Legendary New Orleans piano man Dr. John has accomplished much in his 50-plus-year career: He’s released more than two dozen albums of his own brand of boogie-woogie-funk gumbo; worked with everyone from the Rolling Stones and Eric Clapton to Professor Longhair and Neil Diamond; and last year was inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame. Not bad for a guy who only started playing the piano because his finger got shot off in a backstage altercation, severely crippling his prospects at the guitar. For his new album, Locked Down (Nonesuch), Dr. John, 71, collaborated with Dan Auerbach, from Grammy-winning blues-rock upstarts the Black Keys. He spoke with David Peisner about his past and present.
Q: How did you and Dan get together?
A: My granddaughter turned me on to the Black Keys. I thought they were a pretty cool band because they sounded bluesy, but they didn’t sound like old blues. Next thing I knew, Dan pops up in my life. I couldn’t explain that one, but I think, spiritually, it was somehow meant to happen. He came to New Orleans, and we started writing. Everything was slamming.
Q: Dan is 32. You’ve been playing since long before he was born. Were there things you could learn from him?
A: You can always learn. Listen, if you ain’t open to learning things, you ain’t open-minded. You’ve got to be open-minded in music because it’s always shifting gears. Even though there ain’t nothing new to play, doing different stuff with what you got to work with is what makes stuff either different or the same old, same old.
Q: Did you always know you wanted to be a musician?
A: My father had a record shop on Chantilly Road, here in New Orleans. When I heard Big Joe Turner’s record of “Piney Brown Blues,” I just wanted to be that piano player. But I decided that I’d never get a job as a piano player, so I started playing guitar. If I hadn’t got shot in my finger, I’d still be playing guitar.
Q: How do you think you’ve changed from when you were just starting out?
A: Well, put it this way, I wish I had the sense back then that I do now. One thing is way different: I try to get paid for what I do now. When I started off, I just wanted to play music. I didn’t care too much—union scale for a recording session was $22. Everybody was ripping me off. So I try not to let that happen so bad today. I mean, it happens still, but it doesn’t happen as bad.
Q: So you’ve gotten wiser.
A: I hope so.