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Dr. John to serve up tasty musical gumbo

Growing up in the musical richness of New Orleans, it didn't take much of a push to get a young Dr. John thinking about a music career. Music was there at every turn, in every block, behind every wall. Blues. Jazz. Cajun. Rock 'n' roll. And wherever there was music, there were people enjoying it.

"It's a great thing to watch people as they listen and dance to music," the 56-year-old singer said recently. "To me, that's one thing that seems to make us all the same."

Dr. John (born Malcolm "Mac" Rebennack) has bumped through a storied life in the world of pop music, playing seemingly every side of it.

He has wavered somewhere between stardom and obscurity for much of his forty-plus years in the business _ from his days as a producer and session pianist for rising pop stars like Sonny and Cher, Rod Stewart and Bobby Darin, to his own early '70s hits (Right Place, Wrong Time and Such A Night), to his memorable jingles for the likes of Popeye's Chicken, to his elegant Grammy-winning remake with Rickie Lee Jones of the classicMakin' Whoopee (also heard in a recent commercial).

It has rarely been a breeze. He struggled with a heroin addiction for 35 years before getting clean in 1989. And he admits to being foolish when it came to the side of the music business not involved with playing notes.

"You make your own road in this business," the singer was quoted as saying in the International Herald Tribune. "I've always gone along with what happens to me. . . . One contract I signed had a big fat "zero' after "rate of royalty.' You believe that? I thought you got your royalties on sheet music."

Nevertheless, Dr. John's contributions to the pop world can hardly be overlooked. He is a staunch ambassador of New Orleans' musical character, from his Professor Longhair-influence piano playing to his distinctive singing style, which he nurtured from his early associations with Fats Domino.

And he's a charismatic performer to boot.

As the early 1970s rock scene exploded with blues-based psychedelic bands, Dr. John suddenly found a niche for himself. He developed his performing persona of the Night Tripper based on a 19th-century New Orleans hoodoo spiritualist. Donning a feathered cape and headdress, he would appear on stage amid a cloud of smoke and glitter, rattling off Creole street rhymes as he banged out an infectious blend of swampy blues and trippy R&B.

However, if there has been a golden age of Dr. John music, it would surely encompass the past 10 years. His albums, In A Sentimental Mood and Goin' Back To New Orleans, not only earned him a couple of Grammy awards, they spotlighted the singer's adroit command of his craft, earning him a legion of new fans.

His 1996 album, Afterglow, was also a masterpiece, returning the singer to his Crescent City roots. It continues to be the basis for his present concert repertoire.

"I'm having a ball these days," says Dr. John. "When me and my band play, we do a little of everything. Our road book has 120 songs in it. So, you never really know just what we're goin' to do."