One of my favorite Christmas song recordings of all time is the version of “Frosty the Snowman” performed by Leon Redbone in a vocal duet with his musical pal, Dr. John.
Both singers brought a bouncy spirit to a song that’s been done many times before — but at least to me, nobody did it better.
Their version of “Frosty” was released on Redbone’s 1989 album, “Christmas Island.” Once I heard it, other versions of the song seemed to melt away. The two also made a fun video that even got airplay on “Night Tracks” for awhile. It featured the two singers, adorned with top hats, scarves and sporting canes, interspersed with flickering black and white vintage film of kids sledding, having snowball fights and all sorts of wintertime fun.
They take turns swapping the verses, finally joining their voices together on the “Thumpity, thump, thump, look at Frosty go,” finale.
It may seem unusual to bring up a Christmas song as we’re heading into summer (which officially begins this year on Friday, June 21, by the way). However, it’s more than a fondness for holiday music that has me thinking of the enduring snowman.
I wrote last week about the loss of Redbone, who died on May 30— and now Dr. John has passed away, about a week after the death of his musical co-hart.
Dr. John — also known in musical circles by his birth name of Mac Rebennack — died Thursday, according to a statement posted by his family on his Website.
“Towards the break of day on June 6, 2019, iconic music legend Malcolm John Rebennack Jr., professionally known as Dr. John, passed away of a heart attack,” the statement reads. “As a Rock N Roll Hall of Fame inductee, six-time Grammy winner, songwriter, composer producer and performer, he created a unique blend of music which carried his home town, New Orleans, at its heart, as it was always in his heart.”
I became an admirer of Redbone’s music by buying his first album — but I got into Dr. John’s music in a more roundabout way. I’d seen his Dr. John, the Night Tripper, “ persona, when he wore headdresses and other regalia linked to his native New Orleans. Sure, I’d heard and liked his hit recording of “Right Place, Wrong Time,” but I never really got into the whole Night Tripper aspect of his stage shows.
He first really captured my attention in a big way when I saw a photo of him on the back cover of Maria Muldaur’s self-titled debut solo album — an album adorned with Muldaur’s distinctive vocals, outstanding song selection and virtuoso musicianship from the recording’s backing players.
The album’s back cover included a rarity for the time — not only credit, but also photos of many of the musicians who played on the album. I scanned the photos and saw the names of several musicians I recognized, including acoustic guitarists Clarence White and Ry Cooder, along with Tulsa’s own Jim Keltner, who played drums on several tracks.
Alongside the other musicians I saw a photo of a guy identified on that original album cover as Mac Rebbenack. Not only did he play keyboards on three of the album’s tracks, her also did the funky horn arrangements on them and had even written one of the songs: “Three Dollar Bill.” It didn’t take me long to figure out this Mac Rebbenack guy was the same jazz and R-and-B cat as Dr. John. Since he contributed to Muldaur’s album as a musician and songwriter, the credits were under his own name.
That’s how I became an admirer of Mac Rebbenack — and of Dr. John.
A few years later, he was one of the many musicians invited to play at what became known as “The Last Waltz” — the farewell performance of The Band with its original lineup. During his performance, Dr. John delivered an earthy performance of his song, “Such a Night” — a performance I never tire of hearing or watching.
I’ve bought the occasional album by Dr. John. He’s remained a musician who always delivered.
It’s hard to believe that both of the singers on one of my all-time favorite recorded duets — the aforementioned Frosty the Snowman — have died within a week of each other. That’s why I was singing the blues on Friday.
Still, I can’t hear Redbone’s and Dr. John’s version of “Frosty,” without it bringing at least the trace of a smile to my face.
Summer may be less than two weeks away, but I know what I’ll be listening to this weekend.
Contact James Beaty at email@example.com