Remembering Dr. John 1941-2019

Not just a great musician, Malcolm Rebennack was a walking embodiment of New Orleans’ musical legacy

Dr. John
Dr. John at the 2011 New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival (photo: Joel A. Siegel)

New Orleans music icon Malcolm Rebennack, known to the world as Dr. John, died of a heart attack on June 6 at his home in Lake Pontchartrain, La. He’d been in ill health for several years, and blamed years of drug use for a laundry list of health ailments that included arthritis, carpal tunnel syndrome, and bone spurs in his neck. He was 77.

In a career that spanned over 60 years, the pianist, guitarist, singer, and producer had a Top 10 hit, won six Grammys, was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, and performed at both the Super Bowl and White House. As he attracted serious attention from important rock musicians and their fans in the 1970s, Dr. John also emerged as a goodwill ambassador, griot, and advocate for the musical legacy of the Crescent City. No matter where he went, he carried the soul and history of the city with him. Whether he was performing the mystic psychedelia of his Night Tripper persona to rock audiences, playing solo piano at a European festival, or guesting on other artists’ sessions, Dr. John could always be counted on to provide authentic New Orleans music.   

His piano playing combined blues and boogie with Latin influences like the habanera, jazz, R&B, funk, and rock & roll. It was heavily syncopated and informed by New Orleans pianists Professor Longhair, Champion Jack Dupree, Fats Domino, Huey “Piano” Smith, and James Booker, as well as Kansas City boogie pianists like Pete Johnson and Chicago’s Big Maceo Merriweather. Like his New Orleans mentors, Dr. John played his boogie with a rhumba beat and ornate right-hand decoration.

Born on Nov. 10, 1941, Mac (as he was known) grew up in the Third Ward of New Orleans; his family was music-immersed. A grandfather had been a minstrel show performer, and his father operated an appliance repair business. Blues and swing 78s were plentiful in his home, and an aunt provided Mac’s first piano lessons. Circulating through the French Quarter, the boy met Papa Celestin, trumpeter/producer Dave Bartholomew, the pianists, and guitarist Roy Montrell. After he circulated through Bourbon Street bars like the Pepper Pot, the Dew Drop Inn, and Cadillac Club, school held very little interest. Intimidated by the local pianists, John concentrated on guitar. By 15, he was a professional, playing jobs with Longhair, Art Neville, and Frankie Ford. At 16, he was the A&R man for Ace Records. A growing drug habit added scams and petty crime—especially prescription forgery—to his résumé. He returned to the piano after a bullet nearly took his finger off in 1960.

After a two-year sentence for a heroin arrest, Mac headed to Los Angeles. With entrée from Sonny & Cher’s musical director Harold Battiste, Mac got some session work in the Hollywood studios. He played guitar with the famous Wrecking Crew, but was mostly bored by the repetition. In 1968, he released his first album, under the name Dr. John, the Night Tripper—a reference to a 19th-century New Orleans voodoo priest. Gris-Gris was a musical gumbo of psychedelic swamp R&B, spacey voodoo incantations, and Mardi Gras Indian chants. Onstage, he played the persona to the hilt, dressed in robes and a headdress, shaking an ornate cane with a rattlesnake head, and scattering glitter from a pouch. The stagecraft sowed seeds that led to the youth culture’s eventual discovery of the New Orleans musical continuum. The Dr. John albums didn’t sell much, but garnered admiration from Jerry Wexler, Eric Clapton, and Mick Jagger.   

In 1973, producer Allen Toussaint paired John with the Meters for “Right Place, Wrong Time.” Its chart success brought him onto TV shows and movies as a walk-on performer and songwriter. Dr. John’s slow, growling patois marked him as a wizened character, guaranteed to add tang to any production. In an off-the-cuff promo for a Los Angeles radio show, he rasped: “Eyyy, King Cott-on—will you put a litt-le spin on this New Orleans record from outta the swamp?  Play me some’a that fonky-kuckle music from out dem swamps!”   

In 1976, John was one of the musical guests at the Band’s “Last Waltz” concert in San Francisco, immortalized by Martin Scorsese’s movie. Sessions for Maria Muldaur, the Rolling Stones, Neil Diamond, Carly Simon, B.B. King, Ringo Starr, and more followed. Public interest in authentic New Orleans music brought the 1981 piano tour-de-force album Dr. John Plays Mac Rebennack. His soulful reading of “Blue Monk” for the 1984 Hal Willner-produced collection That’s the Way I Feel Now: A Tribute to Thelonious Monk indicated that Dr. John was still capable of surprises, while his In a Sentimental Mood (1989) showed he had something unusual for jazz standards. He then turned a blues album, Goin’ Back to New Orleans, into a Crescent City class reunion with the Neville Brothers, guitarist Danny Barker, clarinetist Pete Fountain, and trumpeter Al Hirt.

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Dr. John finally became drug-free in 1989. His 1994 autobiography Under a Hoodoo Moon: The Life of the Night Tripper is almost shockingly candid about his often-sordid life in and out of music—making it a little hard to believe that Jim Henson and his colleagues on The Muppet Show created a piano-playing Muppet character, Dr. Teeth, in his honor. Soundtrack music for children’s-TV shows (Curious George and Blossom) and Disney movies (The Princess and the Frog and the 2016 remake of The Jungle Book), along with voiceovers in commercials, earned him some of the steadiest money of his entire career. The former small-time criminal became a respectable senior citizen. 

He also paid tribute to Duke Ellington on Duke Elegant and Louis Jordan—alongside B.B. King—on Let the Good Times Roll (both in 1999), essayed Johnny Mercer standards on Mercernary (2006), and protested the conditions of his native city post-Hurricane Katrina on City That Care Forgot (2009). Producer Dan Auerbach of the Black Keys took John to Nashville, paired him with young players on unfamiliar tunes, and challenged him to write new originals for the compelling Locked Down (2012).

Dr. John’s last New Orleans Jazz Festival appearance was in 2017. He led his Nite Trippers through a well-received set that concluded with a titanic “Big Chief” and “Such a Night,” one of his 1970s hits. And although there’s an as-yet-unreleased final album in the can with Willie Nelson, Aaron Neville, and Rickie Lee Jones, that was Dr. John’s final public bow.