Dr. John on channeling the spirit of Satch

During a recent concert and promotional tour, Dr. John and co-producer and arranger Sarah Morrow stopped by Yamaha Artist Services in Manhattan to talk with us about the making of his new album, and how it all started with Louis Armstrong speaking to him in a dream.
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“You’ve got to listen to every kind of music,” legendary New Orleans singer, songwriter and multi-instrumentalist Dr. John says from beside a nine-foot Yamaha concert grand piano. “Because if you don’t listen to everything, how the hell are you gonna play everything?”

On his new album Ske Dat De Dat: The Spirit of Satch, which debuted at Number One on the Billboard Jazz Charts this past August, Dr. John (née Mac Rebennack) proves he has indeed heeded his own advice, offering up a mesmerizing, multi-faceted salute to the iconic New Orleans musician Louis Armstrong. From the harmonized, vocal grace and backbeat-drenched reading of “What a Wonderful World,” to surprising renditions of “World on a String” (featuring Bonnie Raitt), “Mack the Knife” (with rap vocals by Mike Ladd), the album is as funky and unpredictable as the 73 year-old Good Doctor himself.

During a recent concert and promotional tour, Dr. John and co-producer and arranger Sarah Morrow stopped by Yamaha Artist Services in Manhattan to talk about the making of his new album, and how it all started with Armstrong speaking to him in a dream.

In the press materials for your new album, you say, “Louis Armstrong’s the most famous guy that ever came out of my neighborhood..” Can you talk about the impact Louis had on you and your music?

Dr. John: I’ll always remember that my father would say to me, “That’s where Louis Armstrong was born,” every time we would walk past Jane Place in New Orleans. My father loved all of those cats, whether it was Louis or musicians like Kid Ory and “Frog” Joseph. And even though I didn’t know a lot about music as a little kid, what I did know was that Louis Armstrong’s records were special. I loved songs of his like “Gut Bucket Blues” and many others. So his records meant a lot to me.

You have been quoted as saying, “Louis’ spirit came to me and told me to do something. That’s how this whole thing started.” So the idea for this album came to you in a dream?

DJ: Yeah. He came to me in a dream and said, “Do my music your way.” And that hit me, because the only time I knew Louis is when we were both being managed by Joe Glaser. I had signed with Joe in 1968, the same year that B.B. King signed with him. Louis only lived four or five years after that. So to me, I was really following directions from Louis. [Laughs.]

Sarah Morrow: Each song on the album is different. Dr. John asked me to help him produce this project with the main goal being that he wanted to make it fresh. In the beginning, it wasn’t his idea to make me the co-producer and arranger. He just wanted me to help him arrange a few of the songs. But as time went by, he started liking what I was doing. And the collaboration evolved.

Before this album, had you played much of Louis’ music before?

DJ: I played some tunes of his. In fact, I had a video disc of Louis Armstrong performing “Do You Call That a Buddy?” for the troops during World War II. I play that song live now, but I’ve completely changed it from Louis’ version. So I had played some of his songs, but I had never put together an entire collection of his music before. That was the issue.

What you did with “What a Wonderful World” is like no other version of that song I’ve ever heard. It’s got harmonized vocals, churchy Hammond organ, and your signature bluesy piano fills. It’s like a master class in how to cover a song and make it your own.

SM: I think this particular song was actually the basis for the entire album. It was the first song that Dr. John knew he wanted to record, and also one where he did the rhythm arrangements. Then I arranged the horns and the other instruments, and we both decided together to add the Blind Boys of Alabama.

Almost every element of that song has been completely re imagined. How did you go about re-interpreting such a well-known classic?

DJ: Well, when I heard Louis Armstrong’s version of that record, there were parts of it I liked, and parts of it where I thought, “I hear some other s*** here!” [Laughs.] So that’s where I took it. I mean, Louis did say to do it how I heard it!

SM: As that song evolved, we tweaked it together. We’d try things like taking two bars out at a certain point, and other ideas. It was fun to arrange for Dr. John and whoever the guest artist was on each particular track. For me, it was about finding both the commonalities and the differences in their voices, because Dr. John is so diverse, so far out, and so original. In terms of the drumbeat on that song, he knew he wanted it to be a “straight four,” so that’s what he specifically told the drummer, Herlin Riley. It was also incredibly important to have Herlin on the album. He brought our ideas to life in a way that only he knows how to do, with his New Orleans roots. So it was exciting for me, because anything was possible. I wanted to push Dr. John into new territory, but at the same time, to be true to who he is as an artist.

Your version of “Mack the Knife” is a funky and totally modern take on a classic. How did the reinvention of that tune come about?

DJ: Sarah put a Hellfire chart on it! I heard it and thought, “This is slamming.” I loved it.

SM: There are a few tracks that have a different rhythm section on them because we were going for different, contemporary kinds of grooves. So on “Mack the Knife” we used Jamison Ross on drums.

That track also features Mike Ladd’s rap vocals. Is this the first time you collaborated with a hip-hop singer?

DJ: No, I did a record years ago called Jet Set with Duke Bootee, alias Ed Fletcher. That record was actually climbing the charts for a while!

SM: Dr. John did some stuff with hip-hop artists way back in the 1980s! It was my idea to use Mike, as I actually played on his record and we’ve done a lot of live shows together in Europe. So when then idea came up to use a rapper on the album, I knew it had to be someone as profound as Dr. John. Not just somebody with a big name, but someone that would say something with meaning. Otherwise, it wouldn’t work. That’s why Mike was perfect.

“Mack the Knife” has elements reminiscent of some of your more funk-oriented standards. Can you talk about how funk music has influenced your sound?

DJ: I think all funk music goes back to the 1950’s when New Orleans drummers like Charles “Hungry” Williams and Earl Palmer had started doing things way funkier than anyone else in the country. That led towards Stax and other record companies picking up on that kind of sound.

SM: I think it’s important to talk about how on this song, Dr. John knew exactly what he wanted to do vocally. Everything grew out of his vocal concept. He knew he wanted to do his own speaking, rap-infused version of “Mack the Knife.” And then he said, “Sarah, make it work!”

When you are working on a song, does everything start with the melody or the vocal for you?

DJ: I think each song has a completely different “maneuver” about it. For instance, a lot of the songs I wrote with Doc Pomus were in a completely different zone than the ones I wrote with Bobby Charles. Every situation is different.

“World on a String” features a great duet with Bonnie Raitt. How did the collaboration with her come about?

DJ: We had little arguments about it! [Laughs.] But Bonnie was way cool. Her spirit told her what to do.

SM: Mac knew he that wanted to do something with Bonnie, but they had a hard time choosing a song. We were on oneside, throwing out ideas, and Bonnie would say, “No, I’m not into that one.” But in the end, both of them wanted to honor Louis Armstrong, so it was important to find a song that worked for both of them together. And once they chose it, they told me, “Now go do something with it!”

“Motherless Child” is another unexpected take on a standard. What is that crazy keyboard sound you use on it and in the solo?

DJ: That’s the RMI Electra-Piano. I used it back on the In the Right Place album, as well as the Desitively Bonaroo album. But my original RMI had a whole lot of glitter in it, because I used to throw glitter out on-stage. It just got into the keyboard, and made it disturbed. So we didn’t use that particular instrument. In fact, I don’t even have that keyboard anymore. Now I travel with a Nord Electro, and it’s an interesting device to play songs like that one and “Right Place” on. I like it. And it’s good for the gigs, because I can get two or three different sounds on it.

SM: Mac’s engineer Chris Finney evidently spent years looking for an RMI that worked. They’re evidently hard to find. But I will say this: Mac does tweak his RMI sound. He has his own special sound on it. So if you get one, you’re not going to make it sound like his!

Besides the RMI and the Nord, are there any other keyboards you are drawn to?

DJ: Doc Pomus left me his Rhodes that he had at his house. We wrote a million songs on it, but I have never played it because it’s out of tune. That thing drove me crazy!

There aren’t a ton of piano solos on the new album. Was that a conscious decision?

DJ: Yeah. I really wanted to have a lot of trumpet players to capture the spirit of Louis. And I think I got all of the best cats for that.

On “Nobody Knows the Trouble I’ve Seen,” there’s a beautiful piano intro. Then that tune modulates up and we have a piano solo with single note lines and bluesy piano fills built on the third, flatted third, and root. Can you talk about the way you approach taking a piano or keyboard solo on a song?

DJ: One of the things I like to do is not think too much. If I think too much, I’m interfering what with the spirits get me to play. I learned this from [jazz drummer] Art Blakey. He said to me, “Don’t think too much!” It worked for him as a drummer, so I try never to get in the way of something. I just let things flow.

The song “Wrap Your Troubles in Dreams” is an interesting showcase for how you accompany your own vocal on piano. On it, you play an octave above where you are singing, staying out of the way of the lyric.

DJ: On that song, one of the things I was leaning on was Herlin playing that little 12/8 beat, like his grandpa [New Orleans drummer] Frank Lastie used to play on the drums. I love 12/8 time—it always feels good to me. That’s why Ray Charles cut so many records in 12/8. It’s amazing when you play something that feels connected like that. It’s like going whatever church you belong to.

SM: I think what you caught on to about the way he accompanies himself is very much spot-on. Whether he’s consciously aware of it or not, he’s always aware of leaving space.

Can you talk about some of the pianists that helped shape your style?

DJ: The guy that backed Big Joe Turner up was the guy that made me want to play the piano. His name was Pete Johnson, and I loved him. He was inspiring to me.

What was it about his playing that moved you?

DJ: There was a record called “Piney Brown Blues” by Joe Turner, and when I heard Pete Johnson on it as a little kid, I thought, “This guy is doing something amazing.” I think it would still move me today. There were other piano players too, like Milt Buckner, who played with Jimmy Scott in Lionel Hampton’s band. He was a bad-ass, and he was playing the Organola, which had a piano and organ sound at the same time. He blew me away. So I heard all these kinds of things, first when I was playing guitar. Later on, I tried to transfer them over to piano.

Were there any New Orleans piano players in particular for whom you had a particular affinity?

DJ: I remember working gigs with Huey Smith, James Booker, Art Neville, and Allen Toussaint. I worked with all of these guys while I was playing guitar. My second guitar teacher, Walter “Papoose” Nelson, told me, “Watch the piano player’s left hand! That’ll give you a clue what the chord’s gonna be.” So I had some ideas from watching whoever the keyboard player was on a session. That was inspiring to me in a weird way.

I remember your Hammond organ work from 1988 when you guested on Harry Connick Jr.’s album 20. On this album, you hired other musicians to play organ. Why?

DJ: Because I liked the other two organists we had better. Bobby Floyd is the guy that’s been working with the band, and I also love Ivan Neville, who’s a bad m***f***er, too! James Booker taught me how to play organ for gigs at clubs around New Orleans like Madame Francine’s, but he never got past teaching me how to play the foot pedals! So I never learned how to play like Jimmy Smith, where you could walk bass lines with your left hand and play roots with your foot. I remember one time, James Booker took me to see Korla Pandit, who was a bad-ass organ player. He played a solo with no hands—just with his feet, on the jazz standard “Caravan.” I was like, “Wow!”

I always felt like guys that could play the organ in a number of ways had an advantage over what I could do. But the secret ingredient to me that makes everything work on the organ is playing “church.” To me, if you can’t do that, you might as well not play at all. Because I think that’s where organ players are supposed to come from. From the time I worked with Billy Preston in Los Angeles, to working now with Bobby Floyd, it’s the same mold for organ: playing in church. And it’s a spiritually hip thing to do.

What are some things that keyboardists should think about when constructing their own solos?

DJ: One of the things that’s important for musicians to do, especially when they’re young, is to try and push themselves into new places. When I was a studio musician back around 1954, there were a lot of guys that pushed us youngsters. They would say, “You’ve got to play all music with the same respect you have for any one music you might like.” So I learned how to do it on the gig. But it’s never an easy route to take.

When you were developing your piano style, what routines or technical exercises did you practice along the way?

DJ: You know what? I studied guitar lessons for years, but I never really had a keyboard teacher. When I first started doing sessions, I think the first record I actually played piano on was Leonard James’ “Boppin’ and Strollin” back in 1957. When I hear the record, I can hear I was on the way to doing something different, but I didn’t have it quite down just yet.

You were getting your concept together?

DJ: I didn’t have a concept, but I was working on it! [Laughs.] Spiritually, I knew that the old timers like [drummer] Earl Palmer or [saxophonist] “Red” Tyler would show us the way. The history of rock ’n’ roll starts off with those two guys and they didn’t remember half of the hit records they played on! They were just trying to survive and play gigs.

What would you say is the most important thing a young keyboardist should keep in mind when they are playing and learning about the music of New Orleans?

DJ: Well, nobody ever plays good that’s not locked in with the drummer. If you’re not locked in with the drummer and the bass player, what do ya got? The best thing I could say is that music has a life and a mind of its own. It’s spiritually correct. If you don’t see it in your heart, and you don’t see into your spirit and soul, then you’re missing something. I’ve seen so many musicians that are almost slamming, but they’re not—and that’s really sad to me.

I love music and I feel good when I’m playing it. I think the key to having a successful career in music is to listen. If you’re open-minded, there’s no reason you can’t be a slamming musician. That’s what that dream I had was about. I thought, “Wow. Louis just gave me an order to do something my way. And it’s cool!”