On paper, a concert featuring Mavis Staples and Dr. John, also known as Mac Rebennack, seems like a natural pairing. The two have become elder statespeople of the soul genre. Staples solidified her rep last year, winning a Grammy award for Best Americana Album for You Are Not Alone, her collection of gospel and pop songs recorded by Jeff Tweedy of Wilco. Rebennack has been busy, too, popping up everywhere the topic of New Orleans music is broached, on HBO in David Simon's Treme, and in issuing Tribal last year, an album that found him exploring the Creole roots that have dominated his work for years.
But in the late '60s/early '70s, when the two were making their names as stars, their music and vibe couldn't have been more different. Staples was a member of her family band, The Staples Singers, led by "Pops" Staples. The Staples Singers were one of the voices of the civil rights movement, dubbed "God's Greatest Hitmakers" by critics and fans. One of the band's biggest hits, "Respect Yourself" features the lyric: "If you disrespect anybody that you run in to / How in the world do you think anybody's s'posed to respect you / If you don't give a heck 'bout the man with the Bible in his hand / Just get out the way, and let the gentleman do his thing."
Popular music and The Good Word had hardly been exclusive, but in many ways, Staples and family paved a road for the contemporary Christian music industry. Rumor has it that even Bob Dylan, a man known for his own civil rights anthems and a generous foray into Christian music in the '70s, asked Pops Staples for Mavis' hand in marriage.
Meanwhile, down in New Orleans, Dr. John was pushing a whole 'nother sound, one far darker in tone. Rebennack had been producing regional hits on NoLa labels for years, but with his emergence as Dr. John, the Night Tripper, he created a new image to go along with his soul gumbo, dressing in elaborate Mardi Gras costumes and creating a mystical, voodoo-inspired stage show to go along with his music. His 1968 album Gris Gris remains one of pop music's most enduring oddities, a sexy, scary mélange of Creole rhythms and witchy chants. In many ways, Rebennack had put himself in line with shock rockers like Alice Cooper or freaky bluesman Screamin' Jay Hawkins, who undoubtedly influenced Rebennack's excursions into the macabre and mysterious.
Search YouTube for old footage for the proof. On clips of classic tunes like "Zu Zu Mamou" and "Gris-Gris Gumbo Ya Ya," Rebennack pulls out all the stops and becomes a crazy, drugged-out sorcerer in full makeup, hissing, cooing, and intoning his lyrics with the kind of zeal and left-of-center approach that Lady Gaga is still milking today. The background singers seem dazed, as if under Rebennack's spell. He didn't stick with the Night Tripper theme for very long, easing out of the phase, and later earned hits with the traditional "Iko Iko," and the funky "Right Place, Wrong Time."
Both Staples and Rebennack have been active in recent years. Staples has gone on to record with a wide cast of musical characters, teaming with Prince for a pair of albums, and working with Ry Cooder and Tweedy on recent efforts. Rebennack has continued to contribute side work for a number of artists like Ringo Starr, Lou Reed, and Spiritualized. The two appeared together on Rebennack's 2004 effort, N'Awlinz: Dis Dat or D'Udda. Performing "Lay My Burden Down" on the album with The Dirty Dozen Brass Band, the pair's voices revealed that while they may come from different thematic places, they make an inspired team.