Musician Dr. John

One of New Orleans’ most favored sons and multiple Grammy-winning singer, songwriter and pianist discusses the impact that Hurricane Katrina had on his spirit.

Dr. John has long been considered the living embodiment of New Orleans' vibrant culture. Throughout his career—from his roots as a session musician in the 50s, playing with legends, to his still-distinctive sound today—his music has transcended genres. He's well known for his classic "Right Place, Wrong Time" and has won multiple Grammys, written an autobiography (Under a Hoodoo Moon) and been inducted into the Louisiana Music Hall of Fame. His new CD, "Tribal," is a follow-up to "City That Care Forgot" about his beloved city after Katrina.

TRANSCRIPT

Tavis: Dr. John has been a popular and influential force in music for over 40 years now and still going strong with his band, The Lower 9-11. Their new project is called “Tribal.” The disc comes on the heels of a successful European tour this summer. Dr. John, good to have you on this program, sir.
Dr. John: Well, it’s a pleasure being here with you, Tavis.
Tavis: We are honored to have you here. I said still going strong – you still feel like you’re going strong?
Dr. John: Hey, listen. If we don’t be going strong, we’re going weak, and we can’t afford to go weak. (Laughter) We’ve got too many problems to do that.
Tavis: This new CD, “Tribal,” is right in the vein of what your fans, what we call feel-good music. Of all the things that you could play, given how talented you are, how did you situate yourself in this genre of feel-good music?
Dr. John: That’s funny. You mentioned a song that I had written with Alvin “Shine” Robinson years ago, and I let my band pick a lot of the songs out for this record. I just said, well, Bobby Charleston was going to write a lot of the songs with me, passed away right before we did the record. So I said, “Well, y’all pick some stuff off of some old demos.”
One of them was – two of them were songs that Bobby and me had written anyways. “Feel Good Music” is a song that Alvin “Shine” Robinson and me wrote years ago, maybe 30, 40 years ago, I don’t even know when we wrote it. But it’s stuff that means something and they all – all of the songs that I laid demos down over the years means something to me, like hey, I want to save them ones.
Tavis: You have to really trust your band to give your band carte blanche to pick some stuff to put on a new record. That’s a lot of love and trust.
Dr. John: Hey, it’s like this. I don’t believe in (unintelligible). We all, if we go with ego I go or you go ego thing, it’s got to be free from all of that and just roll, because music is a spiritual thing. It’s got to come through us and can’t just hit us. It’s got to be part of us that comes through us and goes to the people, and then they come back to us and give us more spirit. That’s what it’s about.
Tavis: Speaking of spirit, Dr. John, how has Katrina, now five years later, impacted, affected, changed – you tell me – your spirit, your soul?
Dr. John: Well, I look at what the Corps of Engineers didn’t do. Let’s face it – it was like things that has happened to show what they didn’t take care of, the pumps didn’t work, the levees fell to pieces because they hadn’t been fixed in 50 years. They take money and don’t do nothing, so that doesn’t make me feel great.
But it’s impacted me in a way that I like to tell these kind of truths. It’s important to me. Look, a lot of people of New Orleans that I see all over the United States have nowhere to go home to in the Lower Ninth Ward. This could have all been prevented. But corruption at every level, city, state, federal, all has helped in making New Orleans a disaster area, the most disappearing land mass on the planet Earth.
That’s not a great thing to say. Why doesn’t people in the United States say, “We’re tired of Louisiana being the most disappearing land mass?” It loses 40 acres every hour. It’s ridiculous. No, hundreds of acres. I don’t even know the numbers, but I know it’s a humungous amount of land to go every hour.
Tavis: There are a lot of artists, and every artist has to choose his or her own path, whether or not they want to do just the artistry or whether they want to do the artistry and the advocacy.
For whatever reason you’re very comfortable mixing the two, artistry and advocacy. Why so outspoken for you? Why don’t you hold back a little bit?
Dr. John: I’ve got to tell truths. It’s important to me right now to – listen, it’s not like I’m some kid getting out there and wanting to try to make a dollar (unintelligible) extra by lying. I want to go out there and tell some truths because I don’t care. It’s like if somebody don’t like it, that’s their issue. If they don’t want to hear the truth, if they don’t want to use their ears, they don’t want to use their spirit, they know somewhere I ain’t lying.
Tavis: How long do you have to be in the game before you get to the point where, like Dr. John, you don’t care?
Dr. John: I’ve been in this game for 56 years and I feel like I’m blessed that I’m still breathing, I’m blessed that I still can play the music, I’m blessed that I have a lot of great friends that encourages me to do these kind of things.
Tavis: Has the music changed for you on this side of Katrina? The music itself?
Dr. John: Actually, I was talking about truths the very second record we ever recorded as Dr. John called “Babylon,” and I was saying some spiritual truths then. But I kind of got away from it for a ways. I got caught up in, well, keeping the band working and keeping this going.
You lose sight, but it took Katrina, then the BP oil disaster. It’s like all these kind of things has effects. Probably there’ll be a song or two on there about that had we cut that record maybe somewhere in February I heard about the BP thing. It was the rubber, they call the membrane on that thing was being seen by people that were working.
It’s like that was in February. This thing didn’t happen until way later. On and on – it’s about big corporations’ lies. With all of the thousands and thousands and thousands of deserted oil that’s been left badly capped all over the Gulf of Mexico from when oil companies just said, “Well, we’re not getting enough oil out of this,” if the state of Louisiana had enough money, they could be in the oil business.
But true to Louisiana corruption, and all the rest of the corruption, Louisiana gets no money for all the offshore oil and there’s this trap of it suffers the worst. The fragile wetlands that are no more, that I’m praying at least that could be something that our president could say, “Well, I’m going to get y’all some wetlands. Let the Mississippi River go, like any other river goes, south.”
No river goes north, east, west and south. It just don’t go that way. Rivers don’t naturally do that, but that’s what the Corps of Engineers has figured out how to do.
Tavis: What do you make of the fact, Dr. John – and I want to pick up on your point here – that the state of Louisiana has been victimized – my word here – victimized by corruption; that is to say the people of the state of Louisiana have been victimized by corruption on the one hand, so you have this place that has corruption run amok in it, but it happens to be, on the other hand, the very same place that’s given this wonderful gift of music and culture and art to the world. How do you square, how do you juxtapose the fact that this one place can be at the same time corrupt but has given us something that is so beautiful and incorruptible via the culture?
Dr. John: Well, if you look at other countries that’s had major corruptions, they’ve also given great music. I don’t care which one you want to pick. If you go to Africa, if you want to go to the Dominican Republic. It’s like this country has always shied away from helping a country. When Haiti became a country, they didn’t help Toussaint (unintelligible) on and on.
There’s been a pattern. “Hey, we’ll help these guys because they’re White. But we’re not going to help these guys.” It’s just the same thing that’s going down in this country for a way long time.
Tavis: But how does that gift from the everyday people break through?
Dr. John: Well, I think that any of the places that’s cut off from money, things come up, what the people have to rely on. When I grew up in New Orleans everybody had a piano in the house. Whether it was (unintelligible) parties or whatever they could do there were little things that everybody gathered around the piano.
It made me decide to start off as a guitar player because I heard so many bad piano players (laughter) so it was intimidating. For years I’d have been a guitar player if I hadn’t got shot in my finger.
Tavis: You got shot in your finger how, where? What went down?
Dr. John: I was working a gig in Jacksonville, Florida and this guy, he was pistol whipping the singer with the band, who was way underage to even be on the road. But his mother told me that if anything happened to him she was going to take me off the (unintelligible) or whatever she said. That was in my head. I went to get the gun out the guy’s hand and I had my hand over the barrel and I thought it was over the handle.
So I was hitting this guy’s hand on a brick. It went off and my finger was hanging on by a piece of skin. They sewed it back on but I don’t feel much of nothing out of it. But I can still play a little guitar and I can still play on the piano. It don’t matter.
Tavis: It sounds strange to thank the guy who shot your finger off so we could enjoy you playing the piano, so I’m not going to go quite that far.
Dr. John: You know what?
Tavis: But I’m glad you got stuck on the piano.
Dr. John: Well, you know what? I played the piano, I had great guys around me from Allen Toussaint, Huey “Piano” Smith, guys like – there were so many great piano players, Professor Longhair, in New Orleans that I got to – we could talk and we can have some enjoyment about the fact that our memories of just making music is spiritual.
Tavis: Finally, you have got to be, you and your band have got to be the easiest guys to catch in concert. You can’t help but see you guys because you are on the road more than anybody I know. You play all over the place all the time, so you’re pretty easy to find.
Dr. John: Well, we love to play music. That’s our life. Without the spirit of music – if I didn’t have music I don’t know what I would do with myself. I don’t know how to do anything else anyhow, but the fact – if I did know how to do something else I wouldn’t want to do anything but play music.
Tavis: Well, if Dr. John could only do one thing or can only do one thing, I’m so glad, as I know you are, that the one thing he does and does awfully well is play that piano. His new project is called “Tribal,” and again, if you have never seen Dr. John in concert, do yourself a favor – catch him.
Go to our website at PBS.org and we’ll get you linked up to where you can see this guy on the road. Great band, great artist. Dr. John, good to have you on the program, sir.
Dr. John: Thank you so much for having me, Tavis.
Tavis: My pleasure.
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  • Mike Boudet

    I’ve been Dr. John fan for a while, so much so that I created a Facebook page for him. So many people have signed up that I feel guilty and want to relinquish it to its proper owner. But I can’t get in touch with him, cause his site has no contact info. If anybody knows how I can reach him please send me an email…

  • Beth

    I know this interview is old but I enjoyed it! LOVE that walking stick he’s holding on to!! DANG I wish I could have it!!! I’ve been a fan of Dr. John’s since I was a kid….I’m 56 now. THANKS for posting this interview!

Last modified: April 26, 2011 at 12:28 pm