Dr. John Knew the End Was Near. He Recorded One Final AlbumRolling Stone — Jonathan Bernstein
In December of last year, guitarist Shane Theriot got into his car and drove to Mac Rebennack’s New Orleans house with a completed version of the record he had just produced for the Hall of Fame pianist, singer-songwriter and producer ubiquitously known as Dr. John. Rebennack’s health was declining by that point; his walking had slowed to the point where it had become an effort for him to leave his house. Six months later, his family would announce his death as a result of a heart attack.
But over the course of the previous year, at a series of recordings at New Orleans’ Esplanade Studios and the homes of Rebennack and Theriot, Dr. John had completed his final album, a mix of new originals, country-tinged covers and reworked Dr. John classics recorded with a series of hand-picked New Orleans session musicians. Despite his failing health and various logistical roadblocks, the piano player, songwriter, and singer who recorded over 30 albums throughout his career had seen his way through completing one last album.
Listening to his finished album, Mac was elated. “We sat and listened to everything twice,” says Theriot, “He was singing along and had a big grin on his face. Then he walked me out to my car, stared at me and said, ‘I’m glad. I made the right choice.’ And then he hugged and kissed me on the cheek.”
Details of the completed album, such as title and release date, are still in flux, but Dr. John’s final work was completed in full while the singer was alive. Nevertheless, Dr. John seemed to sense throughout the process that it may be his last. “Towards the beginning, I don’t think Mac realized it would probably be his last record, but towards the end, I think he knew,” says Theriot.
“It would break my heart because he would come to my house, and I knew he wasn’t feeling great, and Mac’s work ethic, he was old school; he grew up doing five sets a night. And so he told me on several occasions, he would say, “Whatever we gotta do, we gotta do it. We gotta get it done, Sha-zane,” he would say, his nickname for Theriot. “Whatever we gotta do to finish this motherfucker, we gotta finish it.”
“Mac understood that this was his last record,” says David Torkanowsky, who played keyboards on the album. “It was emotional in the studio just to hear him. It had a certain weight to it that only something that’s the last time you do it can have.”
Dr. John began recording his final album in 2017, first at Theriot’s home, then at Esplanade Studios. In early 2018, his health declined, and at a second session at Esplanade, he struggled to play the piano. “It was really difficult for him to deliver a performance,” Esplanade studio engineer Misha Kachkachishvili says of the second session.
But by March 2018, the Hall of Fame musician’s health had rebounded to the point where Theriot was able to set up a makeshift studio at Dr. John’s home and record him “Rick Rubin/Johnny Cash style,” says Theriot. “We took on a similar approach out of necessity.”
The resulting album is anchored largely in traditional country music. “These were people he grew up on, a lot of people didn’t know that,” says Theriot. Dr. John had idolized Hank Williams Sr. since he was a teenager, and according to jazz vets like John Scofield, he had been talking about recording a country-tinged piano record a la Ray Charles’ Modern Sounds in Country and Western Music since at least the Eighties. The album features several country classics like “Old Time Religion” (a duet with Willie Nelson), Johnny Cash’s “Guess Things Happen That Way,” and “Funny How Time Slips Away,” as well as several Williams covers like “Ramblin’ Man.”
“There’s a version of [Hank Williams’ 1949 song] ‘I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry’ that’ll make you cry when you hear Mac sing it,” says Theriot. “As this record took shape, it wasn’t intentional, but the common thread is that the songs all deal with time and looking back. When you hear Mac sing, it’s somebody that’s lived a really full life. He sounds great, but he sounds exposed.”
“The lyrical content” is country, Torkanowsky says of the record, “but it was completely Rebennack’ed out.”
Apart from four new uptempo originals that Theriot describes as “vintage Mac, with horns and girl singers,” Dr. John also recorded newly arranged renditions of his own classics like “Such a Night” and “I Walk On Guilded Splinters,” the latter a “trippy” rendition featuring Rickie Lee Jones.
Theriot was intent on not bogging down the album with superfluous featured appearances. “I didn’t want to load the record down with guests,” he says. Apart from Jones, Nelson and Aaron Neville, who joins Dr. John for a “New Orleans street party” rendition of the Traveling Wilburys’ “End of the Line,” the album is a largely stripped-down affair, with Dr. John’s vocals and piano playing highlighted in the mix. “He’s right there for everybody to hear,” says Theriot.
Theriot says he remains grateful that Dr. John was able to see the album completed while he was still alive. “Mac got to hear it and live with it and make suggestions,” he says. “This was one of his creations.”