Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Dr. John... Hancock?

Like other record fans, I got some albums autographed over the years, whenever the opportunity arose. For example, I interviewed Sonny and Cher when they m.c.'ed a rock event in Seattle (before their television variety show) and asked them both to sign their first LP. And they did, but the album vanished later; and all I really remember now is how stunningly gorgeous and shy-seeming Cher was at age 17 or 18.

And Graham Nash came into my store one day, so I got his name on a couple of CSN&Y LPs, and he later sent me a short cassette of him singing on stage with the Everly Brothers--a career highlight, he told me.

Nice moments, simple signatures. But occasionally a musician would get more elaborate--creative even. Unhappy Grunge star Kurt Cobain autographed a card for me in a way that was either playful and cheery, or mocking and defensive, identifying himself as "Curdt Kobane." And Mike McCready of Pearl Jam took my copy of Vitalogy and, in addition to his signature, decorated the gatefold-jacket centerspread with squares, sine/cosine waves, question marks, and a pair of stacked statements (or one statement split apart maybe)--"In the/ Search/ for/ Piece of/ Mind" leading to "Books & 45's/ Mystery Books/ of tales untold/ truth & Fiction/ infinite Regress." (Say whut?)

Ray Charles' great tenor saxist passed through the store too one day so I asked him to autograph my copy of The Genius of Ray Charles; he signed "Best Wishes/ David Newman/ Fathead/ 1-10-00," as though he wouldn't be identifiable without that nickname. And I caught another sax great, Bud Shank, in a Jazz club and asked him to sign a pair of albums by the Lighthouse All-Stars (Bud, Bob Cooper, Conte Candoli, Claude Williamson, Howard Rumsey, and others), with lookalike band-on-the-beach covers photographed by William Claxton, but separated by 34 years. On the 1955 original, he wrote, "HELLO ED/ BEST WISHES/ Bud Shank/ 10/22/00," but for the newer, 40th Anniversary Reunion jacket all he put was "Bud Shank" plus a busy termination squiggle like a stretched metal spring. (Was he dismissing the second LP? or just bugged by having to sign two?)

There must have been other interesting encounters... oh, right, the time Max Roach looked at my publicity photograph of himself with forever-lamented trumpeter Clifford Brown... and then signed both their names, but each in a slightly different handwriting, as though channelling Brownie! But I want to focus instead on one man and the two different occasions I sought his autograph--the great and eccentric Mac Rebennack, native son of New Orleans better known as Dr. John, with or without "the Nite Tripper" appended.

Dr. John has been a fixture on the New Orleans music scene for well over 50 years. He started as a Rock 'n' Roller, moved into R&B, and then around 1965 dreamed up the "Gris-Gris Man" idea, presenting himself as a hoo-dooing, festive-dressing, second-lining Mardi Gras master, wrapped in craziness and chanting strange musical incantations. Fortunately he also was and is a superior musician whose finger injury forced him to morph from ace guitarist into top Blues, Boogie, and Jazz pianist instead. These days he sings and plays and leads a band called the Lower 911, a Ninth Ward reference I believe, in remembrance of that devastated part of the Crescent City. But in decades past I often attended his solo or trio shows, and twice I took along items for him to sign.

In 1994 that meant a copy of his just-published autobiography, Under a Hoodoo Moon. When I asked, he cheerfully attacked the inside-cover page and wrote these words: "To Ed--Keep it on the one. This may pull somebody's coat-tail to how not to make $ in music. Keep on ((plus a treble clef, the crisscross symbol meaning number, and some curved lines)), Dr. John the Nite Tripper." The "R" of Dr. has a line through the right leg to create a prescription sign, and after his signature come a crescent moon and an asterisk-styled star, for those trippy nights!

Twenty years before that, I had reviewed his great New Orleans roots album called Gumbo for some Rock mag or other, hearing it via a review copy sent to me by famous Soul/R&B producer Jerry Wexler, whose accompanying note (on his Atlantic Records mini-stationery) read as follows:

Dear Ed:

Herewith is an advance test pressing of Dr. John's new album "GUMBO."

The liner notes may be a useful reference.

Making this album has been a joy.



Joy indeed. It's still my favorite Dr. John album, and I told the man that some years later when I took it along for his signature. I don't think I mentioned Wexler's note, but the good Doctor took his time writing a minor-key opus on the album jacket front--signing his name first, above the message he then wrote out, spelling the words in his own funky-fine fashion:

Dr. John the Nite Tripper

The chicken & the fitin rooster
Got up tite
The fitin rooster knocked
The chicken outta site
The chicken tole the fitin rooster
That's all rite
Meetcha in the gumbo
Tomorrow nite

(Song lyrics perhaps?) No matter; as a souvenir of my years chasing the music, and sometimes autographs too, this unique copy of Gumbo suits me to a T. If you need a prescription for parity in this mean old world, well, just call for the Doctor.

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