On May 3, 2014, music stars paraded into the Saenger Theater in New Orleans for “The Musical Mojo of Dr. John: A Celebration of Mac & His Music.”
The all-star tribute to Dr. John — that prolific singer-pianist from New Orleans whose piled-high honors include six Grammy Awards — will be released Oct. 21 on CD, Blu-ray and DVD.
The tribute opens with Bruce Springsteen. He had headlined the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival a few hours before he joined Dr. John, aka Mac Rebennack, on the Saenger stage to sing the honoree’s biggest hit, “Right Place, Wrong Time.”
The dozens of “Musical Mojo of Dr. John” performers also include Jason Isbell, Mavis Staples, Widespread Panic, Ryan Bingham, John Fogerty, the Blind Boys of Alabama and Rolling Stones keyboardist Chuck Leavell.
“I’m great with that,” Dr. John said of the tribute’s release during a recent interview.
“Musical Mojo” talent from New Orleans includes Aaron, Cyril and Charles Neville, Meters George Porter Jr. and Zigaboo Modeliste, the Dirty Dozen Brass Band, Irma Thomas, John Boutté and the late Allen Toussaint.
“I love what we played with the Neville brothers,” Dr. John said in his signature scratchy tone. “It always blows my head away, Jason Isbell doing ‘Blow Wind Blow,’ and Terence Blanchard playing ‘Come Rain or Come Shine.’ You can’t beat that. And Anders Osborne and Bill Kreutzmann did a song I thought nobody would do, ‘Somebody Changed the Lock.’ ”
Dr. John has known the tribute’s New Orleans performers for decades. He knows Springsteen, too, but not well, although he did sit in with Springsteen at Jazz Fest once.
“That was a blessing,” he said.
Last we checked, Dr. John hadn’t had time to watch or listen to his advance copies of “The Musical of Mojo of Dr. John.” He’d rather look forward than look back, anyway. And he wants people to know that he’s still in the game and has much more music to make.
In 2016, Dr. John’s work includes the touring he has done for decades. He’s back in Baton Rouge on Friday for a show at L’Auberge Casino & Hotel.
Dr. John agrees with his late friend, singer-pianist Pleasant “Cousin Joe” Joseph, that musicians should stay on the bandstand as long as possible.
“Cousin Joe always told me the best way for a musician to die is fall over and die during the last song of the show,” he said. “The band gets paid, and you don’t have to play an encore. Cousin Joe, he was a blessed character.”
The many other musical characters in Dr. John’s life include Baton Rouge blues artists Lazy Lester, Slim Harpo and the Neal family. Way back in his 60 years of being a music pro, he remembers performing with Lazy Lester and Slim Harpo on the black touring circuit known as the Chitlin’ Circuit.
“If I hadn’t made some wrong turns, I would have stayed on the Chitlin Circuit for a longer time,” he said. “But I have this memory of meeting the most guys named Slim that I ever met. Memphis Slim. Slim Harpo — all these guys, and they were all, usually, from Baton Rouge!
“I thought the world of Slim Harpo’s music. I loved just playing with him. That was a blessing. When I look back to swamp pop, when they called it that, everybody connected with swamp pop, they was on top of their game.”
As for the Neal family, which includes singer-guitarists Kenny and Lil’ Ray Neal and their late father, Raful, “everyone in the Neal family has been partners of mine,” Dr. John said. “I love that family.”
Dr. John’s Baton Rouge connections further include his dear friend and mentor, New Orleans native Huey “Piano” Smith. In the 1950s, Smith was one of many recording artists in his hometown to release national hits.
A little-known side note: One of Smith’s singers, “Scarface” John Williams, saved Dr. John’s life at the Robin Hood Theater in New Orleans.
“Scar John pushed me out the way of a guy who was wielding a pistol,” Dr. John said. “If he wouldn’t have been there, I wouldn’t be here today.”
Despite dangers on the road and in New Orleans, and the lowdown skulduggery many people on the business end of music engaged in, Dr. John has lived and thrived long enough to be a regular recipient of the honors and awards his career deserves.
He’ll receive his latest honor, the Hank Jones Award, Oct. 27 at the Apollo Theater, during the Jazz Foundation of America’s annual “A Great Night in Harlem” benefit gala. The John Mayer Trio, Jon Batiste, Robert Cray, Bruce Willis and Robert Randolph are among the evening’s performers.
“I feel blessed to get any reward, awards or whatever it is.”