Over the past few weeks I have traveled to New Orleans several times and had the chance to see Dr. John perform live at Lafayette Square, play with the band Widespread Panic, and even sit next to him as he played in a small rehearsal studio just west of the French Quarter. Each time my eyes were fixed on his hands as he moved them effortlessly across the keys. What an amazing player; Dr. John holds the history of New Orleans piano music in his head and the soul of the sound in his hands.
The reason I’ve seen him so many times is that Dr. John and his band, the Lower 911, will be the house band for the upcoming American Music Masters Tribute to Fats Domino and Dave Bartholomew. It is a perfect combination: Dr. John leading the band that will honor one of the giants of rock and roll piano, Fats Domino. As you can imagine I have been thinking a lot about the music of New Orleans, the piano style of Fats Domino, and the rhythms of Mardi Gras. What makes Fats’ music so exciting is the way it blends together several major musical ideas. The boogie woogie bass lines come right out of the Mississippi Delta, arpeggiating the chords with a swinging, churning eighth note rhythm (one of the early hits was “Pinetop’s Boogie Woogie” by Pinetop Smith from 1928). In the right hand Fats bangs out constant triplet (one, two, three) rhythms, broken only by gliding melodies and piano sputters. Above that his voice soars in clean, beautiful melodies that are clearly influenced by the horn melodies of his musical partner-in-crime Dave Bartholomew. And so far I’ve only mentioned what Fats is doing, and nothing about the bands that backed him up with cats like Ernest McLean on guitar, Herb Hardesty on sax, and Billy Diamond on bass – all of whom will be here this week.
Now, if any of that piano playing sounds easy, then just give it a try. It’s hard just to make all of that work together in the first place, and to make it really swing, to make it really jump, that takes something else all together. That’s why having Dr. John lead the house band for American Music Masters is such an amazing thing. Like Fats – he makes it look easy. Check it out for yourself via the video below – and if you want to get a real education check out the 2 DVD set The Piano Styles of Dr. John (Homespun Video, 2003). I can’t wait till we watch them rock and roll when New Orleans comes to Cleveland.
Dr. John plays the "Pine top boogie"