As evidenced by WWOZ-FM’s weeklong musical eulogy for Mac “Dr. John” Rebennack, he left no shortage of recorded music.
In the months before his death on June 6, as his health grew ever more precarious, he struggled to leave a little bit more — by realizing his dream of recording a country album.
New Orleans guitarist Shane Theriot, a veteran of the Neville Brothers band and the current musical director for Daryl Hall and John Oates, produced the album, which so far has no release date.
“The main thread in the lyrical content and songs — it wasn’t intended at first, but it became more apparent — was about time and retrospective and looking back,” Theriot said Wednesday from Sao Paulo, Brazil, where he performed the previous night with Hall & Oates.
“He’s not trying to be the Night Tripper — he did that. He’s more exposed. You can hear that this dude lived a helluva life. It’s honest. It’s beautiful.”
Mac “Dr. John” Rebennack, a lifelong rambler, was the subject of a celebratory memorial ramble through the 7th Ward on Friday.
Over the course of a 60-year career, Rebennack released more than two dozen albums of original studio recordings, plus many more live and compilation albums. Highlights include "Gumbo," his 1972 collection of New Orleans rhythm and blues standards; his jazzy 1989 album "In a Sentimental Mood," featuring "Accentuate the Positive" and his hit duet with Rickie Lee Jones, "Makin' Whoopee!"; and "Goin' Back to New Orleans," his 1992 tour de force overview of the spectrum of New Orleans music.
His catalog also encompasses such thematic albums as the Duke Ellington tribute “Duke Elegant” and a salute to songwriter Johnny Mercer, “Mercernary.” His most recent release was 2014’s “Ske-Dat-De-Dat: The Spirit of Satch,” a tribute to Louis Armstrong.
Theriot played with the Neville Brothers from the late 1990s to the mid-2000s, which is when he got to know Rebennack. Later, he occasionally served as the substitute guitar player in Rebennack’s band.
His extensive resume also includes work as a producer; he won a Grammy in 2015 for Cajun musician Jo-El Sonnier's "The Legacy."
After seeing a Rebennack show at the Orpheum Theater a few years ago, Theriot resolved to produce a record with him. Over several lunch meetings, Rebennack expressed his desire to cut an album of country songs like Ray Charles' 1962 release “Modern Sounds in Country and Western Music,” but in his own style.
“Because we had a history," Theriot said, "he trusted me to make some decisions.”
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Theriot assembled demo recordings of a half-dozen classic country songs; he and Rebennack also listened to old records at Theriot’s house in the Lower Garden District and sketched out a few new songs. Rebennack gave Theriot a book containing “30 years of lyrics written on hotel stationery from all over the world.”
They started recording at Treme's Esplanade Studios in 2017. Rebennack’s mobility was limited, so the stairs in the studio, which occupies a former church built in the 1920s, posed a challenge. The staff set up a table and speakers just outside the room where Rebennack recorded his piano parts “so he could walk just a few feet and have food and listen to playbacks,” Theriot said.
Theriot played all the guitar parts and some bass. Other featured musicians included New Orleans drummers Carlo Nuccio and Herlin Riley, bassist Tony Hall and keyboardists David Torkanowsky and Jon Cleary, plus longtime "Late Show with David Letterman" bassist Will Lee.
"It was mainly Shane's perseverance that made it happen," Torkanowsky, who played Wurlitzer and Hammond B3 organ, said this week. "Mac had weaker days and stronger days, but every time he touched the piano, he sounded like Mac. He can't help but do that."
Rebennack recorded the country standard “Old Time Religion” with Willie Nelson. He also covered Johnny Cash’s “Guess Things Happen That Way” and Hank Williams’ “Ramblin’ Man” and “I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry.” Aaron Neville, himself a fan of old cowboy songs, sings on the Traveling Wilburys’ “End of the Line.”
One day at Theriot’s house, the guitarist played a “rootsy, acoustic thing." Rebennack liked it. Theriot suggested Rebennack sing his classic “I Walk On Guilded Splinters” over it.
“The hair on our arms stood up,” Theriot said. “We’ve got to do it this way — a reimagined version, but with respect for the original.”
At the time, Theriot was also working on Rickie Lee Jones’ recently released album “Kicks.” He played some of the Rebennack recordings for her, and she asked to be included. Thus, Jones sings on “Guilded Splinters” and other tracks.
Theriot and Rebennack also conjured a new version of the Rebennack favorite “Such a Night.”
“Those are sacred songs, as far as I’m concerned,” Theriot said of "Such a Night" and "Guilded Splinters." “We thought Dr. John fans would like to hear another treatment.”
By late 2017, Rebennack’s health had taken a turn for the worse, and the recording project ground to a halt. “There was a period of time when I thought, ‘That’s it. I don’t know if he’ll want to work on it any more,’” Theriot said.
But after a three-month break, he sent Rebennack some recordings they’d done and “he got reinterested.”
Still, Theriot realized that “the only way we’ll make this work is to go to him.”
So in spring 2018, a makeshift studio was set up in the Mandeville home where Rebennack was living with one of his sons.
“We’d work with him as long as he could do it,” Theriot said. “You could see he was getting weaker and weaker. But he kept saying, 'We gotta get this done.'”
Malcolm John Rebennack Jr., known around the world as Dr. John, initially aspired to be a professional songwriter, producer and sideman, like …
Torkanowsky remembered Rebennack "being this combination of wistful and joyful. He was happy that he was getting to make the record he always wanted to make. And he was wistful because I think he knew it was his last record."
Theriot was on tour in South America with Hall & Oates when he received word that Rebennack had died June 6. “I was crushed. Not surprised, but shocked, and sad.”
On Tuesday, Theriot performed in Sao Paulo with Hall & Oates. The only other time he'd been in Brazil was with Dr. John's band — exactly six years ago to the day.
“It was really weird, but Mac had that kind of effect,” Theriot said. “When Mac was at my home, I’d feel calmer. It was a presence he had. He was a one-of-a-kind guy.”
Theriot had hoped that the new record would be released when Rebennack was still alive. It wasn't, but Rebennack heard, and approved of, the final product.
“We’d sit in his house or in a car and listen to it," Theriot said. "He heard it back to front several times. This was not something that was cobbled together. He’s all over the record. This is a cohesive statement.”