A Big Four Bridge Walk Leads to Schimpff’s Confectionery

Isabella atop the Big Four Bridge.

My daughter was hankering for a serious milk shake, and the sublime sugar rush that comes with such a decadent treat. Now I try not to overindulge, but a milk shake craving is no joke. This type of itch can’t be scratched by some shake-like creation from DQ, Mickie D’s or Sonic. So if we’re going for this level of caloric intake, it’s best earned.

On a toasty clear weekend afternoon, my daughter Isabella, 7, and I parked at 1101 River Road in Louisville’s Waterfront Park. This was the jump on spot for the Big Four Bridge, a pedestrian and biker-friendly crossway over the Ohio River that connects Louisville, Kentucky with Jeffersonville, Indiana. Our reward for the day’s little adventure was a visit to Schimpff’s Confectionery, the 128-year old candy emporium, located in the Old Jeffersonville Historic District.

There’s public parking beneath the giant circular bridge onramp, but plenty of street parking is available if the lot is full. As we began our stroll up the onramp, the wide inclined pathway offered plenty of space to talk and joke about as we marched the 1/4 mile to bridge level.

A mixture of humanity joined us this day, families, some pushing infants, kids, runners, serious walkers and bikers. A few illicit skateboarders and motorized long boarders were in the mix too. Also going up was a bridal party making the journey for some fun wedding snapshots atop the bridge.

The UrbanLlama taking in the bridge-top view.

A refreshing crosswind whipped about once we reached elevation, some 50-plus feet above the water below. The views of Louisville, the river’s expanse, and business conducted on this waterway were spectacular. It was a 1/2 mile across the straightaway, where twice while walking classical music wafted down from speakers fixed to the above truss work.

The Big Four Bridge is a former railroad crossing completed in 1895, that took its name from the defunct Cleveland, Cincinnati, Chicago and St. Louis Railway, nicknamed the “Big Four Railroad.”

It was decommissioned in 1969, with both ramps to the bridge removed. This became the first bridge to fall out of use in Louisville and earned it the nickname “Bridge That Goes Nowhere.” In February 2011, a joint venture between Kentucky and Indiana was announced for the creation of a pedestrian and bicycle path linking Louisville with the City of Jeffersonville. It opened to the public on Feb. 7, 2013, and averages more than 1.5 million visits per year.

Isabella reveled  in the breeze gusting about, and the freedom of feeling suspended above the river. She twirled and skipped along the pathway. There’s a lot to take in from this perch, and my energetic and enthusiastic companion wanted to see it all.

Once on the Indiana side, a 1/4 mile circular ramp led down to the park below. There folks were playing Frisbee and partaking in a celebratory barbecue. A few yards further found us in the Old Jeffersonville Historic District.

A frozen treats store resided on the corner as the bridge’s offramp merged with the street. Several cafes and restaurants looked on invitingly from across the way. I flipped on my GPS to navigate the few blocks to Schimpff’s Confectionery.

Walking up to the storefront, a gentleman sweeping the sidewalk greeted us in his apron with a welcoming salutation. It was pleasant in a manner not heard much these days.

Upon entering this candy emporium, it gave one a sense of returning to simpler times. Glass cases were filled with radiant shelves of confectionary treasures. Aisle-way displays tempted with Modjeskas (caramel-covered marshmallows), hand-dipped chocolates and crunchy almond toffee. Behind the counters were row-after-row of clear glass jars filled to the brim with rainbow colors of lemon drops, red hots and fish candy (celebrating Kentuckiana’s river heritage).

Sweets are serious business in my house. Isabella can render a scouting report on an impressive array of sugared treats. In her young eyes Schimpff’s was nirvana.

In 2001, the store expanded for its 110th anniversary, to include a candy museum, with thousands of pieces of memorabilia, equipment and artifacts collected during the family’s generation-after-generation of being in the confectionery business. Tours and candy making demonstrations were available as well.

Isabella and I did a bit of reconnoitering. A big favorite she still speaks volumes about were the miniature gummy pizzas and hard candies shaped into Lego pieces that could be assembled into edible creations.

With treats in hand we took a seat at the 1950s style soda fountain, located toward the rear of the store’s main room. If a bite to eat is in order, the deli counter is open for lunch Monday-Saturday. Today we were strictly concerned with ice cream treats. Isabella went with a vanilla shake. I have a thing for root beer floats, and this seemed like just the joint that would serve up a memorable one. Both of us were beyond impressed with the velvety smoothness our frothy selections provided.

Never underestimate the simple pleasure a kid gets from sipping ice cream through a straw.

With our whistles whetted, Isabella and I began our mile-long jaunt back to the Kentucky side of the Ohio River. Round trip, including our planned detour, clocked in at 2.5 miles. We accomplished the walking part in 1:09:22.

How long one chooses to enjoy the Old Jeffersonville Historic District or a candy encounter at Schimpff’s is up to the individual. No doubt the walk back was felt, especially toward the end by my 7-year old, but the candy buzz carried her most of the way.

Next time you have an hour to kill and could use an urban adventure with a view, check out the Big Four Bridge and the candy treats awaiting on the Hoosier side.

Schimpff’s Confectionery | 347 Spring Street | Jeffersonville, IN 47130 | 812.283.8367

Posted in Exercise, Family, Food, Reviews, Travel | Tagged , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Highlands Tap Room Soothes the Late Night Beast

Regardless in what city one resides, there’s always a joint or two that services the night owl community. A place where mutants can howl when the mood strikes. Often these are establishments of distinctive, if not questionable character, that serve viscous alcohol into the AM hours, and keep late kitchens catering to nightcap diners. In Louisville one such place is the Highlands Tap Room.

Located at 1058 Bardstown Road, in the heart of the nightlife friendly Highlands neighborhood, this fun, food (and supposedly) family friendly l0cation has multiple personalities.

Open seven days a week till 4AM, the Tap Room is frequented in daylight hours by neighborhood residents, walkers-by, and employees from small businesses that line Bardstown Road. But this location hits its stride after 11PM. That’s when the nocturnal movers and shakers give this place its character and energy.

On a recent Monday night, after attending a Gov’t Mule show at Iroquois Amphitheater, the need arose for drinks and food after 11PM. The Tap Room was clearly alive and well upon arrival, whereas most other spots around were already closed or barely registered a pulse.

It was Metal Monday, and the buzz saw beats were rattling the windows loose in the cottage performance space. Young men were visibly flying through the air inside the stage area. This merely added to the quality people watching for those seated on the patio. Here a menagerie of regulars were table-hopping their hype and hustling schemes over serious craft beers.

The Tap Room attracts a thirsty lot, particularly in the AM hours, with many partaking in extracurriculars. This is part of the joint’s charm. Be patient and go with the flow when ordering. There are two full bars housed side-by-side, with some 25 draft beers on tap. The kitchen offers a wide variety of interesting cuisine, from steaks and seafood, to burgers and veggie options, all priced kindly.

The next time out on a midnight creep, light past the Highlands Tap Room. All are welcomed and chances are the “open” light is burning bright.

Highlands Tap Room | 1058 Bardstown Road | Louisville, KY | 502.561.2100 (Tap) or 502.584.5222 (Grill)

Posted in Food, Liquor, Music, Reviews, Travel | Tagged , , , , , | Leave a comment

Gov’t Mule Brings Southern Jam to Louisville

Vocalist and guitar player extraordinaire Warren Haynes of Gov’t Mule, performing in Louisville.

Got Mule?

For those needing some Warren Haynes – a heavy dose was delivered June 24 at Iroquois Amphitheater. Gov’t Mule returned to Derby City in all its Southern jam band glory. The festivities kicked off with Karl Denson’s Tiny Universe ably opening the show. Mule took the stage an hour later, delivering the precise, hard rocking performance this power outfit has come to define.

In particular Mule hits a sweet spot for the Grateful Dead faithful. When that jonz hits to hear a live guitar weep, such as how Mule vocalist Warren Haynes can play, there is no substitute but to find the boys out on the road. Mule, like the Grateful Dead or The Allman Brothers Band, are road warriors. Every year, every season, they are out making the rounds.

Formed in 1994, Gov’t Mule was originally a side gig Haynes and bassist Allen Woody came up with while on a break from their day gig with The Allman Brothers Band. Along with drummer Matt Abts, with whom Haynes played alongside in the Dickey Betts Band, Mule was considered a constructive way to fill time when not touring with the Allman’s. But quickly the new gig shifted from side project to the member’s primary focus.

They were a power trio churning out blistering Southern blues rock, with a flair for expanding the tunes live into jam sessions. After Woody’s tragic passing in 2000, a string of legendary bass players took turns filling his shoes. Guys like John Entwistle (The Who), Jack Bruce (Cream), Phil Lesh (Grateful Dead), Bootsy Collins (Parliament-Funkadelic), Flea (Red Hot Chili Peppers), Les Claypool (Primus), Mike Gordon (Phish), Dave Schools (Widespread Panic), among others.

They’ve since added Danny Louis on keyboards (2002), and a permanent bassist, Jorgen Carlsson (2008). With The Allman Brothers Band now gone, and Lynyrd Skynyrd wrapping its final nostalgic tour, Gov’t Mule takes the mantle as one of the last bands carrying on the Southern rock legacy.

Monday night’s performance opened with “Bad Little Doggie,” an uptempo number that castigates a metaphorical love interest who stayed out all night, returning home in the morning smelling of guilt. This was followed by “Blind Man in the Dark.” Both numbers are great scene setters for a Mule show. Two standouts in the eight song first set were the hard-living anthem “Rocking Horse” and “Thorazine Shuffle,” an ode to self medication.

My vantage point for this concert was spectacular, Row C, just left of center, to the side where Haynes was set up. It was a pleasure to have such close proximity to this master craftsman, from which to observe him work. Haynes speed on the frets and clean fingering of notes was wicked impressive.

The scene at intermission is why folks love Iroquois Amphitheater. It was a perfect summer night, warm with clear skies. As the cover of darkness fell, the heads were free to roam the elevated walkway in the rear of the pavilion, out into the grassy expanse that strategically failed to be lighted. The haze was thick and staff left peaceful pursuits alone.

Set two showcased an aspect of Gov’t Mule’s repertoire that is a fan favorite – giving referential recitations to other artists’ music, affectionately known as cover songs. This evening those in attendance were treated to multiple gems, including “Eyesight to the Blind” by Sonny Boy Williamson, “The Other One” jam from the Grateful Dead that was  incorporated into Mule’s “Fallen Down,” “Kind of Bird” by The Allman Brothers Band, and the epic closer “32-20 Blues” by Robert Johnson.

Gov’t Mule | 32-20 Blues | Iroquois Amphitheater | Louisville, KY | 06.24.19

Haynes looked the best I’ve seen him in years. He had clearly lost considerable weight, his skin tone was better and the man looked like a healthier Warren. The concert concluded at 11PM, and away we went with music in our ears into the evening for what came next.

Again, beautiful summer night, outside on a Monday in Louisville, with Warren Haynes on guitar – yep I “Got Mule.”

Posted in Events, Liquor, Music, Reviews | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Late Night Dining in Louisville at The Silver Dollar

I was faced with an interesting predicament recently. I took in an 8PM Friday performance of “Hamilton” in downtown Louisville. It ended at 11PM. By the time I was out of the garage and on the road it was nearly 11:30. Where could I drive that was still serving, that wasn’t greasy drunk pizza or mediocre bar cuisine? The answer was The Silver Dollar on Frankfort Avenue.

No doubt I was pushing the envelope. The kitchen at The Silver Dollar closed at midnight. But hopping on I-64, I was walking up to this red brick edifice in the Clifton neighborhood of Louisville by 11:45. Don’t get me wrong, I hate jetting in that close to shut down, but the hostess and waitstaff were nothing but polite and welcoming.

It was clear The Silver Dollar inhabited a former fire station. Built in 1890, this used to house Hook and Ladder Company No. 3 until 2009. Inside the fire poles, fireman’s map of the city and old call boxes remained as vestiges of the building’s former life.

The restaurant was longer than it was wide. Weathered brick walls stood untouched and offered the perfect backdrop to the strings of colorful lights running throughout. The muted reds, greens, and blues created a cantina feel and threw shadows into the alcoves and corners where diners and drinkers sat conversating.

With the fire engine door rolled up an immense entryway further lengthened the space and gave the brick enclosure a certain airy quality. Diners seated near the entrance were treated to urban views of street passersby and the festive goings-on at the Hilltop Tavern across the way.

The primary takeaway about The Silver Dollar is bourbon. It’s lit up in neon on the sign out front, “Whiskey by the Drink.” Behind a 42-foot bar fashioned from reclaimed tobacco barns and old distillery rick houses, on plank shelves running the length of the bar sat the collection. They stock a lot of Kentucky’s native spirit. I lost count after some 200 different selections on the whiskey menu.

I’m a big Eagle Rare fan, and they carry several house select single barrels over 10 years of age at $14 a glass. There are a serious number of bourbons priced $30 a glass and up, topping out at $200 for John E. Fitzgerald 20 YR. That makes Pappy Van Winkel’s Family Reserve 23yr a virtual steal at $135 a glass.

To be fair there also are a head-spinning number of thoroughly interesting and satisfying pours at $10 and under. Not to mention the rotating choice of labels daily at $3 a glass. Then there is the rye, beer, wine and the tequila collection is impressive as well.

Strike up a conversation with any bartender. They are knowledgeable about everything bourbon, from the cheap, to the trendy, to the purple unicorns of pours. They love a good chat, mix a mean cocktail and are efficient at what they do.

Silver Dollar in Louisville. (Lauryn Morris)

This alone could draw plenty of folks inside. Yet The Silver Dollar’s story gets deeper. The owners envisioned a melting pot of sorts, inspired by the unintended results of the 1930s Dust Bowl. When residents of the Midwest and South were driven from their homes to the fertile West of California, locals ostracized them, referring to the newcomers as Okies. This banded together these displaced inhabitants, and they entertained themselves with their own unique brand of rough, hardscrabble country music that was as tough as the folks who played it. It became known as the “Bakersfield Sound.”

The Silver Dollar pays homage to this Bakersfield melting pot with its sprawling juke joint fashion and soundtrack to match. It’s subtle but heavy atmospheric when matched with the lighting, firehouse, food and bourbon. I doubt it’s quiet in here at rush hour, but around midnight it was perfectly chill on this Friday.

You can say the kitchen features its own version of the “Bakersfield Sound” in that it’s a mixture of talents turning out Texas fare, Southern staples and south of the border specialties. There are house fried pork rinds in rosemary & salt, baskets of buttermilk fried chicken livers, short ribs, baby back ribs, chicken & waffles, fried catfish, monstrous burgers and even a beer can hen (sitting atop an Old Milwaukee can).

Considering the late hour, I went with something comforting and simple – chili. Texas style to be exact, with white cheddar, pickled jalapeños, onions, cilantro and cornbread. A heaping bowl arrived filled with dense chunks of tender simmered beef, seasoned less than Texas hot. Mix in all the trimmings and splash the bowl with the house-made arbol hot sauce and the chili was spot on for a decadent midnight treat.

Drop in to see why GQ magazine named The Silver Dollar one of the Top 10 whiskey bars in America.

The Silver Dollar | 1761 Frankfort Avenue | Louisville, KY | 502.259.9540

Posted in Food, Liquor, Music, Reviews, Travel | Tagged , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Hamilton Performance Dazzles the Senses

Whether one is a fan of the theater or not, it was virtually impossible to miss the promotional onslaught and news coverage surrounding “Hamilton: An American Musical” upon its arrival in Louisville for a June 4-23 engagement at the Kentucky Center for the Performing Arts.

This Tony-Award winning musical came from the genius of Lin-Manuel Miranda, who starred in the original, and incorporates rap, hip-hop, R&B, pop and soul to tell the story of American founding father Alexander Hamilton. The subject may sound dry on the surface, but Miranda has taken the story, inspired by Ron Chernow’s 2004 biography, “Alexander Hamilton,” and turned it into an edgy re-telling of Hamilton’s importance in the country’s formation.

The musical debuted Off-Broadway in February 2015, and was sold-0ut through its run. In August 2015, “Hamilton” made the transition to Broadway and received unprecedented advance box office sales. It was nominated for a record 16 Tony Awards, winning 11 in 2016, including Best Musical. “Hamilton” went on to receive a 2016 Grammy Award for Best Musical Theater Album and the Pulitzer Prize for Drama.

The crazy thing is with all the hype behind this production, and the expectations that come with it for attendees at each performance, it meets and exceeds whatever bar one might apply to a theater experience. It’s one of those performances that transcends the normal boundaries of popularity. It has become a happening, a groundbreaking occurrence, that continues to draw sold out audiences some four years later.

Upon arriving at the show in Louisville, there was an impressive number of groups, families and couples that clearly had made a pilgrimage to see this performance. Pictures were being snapped with attendees together before billboards and banners to memorialize the moment. Many near our balcony seats discussed how this was not their first time seeing “Hamilton.” That is rarefied air, and in a place like Louisville, which is not the most affluent of major cities, to have a three week run where most seats are going for $200 each – it’s quite something to fill the house each night and twice on Saturday and Sunday.

Conveyed primarily through rap lyrics, the show details the baggage that comes with Hamilton being an orphan, and an immigrant who arrives in New York from the West Indies, with a confident strategy to join other young rebels in the fight for American independence.

Alexander Hamilton ~ Lin-Manuel Miranda @ White House Poetry Jam

One of the early highlights is Hamilton expressing his vision to friend Aaron Burr, among other young influencers, portrayed in the song, “My Shot.”

My Shot ~ Lin-Manuel Miranda and Hamilton Cast

It was brilliant to witness this use of hip-hop as the soundtrack to the American Revolution. From the moment the house lights fell at 8:03 until three hours later, minus a 20 minute intermission, it was non-stop action. There is this initial buy in that must be made by everyone who attended in Louisville – that when the actors bum rushed the stage it quickly became clear that  Hamilton, George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Aaron Burr, etc., were all portrayed by men of color. To Manuel’s credit, and the audience’s, all bought into this vision within the flash of an eye.

The use of African Americans in these roles was not by accident mind you. The entire cast featured a majority of men and women of color and differing races, many laced with tattoos and eye catching hair styles not usually displayed in a Broadway setting. It was a statement that further became clear during the performance of the unavoidable contribution people of color and those coming from different cultural backgrounds contributed during this crucial time of America’s formation.

Comic relief came in the form of King George III. He only made a few spot entrances with song, which intensified his humorous portrayal. Dressed in full royal red and gold garb, King George was the splitting image of a spoiled, arrogant, and detached autocrat, grown lethargic from generations of being a member of the ruling class.

The Songs of King George III from Hamilton

As the performance evolved, we see Hamilton become Gen. Washington’s right-hand man through the Revolutionary War. Meanwhile a quiet rivalry simmers to a boil with Aaron Burr. The show bristles with a raw intensity, athletic and sensual dance moves, frequent cursing and sexual escapades. The story continues to build, including some epic rap battles between Hamilton and Thomas Jefferson.

And just as furious as “Hamilton” rushed to life when the curtain rose, Hamilton died in a duel with his now nemesis Aaron Burr and the stage fell silent. It left a sold out crowd speechless momentarily, until waves of standing ovations erupted through the theater.

If a chance presents itself to see “Hamilton” make that opportunity happen. It’s a performance that is in a class by itself.

Posted in Family, Food, Liquor, Literature, Music, News, Reviews, Travel | Tagged , , , , | Leave a comment

Leah Chase, Queen of Creole Cuisine, Passes Away

She was a New Orleans original. Leah Chase, chef and restauranteur, known to the culinary world as the Queen of Creole Cuisine, passed away June 1. She was 96.

For decades now Chase was widely recognized as a cultural icon, a piece of living history, who continued working in her world renowned restaurant, Dooky Chase’s, located in the Treme section of New Orleans, until her passing.

If you were feeling down, Dooky Chase’s was the place to go. Chef Chase’s cooking would put a smile back on your face, and soon after visiting you would feel right as rain.

For it wasn’t merely the cooking. It was Chase’s personality, demeanor and mile-wide smile that warmed the coldest blues away. Dooky Chase’s was a mile marker for times gone by and for what the woman behind it endured on her road to becoming this beloved cultural figure. Whatever troubles most may face down, try walking a mile in the shoes of Leah Chase. She was an African-American female who owned a restaurant in the segregated deep South of the 1960s.

Chase was a civil rights activist, and her historic restaurant was on the front lines of the fight to secure equal rights for African Americans. It was one of the only locations in New Orleans, where white and black activists were welcomed to dine, defying the law of the day by providing a safe haven. In the 1960s, Martin Luther King, Jr. would join local leaders like Thurgood Marshall and Ernest “Dutch” Morial, to strategize over piping hot dishes of her famous Gumbo Z’herbes in the upstairs meeting room at Dooky’s.

“One of her most prized contributions was advocating for the Civil Rights Movement through feeding those on the front lines of the struggle for human dignity,” said a statement from Chase’s family.

Born on January 6, 1923 in New Orleans, Chase was one of 14 children. She was raised in the small town of Madisonville, LA. There were no high schools for black children, so after sixth grade, Chase moved to New Orleans to live with an aunt. After completing high school, Chase had a colorful work history including managing two amateur boxers and becoming the first woman to mark the racehorse board for a local bookie. Her favorite job, though, was waiting tables in the French Quarter. It was here that she developed her love for food and feeding others.

In 1946, she married local musician Edgar “Dooky” Chase Jr., whose father had opened a street corner stand selling lottery tickets and his wife’s homemade po’boy sandwiches in 1939. Eventually, Leah and Dooky Jr. took over the business, which by 1941, had become a sit-down restaurant and a favorite local gathering place. Under Chef Chase’s guidance, Dooky Chase’s became one of the first African American owned and operated fine dining establishments in the United States.

She served Presidents Barack Obama and George W. Bush, along with countless entertainers like Ray Charles, Duke Ellington, and Quincy Jones. Charles even mentioned the restaurant in his song, “Early in the Morning.” Chase was the inspiration for the Princess Tiana character, Disney’s first African America princess, in the “Princess and the Frog.” Beyoncé featured a cameo of her in the video for “Lemonade,” and Chase earned a Lifetime Achievement Award from the James Beard Foundation in 2016.

One of Chase’s most famous statements was, “To be a woman you have to look like a girl, act like a lady, think like a man, and work like a dog.”

In 2005, Hurricane Katrina destroyed Dooky Chase’s, but two years later Chase reopened her restaurant.

“People said well, what are you going to do at your age. There was only one thing for me to do. No matter what you do on this Earth, do it and do it well,” said Chase.

On a personal level, as someone who grew up in the border-south region of Kentucky, Leah Chase was one of the first ambassadors of New Orleans cuisine I identified back in the 1980s. Since this was before the Internet, it required quite a presence to emanate beyond certain geographic boundaries.

It was Chase’s recipes that first schooled me in how to make a roux and introduce the subtle use of heat in dishes like shrimp & Andouille gumbo, jambalaya, and crawfish étouffée.

Before eventually moving to New Orleans, I sought out dining at Dooky Chase’s on early pilgrimages to the Crescent City. It was here I learned what real fried chicken was truly about, and found an appreciation for greens, okra and red beans & rice.

I am indebted to Chase’s tolerance and quiet dignity. It’s comforting to know that Ms. Chase will live on as the spiritual grand matron of N’awlins.

“In this restaurant, in some ways, we really changed the course of America, and I say we changed the course of America over a bowl of gumbo,” said Chase.

Posted in Food, Liquor, News, Travel | Tagged , , , | Leave a comment

Dr. John, A New Orleans Original, Takes the Big Adios

He was known as Dr. John, the Night Tripper, part hoodoo medicine man, part psychedelic parishioner. The individual behind this persona was Mac Rebennack, who as a person and musician, embodied all the mysticism that fills the heart and soul of New Orleans. Rebennack died June 6 at the age of 77.

New Orleans is littered with boogie woogie piano players. Setting Rebennack apart from the crowd was his virtuoso capabilities on the piano and guitar. Add to this his flamboyant personification of the New Orleans spirit, and this earned Dr. John a top tier spot with Louisiana keyboard greats like Fats Domino, Professor Longhair, Art Neville, Huey “Piano” Smith, James Booker and Jerry Lee Lewis.

To attend a Dr. John show was the equivalent of a Mardi Gras celebration, cut with a voodoo ceremony and the rambunctious nature of a traveling medicine show. There was funk, blues, a dash of jazz and pop, and rock-n-roll all mixed together that dripped thick with New Orleans, like the mixing bowl that city has always been.

DR. JOHN w/THE BAND – SUCH A NIGHT ~ The Last Waltz (11.25.76)

His bandmates would set a hard funky beat for several minutes before the Night Tripper would come strutting out onto the stage, always at his own pace. In the second half of Dr. John’s career he was New Orleans royalty, and never had to move fast for anyone.

Rebennack always looked the part, sporting a fashionable chapeau to compliment his pointed greying beard, tribal beads were strung around his neck and he carried along his trademark oversized wooden walking stick. This accessory was a sight to behold, adorned with voodoo beads, a yak bone, an alligator tooth and milestone rings from Narcotics Anonymous. It spoke volumes about the life of the man who carried it.

Born Nov. 20, 1941 in New Orleans, his awakening as a musician began around age 12, when he started performing with Professor Longhair, and was tutored on guitar by Walter (Papoose) Nelson, who played guitar for Fats Domino. Rebennack would play guitar up to 18 hours a day, seven days a week – sitting in at Bourbon Street clubs and strip joints.

He dropped out of high school to pursue his passion full time after the Jesuits informed a young Rebennack that he would need to steer clear of the New Orleans clubs. By the late 1950s, his professional career was off and running as he became a well regarded session musician on the scene. To his credit, Rebennack would piece together integrated bands, which at the time was not something commonly seen, especially in the deep South.

This life brought with it certain perils that are all too familiar to those who make a living after midnight. Rebennack took part in many of the criminal hustles of the day and developed a well recognized and lengthy heroin habit. A pivotal moment came in the early 1960s, when Rebennack aided a friend being attacked, and was shot in the ring finger of his left hand. This necessitated a switch in musical instruments, from guitar to piano.

In 1968, Rebbenack recorded “Gris-Gris,” which captured his unique blend of the New Orleans sound, Creole magic and psychedelic rock. Included on this debut was the Dr. John classic, “I Walk on Guilded Splinters.” This record also saw the introduction of Rebbenack’s Dr. John character.

DR. JOHN – I WALK ON GUILDED SPLINTERS (1968)

This classic blending of styles and sounds was further evidenced on the 1972 recording, “Dr. John’s Gumbo.” Allen Toussaint produced and the Meters backed up Dr. John’s recordings of New Orleans classics like “Iko Iko” and “Tipitina.”

Hit songs were not something that defined a performer like Dr. John. He was more atmospheric and the duly appointed representative of the New Orleans sound, yet he did score one Top 40 single in 1973, “Right Place Wrong Time,” that reached No. 9 on the Billboard chart.

DR. JOHN – RIGHT PLACE WRONG TIME

Considering all the albums he recorded, more than 30, winning six Grammy Awards and a 2011 induction into the Rock-n-Roll Hall of Fame, records were not the part of his musical career that earned him the most money. It was his side gig cutting jingles and theme music. There was Popeyes chicken, Scott tissue and Oreo cookies. His trademark delivery was heard by a new generation of young people in the theme music for “Blossom” and in the opening song of the “Curious George” cartoon. Rebennack also was the inspiration for Dr. Teeth, the leader of the Electric Mayhem on the Muppets.

You can also credit Dr. John as responsible for providing the name given to a little music festival that takes place annually in Manchester, TN. Organizers were researching old recordings to find inspiration in naming their new festival, and came upon Dr. John’s 1974 release, “Desitively Bonnaroo.” The Bonnaroo Music and Arts Festival has continued to grow in size and influence since 2002, pulling in 80,000-plus attendees annually.

Rebennack gave voice to his blending of sounds and culture in his 1994 autobiography, “Under a Hoodoo Moon,” saying, “In New Orleans, in religion, as in food or race or music, you can’t separate nothing from nothing. Everything mingles each into the other – Catholic saint worship with gris-gris spirits, evangelical tent meetings with spiritual-church ceremonies – until nothing is purely itself but becomes part of one funky gumbo.”

Mac Rebennack was a man with one funky soul. We’re going to miss you Dr. John – R.I.P.

Posted in Music, News, Travel | Tagged , , , , , | Leave a comment