October 15, 2012

Spiritual Funkification

by Jim Newsom

On December 23, 1938, legendary record producer and talent scout John Hammond presented a concert in New York’s Carnegie Hall called “From Spirituals to Swing.” His goal was “to showcase African-American music from its raw beginnings to the most current jazz,” and the lineup included Count Basie, Benny Goodman, Big Joe Turner and the Golden Gate Quartet. The show was a sellout leading to a second edition a year later.

On Monday, November 12, 2012, the Ferguson Center for the Arts will present “Spirituals to Funk,” starring Rock & Roll Hall of Famer Dr. John and The Blind Boys of Alabama. Inspired by Hammond’s programs of seventy-plus years ago, the good doctor and the famed gospel group promise to explore “the connections between jazz, blues and gospel.”

Malcolm John Rebennack began his musical explorations in his hometown of New Orleans long before taking on the persona of “Dr. John, the Night Tripper” in the late ‘60s. His father owned an appliance store and record shop, and young Mac was exposed to jazz giants like Louis Armstrong and King Oliver, early rockers like Little Richard and Fats Domino, and the incomparable pianist, Professor Longhair. By his mid-teens, he was producing records and playing on sessions in local studios.

“I had my first recording session when my guitar teacher sent me in to sub for him one day,” he told an interviewer. “I was a student. I’ll never forget that.

“Sessions weren’t the big thing. We earned more money playin’ nightclubs than we did on recording sessions. When I first started doing recordings, I got paid $22.50 for a session. If we worked on a gig, we probably made more than that for a tip for one song.”

He moved to LA in the ‘60s, where he was again in-demand. When he launched his recording career in 1968 with the album Gris Gris, he created an image and a musical mix that blended N’Awlins voodoo and hippie psychedelia. That image shifted over the next few years, culminating in the funky 1973 hit, “Right Place, Wrong Time” and its humorous followup, “Such a Night.”

After his short stop on the pop charts, Dr. John continued his musical explorations, working on records with Van Morrison, Levon Helm, Carly Simon and others. But his ongoing heroin addiction was a serious impediment. After cleaning up in 1989, he began producing a wide range of recordings that earned him five Grammy Awards. His comeback album that year, In a Sentimental Mood, brought him his first Grammy for Best Jazz Vocal Performance (Duo or Group) on the CD’s leadoff track, “Making Whoopee,” a duet with Rickie Lee Jones.

His 2000 album, Duke Elegant, put a distinctively funky spin on Duke Ellington’s catalog and won critical acclaim. The City That Care Forgot in 2008 was a post-Katrina eruption of protest set to a French Quarter party beat. His new release, Locked Down, produced by Black Keys guitarist Dan Auerbach, ranks with his best work and is already on many “Best of 2012” lists.

The Blind Boys of Alabama represent the current incarnation of a gospel group that dates back to 1939, when the original ensemble formed at the Alabama Institute for the Negro Blind. Founding member Jimmy Carter was just nine years old at the time, and he’s still there, the sole survivor onstage after longtime leader Clarence Fountain was sidelined with diabetes a few years ago.

The multiple Grammy winners joined Dr. John in March at the Brooklyn Academy of Music for a tribute concert to Louis Armstrong, opening the show with a stirring version of “What a Wonderful World” and coming back to close with “When the Saints Go Marching In.” The Newport News concert comes late in a tour that has brought these artists together on the road for the first time.

The blend of Dr. John’s musical adventurousness and the Blind Boys of Alabama’s soaring gospel harmonies promises to raise the roof of the Ferguson with a joyful noise rarely heard in these parts. John Hammond would surely approve.

Spirituals to Funk
Starring Dr. John and The Blind Boys of Alabama

November 12 – 7:30 pm
Ferguson Center for the Arts
Tickets: $32.00 – 47.00
(757) 594-8752; fergusoncenter.cnu.edu/