Dr. John, aka The Night Tripper, has released more than 30 albums that draw from the music of his native New Orleans and beyond, bookended by his 1968 voodoo psychedelic masterpiece debut Gris-Gris and last year's wonderful Locked Down, produced by Dan Auerbach from The Black Keys.
Although not the sort of artist who had big hits — his only ones were the funky "Right Place Wrong Time" and a cover of "Iko Iko" — Dr. John has been hugely respected in the music world for decades.
He was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2011, not just for his solo career but for his contributions to recordings as a member of the group of Los Angeles session musicians now known as The Wrecking Crew, and later contributions to recordings by an incredible set of musicians including The Rolling Stones, Ringo Starr, B.B. King, Aretha Franklin, Van Morrison, Rickie Lee Jones, Carly Simon, Joe Cocker and many more.
Dr. John will be performing at the Granada Theatre on Friday. Tickets are available by clicking here. He took time from his busy schedule to talk to Noozhawk about the upcoming show. The full interview is available by clicking here.
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Jeff Moehlis: What can we look forward to at your upcoming concert in Santa Barbara?
Dr. John: I write the shows the day of the gig., so it's gonna be a surprise to me as well as you. But we'll play some of the stuff that the people know the best. I try to do that all the time.
JM: I understand you have a new band since your last visit. Can you tell me a little bit about the new band?
Dr.J: It's a really heckuva band. I think it's a really interesting group. The musical director is Sarah Morrow, she's the trombone player. And she's really ... she's slammin'. The rest of the crew is slammin'. Like I say, everybody is great. The band, they play great volume, good for me. That's one of the things I need to do these days, because I had hearing problems with the last crew.
JM: Of the music you've released over the years, my favorite is your first album Gris-Gris, from way back when. Could you give me your reflections on that particular album?
Dr. J: Yeah, I thought the album was slammin'. I even thought the second album was slammin'. The third album, it was not as consistent as the first couple of them. The second one was, like, a lot of time signature stuff. A rhythm and blues band to be playing some stuff in a lot of weird meters, whether in was 5/4 or 11/4, a lot of other meters, that wasn't normal. But that's what we was doin' then. But the Gris-Gris album was special 'cause we was doin' stuff that was real original to the time.
JM: You've recorded and performed with so many great musicians over the years. Are there any that particularly stand out to you?
Dr. J: I remember a session we was doin' with Ray Charles, and Bobby Womack was on the date, and he wrote a song for Aretha [Franklin], "I'm in Love." He wrote that while we was cuttin' another song. And I just thought, Bobby is a piece of work.
Ray heard one of the saxes was a little bit out of tune, and his hearin' was so acute. He pointed to the guy, and I thought, wow. I mean, he was a blind guy that did that, you know.
That session, and I remember some other dates. Some of the stuff I did with Aretha was really fun for me. Whether I was just playin' percussion on "Rock Steady," or whether it was playin' an organ on "Spanish Harlem," and all. It was always fun stuff to do with her. I think me and Donny Hathaway probably played on so many sessions that Atlantic did in them days, it was, like, ridiculous. You know, everybody was doin' the best they could.
JM: Until I was preparing for this interview, I didn't realize that you played on Frank Zappa's album Freak Out! What was that experience like?
Dr. J: Well, actually, Frank brought me before the trial board at the union. I was playing, like, six notes over and over on one song, and I asked Les McCann, I said, "Les, could you just handle this for a minute?" And I just left the studio. I cut out! [laughs] And Frank brought me up before the musicians union, on a trial thing.
JM: So not the best experience.
Dr. J: Hey, well then it's OK. 'Cause I was gonna join Frank's band, but Elliot Ingber told me, "Don't ever get high around Frank. He doesn't believe in that." And I thought, this guy looks so spaced out. And Elliot was the pot dealer for all of the movie actors out there then. He made that record Don't Bogart That Joint, My Friend, or something like that. It was, like, wow, Elliot made a record about this, and Frank didn't bother him.
JM: You're on tour right now. Do you have other plans, maybe another album that you're planning to release?
Dr. J: Yeah, we're workin' on it. When we get a little further down the line I'll give you a title for it. But I don't have it now.
JM: Will that be with Dan Auerbach again?
Dr. J: No, it's not gonna be with him. But we're waiting to figure that out.
JM: Do you want to set the record straight on anything about your life or career? You've had quite a colorful life, I know.
Dr. J: I tell you one thing. I'm grateful that I'm still breathing. 'Cause I did have cirrhosis of the liver and hepatitis C. The next step to cirrhosis I had was death, and I made it through it. Not a lot of people that have had hepatitis C since 1957 could say that. I'm blessed.
JM: Lastly, how is New Orleans doing these days?
Dr. J: Well, it's not doin' as good as it could. The whole Lower Ninth Ward is pretty much gone. I find that really pathetic.
— Jeff Moehlis is a Noozhawk contributing writer and a professor of mechanical engineering at UC Santa Barbara. Upcoming show recommendations, advice from musicians, interviews and more are available on his web site, music-illuminati.com. The opinions expressed are his own.