Why don't you cut a record and do this? Cut [my songs] your own way. Take the songs and make them feel updated.' That wasn't one of the songs, but he came to me in a dream. He never come to me in a dream before.
"I met him once in New York [at] Joe Glaser's office. [Glaser] was his manager, [and he] managed Dizzy Gillespie [and] Louis Armstrong. But Louis came to me in a dream, so he's always in my head now."
"Call It Stormy Monday"
Black & White (1948)
"I was working a gig with T-Bone Walker at Shelly's Manne-Hole in Hollywood. Every night, Lloyd Glenn [the original recording's arranger and pianist] was playing with a Dixieland band in Orange County and would drive all the way up and play the last set on piano, and I would play guitar.
"When I started guitar lessons [as a teen], T-Bone was the guy. [Walter] Papoose Nelson, he was my guitar teacher, and I knew all that stuff from him. But to play with T-Bone was useful. He was such a pro. [He] would still play behind his head and do all that, and he was the guy, you know? Loved working with him. Was one of his gigs where I met Joni Jonz, one of his old singers. And she became one of our background singers."
"Oh Happy Day"
Edwin Hawkins Singers
"I remember Shirley Goodman [New Orleans singer of the duo Shirley & Lee] told me when it first came out, 'You gotta hear that.' She said, 'Reminds me of [Louisiana gospel guitarist/singer] Rev. Utah Smith.' But [I] said, 'It also reminds me of the old Spiritualist Church of New Orleans.' And that church was open to everyone — children were the angels, women were the saints and the men were the workers. Unlike any church anywhere. Was really something special. I always remember Shirley singing, and she turned me on to that record. I knew her a long time."
"I couldn't make a decision between 'A-Tisket, A-Tasket' by Ella Fitzgerald with the Chick Webb Band [or] John Coltrane's Blue Train. Whole thing about Trane — had trouble picking the song. But I decided, spiritually, that I had to go with 'Blue Train' on this album because Curtis Fuller is on it and he's my favorite trombone player of all time. Our musical director said, 'He's the most original person in jazz today.' 'Killer Joe' [with the Art Farmer & Benny Golson Jazztet in 1960] and everything else, he was just the thing for me.
"And this record by Trane is one of my all-time favorites, so influential on me. Listen, the record that 'Trane did with Monk [1961's Thelonious Monk With John Coltrane] was the record I learned to play the changes for Monk's stuff, taking his stuff and putting it on the guitar. The record of 'Blue Train' was so down in the pocket. Was like, 'Ah, this is what I'm talking about.' Funky jazz, and it's good. The real McGillicutty."
(Six-time GRAMMY winner Dr. John garnered a 55th GRAMMY for Best Blues Album for his 2012 release, Locked Down. He was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2011.)
(Steve Hochman has been covering the music world since 1985. He can be heard regularly discussing new music releases on KPCC-FM's "Take Two" and the KQED-FM-produced show "The California Report," and he is also a regular contributor to the former station's arts blog "Without A Net." For 25 years he was a mainstay of the pop music team at the Los Angeles Times and his work has appeared in many other publications.)