As we prepare ourselves to what could possibly be a first
NBA basketball championship for Canada and the city of Toronto, I reflect back some 43 years ago while touring Japan with the Pointer Sisters and what the game means to me and a world coming to terms with a sport then on the cusp of
It’s summer 1976 and the Pointer Sisters are touring Japan. Each city comes
with a sound check and early concert. For us guys in the trio – Chester
Thompson drums, Jeff Breeh bass, me - piano and road crew – Louis Lind etc. –
there’s plenty time to kill. “The girls” as they were affectionately called
went about doing whatever they did during off hours. The rest of us were on a
discovery mission. For me, it meant finding a game of “hoops.” Tokyo was
overwhelming, mostly given over to shopping and back alley eating, yet when we
hit that rails it was all about ‘game on.’
Osaka, I found a YMCA. I begged the front desk for use of
the gym. At first, they were apprehensive reciting membership rules, but much
like every stop throughout the country, they knew who we were. Our visit was
carried on tv. The young woman relented and handed me a child’s size basketball
and directed me to the gym. Before me, eight-foot goals. Nothing seemed right,
but for this desperate young man, anything was possible. As I started shooting
several young men began encouraging me to dunk the ball. This I did for their
amusement and with ease. Ten-foot goal? I could barely touch the rim. I truly
play from beneath the rim – no lift in these shoes. I scored a round of
applause each time I improvised a dunk. Even with an enthusiastic audience, this wasn’t
A day or so later we find ourselves in the port city Kobe,
known for its rare beef. I abandon the hotel and walk along the ocean side into
a mist, eventually coming to an overpass and basketball goal situated mid-
center a dirt floor - chicken feathers mixed in the blotches of mud. From below
I look up at a rim absent a net and thought how fine it would be to just shoot
a few against a backdrop of shipping vessels and expansive baseball netting
another side of the overpass. Then it happens. A young man in baseball garb
runs over, smiles and gestures at the goal, again smiles and runs back into a
shed. A moment later he returns with a basketball and hands to me. My heart
sinks. I’m grinning at the world and it’s smiling back. I begin shooting and
dreaming I’m back in LA where Kareem Abdul-Jabbar is hanging out and notching a
bucket here and there when suddenly the shed turns into a clubhouse and a full
cadre of baseball players, dressed to the nines run out and start tossing and
fielding baseballs. Then batting practice. You hear the whack of the bat and
instead or a soaring 300 ft blast – a fifty-foot blast into netting. It’s Japan
– there’s no space.
As time ran away from me, I walk over and return the
ball. It was then several players ran over and hugged me. My God; sports,
players, passerby’s, friendship, - it was at that moment I knew the world was
much smaller than imagined and the things that link us all are the simplest and
least complicated. A song, a ball, a location, and good people.
Born in New Orleans in 1940 as Malcom Rebannack, Dr. John
began playing piano at age six. His first recorded date was at 14, coinciding
with his job as an A&R man at Ace Records. In the mid-50s, an A&R man’s
responsibilities were to find a promising artist, hire the musicians and cut
and master the records, all for $60 a week. By the ‘60s, John was working with
Frank Zappa, Phil Spector and Sonny and Cher, on whose studio time he cut his
first Gris-Gris album which established him as Dr. John: the Night Tripper.
One of favourite all time conversations were with the good
doctor some seventeen years back. Doc was penciling notes on a music chart,
prepping a set list and smoking a Sherman cigarette. I admit being a shy/nervous
but the moment I saw him locked into pad and paper I felt a genuine calmness.
The good doctor was gracious and we spoke mostly the same language, the
mysteries of life and music.
Here’s that conversation.
Bill King: In your
biographical notes you state: “I don’t wanna know about evil. Only the delicate
balance of anutha zone, way past Shapaka Shawee, more ancient than the olive
tree. Before Rosacrucian mysteries, or Freemason vestries.”
Dr.John: It’s right where we settin’ at, you know. I know
about evil. I’ve lived in this racket, the music industry, where you’re comin’
up with gangsters and whorehouse gamblin’. I know about that evil stuff.
If you walk down Spadina where any of those music joints
were, they were dealing narcotics. Well, I don’t want to know about that. I’m
about feelin’ some good things today. I want to feel love and feel good.
B.K: You go on to
say, “The spirit kingdom is more powerful than just this meat world.” Have you
had experiences that have brought you in contact with a supreme-being or
spirits from another world?
D.J: The sense of breathin’ puts me in touch every day with
the spirit kingdom. If I wake up today, I’m breathing and I’m happy. If I can
pinch my meat (pulls the skin on his arm), I not only know that I’m alive, but
I’m feelin’ something. I not only know I’m alive. But I’m feeling something.
When I had the church in New Orleans from 1967 to 1989, I
saw a lot of things like cures being done. Things that I couldn’t explain. I
saw a Mother Catherine Seals bring what looked like a dead baby back to life by
grabbing something out of the child. I don’t try to understand or figure it out
‘cause if it ain’t broke, why fix it.
B.K: You grew up in
New Orleans’ Third Ward, which was fairly integrated. There were
Afro-Americans, Cubans, German and Irish along with Caribbean immigrants. When
did your ancestors arrive in this community?
D.J: I know my family is supposed to be from the Bas region
of France. They arrived in New Orleans in 1813 or 1830. They had a place on
Bayou Road which is now Governor Nicholas Street.
My great, great, great aunt Pauline Rebennack was involved
with a guy who had my name, Dr. John. He was a banbera cat and they had a
whorehouse out by what they call “Little Woods” in New Orleans.
Bayou Road was a historical street in what they call the
Treme area of New Orleans today. Jelly Roll Morton grew up on that street. The
one thing the Third Ward was famous for was that Louis Armstrong was born
there. Unfortunately, the politicians in New Orleans decided not to keep his
pad a tourista spot and tore it down. It’s a movie equipment store now. That’s
typical political stuff.
B.K: Did the composer
Louis Moreau Gottschalk have a profound influence on the evolution of New
Orleans music after his visit to Cuba in the mid-1800s?
D.J: Louis Moreau Gottschalk studied at that college in
Paris with Chopin and became a hit in the area because he wrote all the folk
Not only was he the first classical composer of the United
States, but, in his day, he was regarded as the fastest piano player alive. In
his music written before the Civil War, you can hear all the elements of the
samba, the rumba, the habanera, the tango and a lot of the elements of what
came to be known as ragtime.
When Van Dyke Parks turned me on to this cat, I heard a
piece Gottschalk wrote called, Bambula: Danse des Negres. It was about his
memories of livin’ on St. Anns Street across from Congo Square where the slaves
used to do their shuck gris-gris thing for the slave masters or what they do in
Haiti today for the touristas. You can not only hear the Yoruba influence, but
also how it was already Caribbeanized in a way.
When I recorded one of his pieces, The Litany of the Saints
People, on Goin’ Back to New Orleans, we had the number one record in Haiti,
Nigeria, Brazil and Greece. They all knew the piece, whether it was the Orisha
people from Brazil, the Chango people from Jamaica or the Santeria people of
People cried to it because we put strings on it like
Gottschalk wrote. It was a tribute to him, but also a piece I’d heard in church
with just guitar and a bunch of drums.
B.K: The Brazilians
have also had a profound influence. Can you pinpoint a specific rhythm pattern
or harmonic consideration that was absorbed into local music culture?
D.J: The Second Line rhythm in New Orleans is connected to
the Brazilian samba. It’s just a little different. Cuban rhythm is in the
centre of the beat, the Brazilian rhythm is a little more ‘round the beat and
in New Orleans, it’s all around the beat, pullin’ it. That’s where funk comes
from, just implying the rhythm of the samba.
For the last 40 years, I’ve played the Mardi Gras in New
Orleans, so I never get to see what it’s like. I’d love to go to Brazil just to
see all the samba clubs. It’s a fascinating connection of rhythms we play.
You know the Cubans’ first entry into the United States was
New Orleans. Most of them came through our ports. The ones, who stayed, kept
their thing intact and added something to the New Orleans things.
B.K: New Orleans had
three opera houses in the 1800s. Where else did you find that in America at the
D.J: A good friend of mine, Teddy Gumpus, who was one of the
guys whose grandfather started unions in America, played in 1920 in the old
French Opera House. When I came up in the ‘60s, it had burnt down and was then
a strip joint.
In the 1920s, Teddy sang Pagliacci at the opera house. He
was famous for doing Popeye the Sailor Man. I forget what instrument he plays,
the oboe or something, but but he played the melody on the original tune
B.K: Dr. John: The
Night Tripper was based on a 19th century doctor. Who was this
person and why did you adopt this persona in staging your first tour?
D.J: The original Dr.John was a banbera cat from Africa. My
name is Malcom John Michael Crow Rebennack, so John is actually my second name.
My Gris-Gris name is John Gris-Gris John.
Now, since I retired in 1989, I can put those things out
there. It was a natural adaptation and the fact people call me ‘professario’ or
‘doctor’. There were certain jackets hung on me, typical New Orleans stuff.
People call me snake, others call me crow. I think the Dr. thing hung on
because I like to read a lot.
B.K: You’ve written a
piano book which delves into turnarounds and embellishments which are essential
to this music. How did that come about and is it still in print?
D.J: Happy and Artie Tram wanted me to send a paper to my
manager giving them permission to reissue the thing. I’m real grateful to have
met so many piano players around the world who say the book has helped them.
I’m also happy about preserving it on CD ROM.
For New Orleans players like Huey Smith, James Brook, Allan
Toussaint, Art Neville, Professor Longhair, who I learned all kinds of
turnarounds from, they were their signatures.
Other guys like Pete Johnson of Kansas City or Albert Ammons
in Chicago had different kinds of turnarounds. But New Orleans had variety. I
could tell which guys played on sessions by some of their turnarounds.
D.J: Right now, I really want to spend some time fishin’,
before it gets frostbitten cold.