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Jazz & World

Dr. John with the RCO All-Stars

Dr. John
NPR
Dr. John

Malcolm John Rebennack, Jr., who was better known as Dr. John the Night Tripper, died on Thursday, June 6, at age 77. Among his many musical associations, he was a featured member of the RCO All-Stars, a group that drummer Levon Helm formed after the break-up of The Band. Great but short-lived, RCO made one album and a memorable appearance on Saturday Night Live in 1977. There the principles— Dr. John, Levon Helm, and Paul Butterfield— were introduced by host Broderick Crawford. RCO was produced by Henry Glover, who was the composer of the Ray Charles classic, “Drown in My Own Tears,” and a producer of Little Willie John’s great r&b ballads. But Dr. John says Glover, who’d already over-produced Butterfield’s strings-laden album Put It In Your Ear, was dismissed from the project and “a lot of the energy went out of the effort after Henry was gone.”

I introduced Dr. John at the Litchfield Jazz Festival in 2005 where he closed the fest but not before igniting a mosh pit of dancers and human projectiles with killer performances of “Right Place, Wrong Time,” and “Such a Night,” a slew of NOLA classics, and a fonkified take on Duke Ellington’s music. In pure Night Tripper parlance, DUKE ELEGANT, the title of his 1999 tribute album, connoted and delivered on the earthy and ethereal all at once. For as Mac put it in his no-nonsense autobiography, Under a Hoodoo Moon, “The hardest thing to do is let the spirituality flow and turn the meat on. Doing that is creating art, radiating the 88s. When you do that, you’ve achieved something.”

In a hotel lobby before the Litchfield show, I asked the good doctor about the long ago RCO. After a pause, he said simply, “We all miss Butter.” Paul died in 1987; alas, Saints Levon and Mac have joined him in that number. Here they perform the Earl King original, “Sing, Sing, Sing (Let’s Make a Better World).”

See a video of  Levon Helm and the All Stars.