Dr. John Says He's Qualified To Get You Groovin'

Grammy nominee will be playing in Annapolis when awards are announced

February 13, 2005|By Rashod D. Ollison | Rashod D. Ollison,Sun Pop Music Critic

Words bubble from the deep, muddy river in Dr. John's throat. There's a certain rhythm to the singer-musician's conversation -- slow moving, totally unhurried. Like the gumbo of his native New Orleans, his vocabulary is a spicy mix of things -- often profane, sometimes mystical. But the man born Malcolm John Rebennack always likes to "keep it on the real and tell it like it 'tis."

On a recent February night, Dr. John, perhaps best known for his 1973 smash "Right Place, Wrong Time," sits backstage at North Bethesda's Music Center at Strathmore where he's about to play before a sold-out house. Dressed in jeans, a blue-gray suede shirt, and a black fedora with pink, green and yellow feathers, the 63-year-old artist rests his hands atop an elaborately carved cane, a gift from a friend serving time in a Louisiana prison. He looks tired.

Dr. John is up for two Grammy Awards: one for best gospel performance ("Lay My Burden Down," a duet with Mavis Staples), the other for best contemporary blues album (his critically well-received N'awlins: Dis, Dat or D'udda).

But when the awards are given out tonight, the performer will be in Annapolis, at the Rams Head Tavern -- not in Los Angeles.

"I got four Grammys already," he says in that famed, greasy drawl. "We don't make no money off no record, off no Grammy. We make the money on the road. A Grammy ain't gonna up the money on no gig or up a better record deal. But it's nice to be nominated, you know. I feel blessed."

Dr. John's last Grammy came five years ago for best pop collaboration with vocals. The award was for his duet with longtime buddy B.B. King on the Louis Jordan classic "Is You Is, Or Is You Ain't (My Baby)." The blues legend also appears on N'awlins, Dr. John's most ambitious project in years. The record is a funky, slightly disjointed celebration of the rich music from the Big Easy.

"The record is like different chunks of New Orleans," Dr. John says, stroking his straggly, gray beard. "It's all the different chunks: tributes to Louis Armstrong, some R&B, the spiritual church music."

And "the fonk," as he calls it. Anybody who knows Dr. John's music knows that it is always about "the fonk," the deep groove and simmering attitude that pull a song, regardless of the style, down to earth. The artist can take a classy Duke Ellington number like "Solitude" and turn it into an expressive, whiskey-stained blues ballad.

Dr. John always imbues a song with his distinct flavor, freely mixing styles: boogie piano and rock, psychedelia and R&B with voodoo incantations thrown in. This haphazard blending of genres, moods and spirituality has frustrated critics for years, ever since the release of his wildly eclectic debut, 1968's Gris-Gris.

Dr. John says: "It boils down to what I wanna do. There it is. I love all kinds of music."

His restless musical spirit is felt throughout N'awlins. Folk tunes segue into funeral dirges. Gospel numbers follow blues songs. There wasn't a particular concept on the record, Dr. John says. Much of it happened organically in the studio with celebrated producer Stewart Levine overseeing things. To flesh out the music, Dr. John called on some of his old musician friends in New Orleans: veteran arranger Wardell Quezerque, percussionist Smokey Johnson and trumpeter Nicholas Payton among them.

"I was happy to see all those cats," Dr. John says, a smile creeping across his face. "We threw down in the studio. That was it, man. We kinda always did that anyhow. Lots of those cats don't get the credit for what they do, you know. And it's very hard, this [industry]. But we in it 'cause we love the music."

These days, Dr. John maintains a busy tour schedule. Last year, he and his trio played 306 dates. Although he owns a home in New Orleans and a place in New York, "right now whatever hotel I'm staying at is my home," he says. "It don't leave a lot of time to be a homebody, you know."

The man is guarded about his personal life. He won't say if he's attached to anyone.

Children?

"I have 'nough of 'em," he says flatly.

How many?

"Numbers and me ain't the best, man. I ain't planning on having no more. Know that much."

Grandchildren?

"Yeah. I got 'nough of 'em," he says, his voice trailing off.

His manager, Sparky, opens the door and sticks his head in. "You got about 15 minutes," he says.

Dr. John rolls his eyes. "I guess I gotta get ready for this show."

Later, the performer struts on stage, bopping his cane to the band's smoking groove. He sports a plum suit and gold shirt. The fedora is in place. His thin, gray ponytail trails down his back. Some members of the audience are dancing in the aisles as Dr. John takes his place between an organ and a grand piano. On top of the piano, he rests his cane next to a skull and falls right into the groove, tickling the ivories.

The house is ready to party and Dr. John is here to get it started. He growls into the microphone, "Yeah, baby, I'm qualified."

Dr. John's two performances at Rams Head Tavern are sold out.

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