He's a man of few words, but his memories are invaluable. Mac is one of the few people with insight on the Rolling Stones failed attempt to make a "Pornographic Album," and the first person we've heard give an unadorned account of a Phil Spector session.
Dr. John's career has spanned multiple phases, ranging from his days as a studio musician (with Spector), to his current role as a sort of elder statesman of The Big Easy music scene. His list of studio credits reads like a Rock & Roll Hall Of Fame membership list, as he's recorded with James Taylor, Neil Diamond, Van Morrison and The Band.
He's by no means just a historical figure, as his 2012 album, Locked Down, addresses contemporary social issues and was produced by The Black Keys front man Dan Auerbach. If you caught the Grammy broadcast, that was Dr. John rocking the keyboard along with The Black Keys performing their hit "Lonely Boy."
We used our appointment with the good doctor to discuss music and memories.
Dr. John: Well, I'm breathing, so I'm doing wonder fuel.
Songfacts: Yeah, it's like a friend of mine says, "I'm on the right side of the grass."
Dr. John: Well, there it is.
Songfacts: Well, hey, congratulations on the Grammy for Best Blues Album.
Dr. John: Uh huh. Thank you.
Songfacts: I wanted to ask you about the process of writing the songs for the album Locked Down. How did that go?
Dr. John: Well, Dan (Auerbach) had talked to me during the sessions about things that I would jaw-jerk with him about, and he said, "Maybe write some songs about some of that stuff." And that put me on a track towards some of the songs. Dan's a very cool guy. I hadn't done a regular track in so many years, but he gave me a chance to take some lyric-als and figure out ways to make it work with a track in a different way than I usually do.
Songfacts: Did you collaborate on them, or did you write them mainly yourself?
Dr. John: Well, the lyric-als, it was pretty much me, and Dan helped me with some of the real melodic-al things. And I like the way he thinks about that shit.
Songfacts: I really love the music he makes with the Black Keys. Are you a fan of his band?
Dr. John: Yeah. I like not only the stuff he's doing with the Black Keys, I like some of the hip-hop stuff he did, and I like a lot of the stuff he's produced.
Songfacts: In "Right Place, Wrong Time," there's the lyric where you talk about brain salad surgery, which became the title of an album by Emerson, Lake & Palmer. Did they ever give you credit for that?
Dr. John: Uh uh.
Songfacts: It's kind of interesting, because their music couldn't be more different from yours.
Dr. John: Well, to be honest I don't remember what kind of music they were actually playing, but I hope it was good music. I really don't remember, though.
Songfacts: It was progressive rock, which is very different.
Songfacts: Well, let's talk about "Right Place, Wrong Time." Was that inspired by a particular event in your life, or is it just sort of a fun song?
Dr. John: That was my life for a long time. At the same time I was in the wrong place at the right time, and the right place in the wrong time, too. That was the problem. We're always shifting those gears.
Songfacts: I want to ask you about your time as a session musician. You played on some incredible recordings. Are there any that stand out in your mind as favorite experiences?
Dr. John: I remember Aretha [Franklin], some of her sessions. And doing some of Dolly Parton's sessions and doing some different people that was always interesting to do. And some of the sessions with Ray Charles, with different people that I like, anyway. But I always liked doing stuff with Marvin Gaye and Joe Tex, but I didn't do any records with them. I worked on the road with them, and it was a lot of fun.
Songfacts: Were there some sessions where you felt like you were at the wrong place at the wrong time, like, 'What am I doing here?'
Dr. John: That was tons of sessions. That wasn't some. When I got to California, Phil Spector had a real reputation for doing his 'walls with sound.' I just looked at it like, 'Walls with sound?' It's just padding the payroll.
Songfacts: Were you on some of those Phil Spector recordings?
Dr. John: Yeah. Lots of them. I used to be with this band, they call them a name and I didn't even know they did [Mac might be referring to "The Wrecking Crew," which Carol Kaye tells us they were never known as]. I was in another planet then.
Songfacts: Did you get tired of the sessions life and have that longing to do your own thing?
Dr. John: Well, I never wanted to be a frontman for a band. I didn't like most of the frontmen I worked for. I just had problems with the whole idea of that. But my conga player told me that if Sonny & Cher could sing and if Bob Dylan could sing, you could do that. He kind of hit a nerve with me, like, maybe I could.
Songfacts: That you could sing?
Songfacts: Well, I think what I like about your singing is you have a growl about your voice that has so much character. Have you always sung that way or is that something that's kind of developed over the years?
Dr. John: I had no idea, I had never looked at myself like being a singer. I just do what I do. I don't try too hard.
Songfacts: The last time I saw you, you were playing in Cerritos. I think on the Blind Boys of Alabama tour. Do you still enjoy touring?
Dr. John: Well, I really don't like travel unless it's on a bus. But I will do it. That's how I make a living, really.
Songfacts: Are you going to follow up Locked Down with another album, maybe with some of the same people?
Dr. John: Well, at some point, I'm going to talk to Dan about maybe doing something else. But now I'm getting ready to work on something else. And each time I do something it's a little off the hook from what I did last.
Songfacts: You like to keep the variety?
Dr. John: Well, I like to play music with different brands. I like to do things that's like all over the place.
Songfacts: So you said you're getting ready to do something. Are you already writing songs?
Dr. John: Actually, no. I'm just trying to figure how I'm going to do something. I'm trying to put all the thoughts together, how I'm going to do this. And that's the way I try to do things is like I'll put a lot of thoughts together and then hone into the best things.
Songfacts: When you write songs, do you always begin with an instrumental riff, like a piano riff or a guitar riff? Do you have a method?
Dr. John: Actually, I don't. I'll just throw a little groove or something, or I'll start on a piano, or maybe I'll start on a guitar. But I just take it from that point.
Songfacts: So it's different every time?
Dr. John: Pretty much, yeah.
Songfacts: Are there ever times where you write the words first and then you put music to them?
Dr. John: Mostly when I write with other writers. When I used to write songs with Doc Pomus, he'd take an idea I gave him about a lyric and he'd run with it, and he'd have it all ready when I'd get to his pad. And then he'd give me words I'd put some music to it. That was one way. And then Bobby Charles and myself used to write songs completely different - we even wrote songs over the telephone. I don't think I've ever done that with anybody else.
Songfacts: Thanks for this talk. I'm so glad that you decided to become a singer, because I just think you're a unique guy.
Dr. John: Hey. Thank you very much for jaw-jerking with me, and I appreciate the fact that you're openminded.
April 19, 2013. Get more at nitetripper.com.
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