Driving with the ghost of Dr John

The ghost of Dr John is sitting in the passenger seat. He is wearing one of his hats, a battered trilby accessorised with chicken feathers, and sunglasses more suited to New Orleans than the flatlands of East Yorkshire. He is humming a voodoo chant through bearded lips and beating out a rhythm with his walking stick.

The obits tell a good tale about Dr John, a tale repeated on the BBC news. This blues, jazz, boogie-woogie uncle of funk, a onetime pimp and three-times husband, and a former heroin addict (sacked by Frank Zappa for his drug use), almost lost a finger in a brawl at a gig in 1960. Someone, a fellow band member, was threatened with the butt of a gun, and Dr John grabbed the barrel. It went off and nearly removed his finger.

The digit survived but the injury affected his guitar playing, so he switched to the piano, the instrument that made his name.

I like this story because is gives me something in common with the Night Tripper. Two or three months ago, I gave my little finger a nasty bash while playing squash. Medical attention was not sought, and the finger can’t have been broken, but it’s not quite right either. Playing some chords on the guitar, or reaching for some notes, hurts and the finger isn’t as straight as it was.

There you have it: my singular similarity to Malcolm John Rebennack, named after his father, and renamed Dr John Creaux, aka the Night Tripper. Or Dr John for short. Other similarities are more tenuous, and it seems a bit late in the day to be a pimp or to try heroin. Or to be married three times, plus indulge in assorted affairs.

We did both meet Jools Holland, but only one of us was asked to play the piano.

Dr John Trippin’ Live is playing on the car sound system. Wild Honey sweetly comes and goes, then Such A Night, followed by the song most mentioned in the obits, Right Place Wrong Time. He wraps up with Goodnight Irene, that old blues classic written by Lead Belly when he was in jail. Dr John turns to tell me the tale, tapping his walking stick some more. “The governor liked the song so much, he said to Lead Belly, ‘I’m gonna let your ass out of jail’,” he says.

Goodnight Irene is a fantastic song, and Dr John does a great job, with a driving rhythm and blues start, before that jaunty/sad chorus rattles in.

Certain people die and you think, “Oh, well.” Certain people die and you think, “Oh no!”. Dr John and John Martyn fell into the “oh no!” category for me. So too, perhaps oddly, did the death in 1985 of Roy Plomley, creator of Desert Island Discs. Not sure why, but I was sad about Plomley, a familiar voice muffled perhaps.

Leonard Cohen, too, of course. The artist Lubaina Himid was cast away on that auditory island the other day. She was fascinating and showed great musical taste, picking Nina Simone’s version of Cohen’s Suzanne, which somehow I’d never heard. And it’s fantastic.

Anyway, Howden Minster has just appeared on the horizon. The car slows as Goodnight Irene plays out. As I pull into the car park, the ghost of Dr John disappears. I don’t think a day sitting in an office is his sort of game.

I say goodbye to Dr John, great musician, pianist singer and fellow sufferer of a famous finger injury and go inside for another Saturday in front of a computer.

Ske-Dat-De-Dat, as Dr John says on his Louis Armstrong tribute album.

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