Less than a week after the death of Roky Erickson, the world lost another legend of the psychedelic ’60’s when Dr. John passed away of a heart attack on June 6th, 2019.
As a Rock and Roll Hall of Fame inductee, six time Grammy winner, songwriter, producer and performer, he created a unique musical blend which carried New Orleans at its’ heart. He also put on theatrical stage shows inspired by medicine shows, Mardi Gras costumes and voodoo ceremonies. Working as a musician since the 1950’s until his death at 77, he released 30 studio albums and contributed to thousands of other recordings.
But, now, let’s start from the beginning!
Malcolm John Rebennack, Jr. was born on November 21st, 1941, in New Orleans, Louisiana. Growing up in a musical family with roots in serveral European countries, his father ran an appliance shop which sold records. This exposed the young boy to jazz by King Oliver and Louis Armstrong. His father’s connections also enabled access to the recording rooms of artists like Little Richard and Guitar Slim.
Rebennack did not take music lessons before his teens and endured only a short stint in choir before getting kicked out. Playing mostly guitar, he soon began performing in local clubs and formed his first band, The Dominoes, while at Jesuit High School. The Jesuit fathers disapproved and told him to either stop playing in clubs or leave the school. He was expelled in 1954.
Rebennack was about 13 years old when he first met Professor Longhair (1918-1980), blues singer and pianist Henry Roeland Byrd. Impressed by the professor’s flamboyant attire and striking musical style, Rebennack soon began his life as a professional musician by performing with him. Although uncredited, Rebennack played guitar on the 1959 single “Go To The Mardi Gras” by Professor Longhair. Recorded in 1979, only months before his death, the final Professor Longhair album “Crawfish Fiesta” also features Dr. John as guest guitarist.
Rebennack made his studio debut in 1955-56 and was hired as a producer aged 16, gaining experience working with many artists. By 17 he had co-written his first rock song “Lights Out”, a regional hit in 1958 for his cousin Jerry Byrne who also sang with Rebennack’s band, The Loafers.
Rebennack’s career as a guitarist was stunted around 1960 when his left hand was injured by a gunshot during a gig in Jacksonville, Florida. After the injury, he concentrated on bass guitar before making piano his main instrument, in a style influenced by Professor Longhair. Rebennack also became involved in illegal activities, using and selling narcotics and running a brothel. He was arrested and sentenced to two years in the Federal Correctional Institution, Fort Worth. When the sentence ended in 1965, he left for Los Angeles and found session work as part of the infamous “Wrecking Crew”. His work included backing for Sonny & Cher, Canned Heat (1968’s “Living the Blues” and “Future Blues” from 1970) and “Freak Out!” (1966) by Frank Zappa’s Mothers of Invention.
While in L.A., Rebennack developed the idea of a “Dr. John” persona for his friend Ronnie Barron, an actor, musican and soul singer who had developed a “Reverend Ether” persona while at high school. Barron turned the offer down but would go on to find work with Paul Butterfield, Canned Heat, Ry Cooder, Tom Waits, and others.
Based on a 19th-century healer, Dr. John Montaine, who claimed to be an African potentate, the character “Dr. John” was supposed to be a Senegalese prince, a medicinal and spiritual healer from Haiti, with 15 wives and over 50 children. He kept an assortment of snakes and lizards, along with embalmed scorpions and human skulls. He also sold gris-gris, voodoo amulets that protected the wearer from harm. Rebennack decided to produce a record and a stage show based on this concept, but while the plan was for Barron to front and act the identity of “Dr. John” – with Rebbenack behind the scenes as writer/musician/producer – this didn’t come to pass.
Rebennack took on the role of Dr. John, thus also becoming his identity for the rest of his life. “Gris-Gris” was released in January 1968, being Rebennack’s debut album under the guise of “Dr. John, the Night Tripper”. With the songwriting credits billing him as “Dr. John Creaux”, Rebennack combined New Orleans-style rhythm and blues with psychedelic rock and elaborate stage shows that bordered on voodoo religious ceremonies, including elaborate costumes and headdress.
The “Gris-Gris” album starts with the dark and swampy classic “Gris-Gris Gumbo Ya Ya” and ends with the classic “I Walk on Guilded Splinters”, a song later covered by the likes of The Allman Brothers Band, Cher, Widespread Panic, Paul Weller, Jello Biafra and Humble Pie, who included a versions lasting 23 minutes on their brilliant 1971 live album “Performance Rockin’ the Fillmore”. Rebennack stated that the song was based on a traditional voodoo church song, saying “It’s supposed to be ‘Splendors’, but I turned it into ‘Splinters’. Other notable songs on the album debut includes “Jump Sturdy”, “Mama Roux” and “Danse Kalinda Ba Doom”.
As a curious fact, the drum track of Beck’s 1993 hit “Loser” is sampled from Johnny Jenkins’ cover of “I Walk on Guilded Splinters”, from the 1970 album “Ton-Ton Macoute!”. Otis Redding had sung in Jenkins’ band The Pinetoppers and “Ton-Ton Macoute!” (a phrase meaning “bogey man” in Haiti) was originally intended as a Duane Allman solo album, with Allman (along with Berry Oakley, Jaimoe, and Butch Trucks of ABB) recording the music before Jenkins supplied the vocal tracks.
“Babylon” (1969) and “Remedies” (1970) followed in the same vein as “Gris-Gris”, as did “The Sun, Moon & Herbs” (1971) with guests like Eric Clapton, Mick Jagger, Graham Bond, Bobby Keys and Jim Price.
At times hard-driving, at others following a deliberately spacy, disorienting groove, “Babylon” was the band’s attempt to say something about the troubled times – and to do it with a few unusual musical time signatures. “We were trying to get into something”, he said, “with visions of the end of the world—as if Hieronymus Bosch had cut an album.”
Originally intended as a triple album, “The Sun, Moon & Herbs” was chopped up, whittled down and re-assembled into this single-disc release. The seven cuts are all quite lengthy and the spells Dr. John and his consorts weave are dark and swampy. “Black John the Conqueror” comes from old Cajun folklore which the good Dr. has modernized and given a beat. “Pots on Fiyo (Fils Gumbo)” combines Latin American rhythms with lots of Cajun chants and spells. “Zu Zu Mamou” is so thick that you can almost cut the music with a knife.
Dropping “the Night Tripper” from his name, Dr. John also took a turn away from voodoo-psychedelia and concentrated on more traditional New Orleans R&B and funk for his next album, “Dr. John’s Gumbo” (1972), a landmark that remained one of his most popular. He would return to his early style on 1998’s “Anutha Zone”.
Featuring only one original, “Somebody Changed the Lock”, the rest of “Gumbo” featured his interpretation of music he had grown up with in New Orleans in the late 1940s and 1950s. The lead single, “Iko Iko”, broke into the Billboard Hot 100 singles chart. Covered by many both before and after, “Iko Iko” became a staple in the live shows of The Grateful Dead from 1977 onward.
Rebennack also appeared on The Rolling Stones’ 1972 classic “Exile on Main St.”, playing piano and singing backing vocals on “Let It Loose” and “All Down the Line”.
1973 saw the release of the album “Triumvirate”, a collaboration between Mike Bloomfield, John Hammond, Jr. and Dr. John, who wrote the song “I Yi Yi”.
1973 also saw the release of “In the Right Place”, the best selling album of Dr. John’s career. Produced by Allen Toussaint and featuring The Meters as his backing band, the album established Dr. John as one of the main ambassadors of New Orleans funk. The song “Right Place, Wrong Time” became the biggest hit from the LP, reaching the Top 10 in both the U.S. and Canada.
“Such a Night”, from the same album, was included in The Band’s “The Last Waltz” concert, immortalized through Martin Scorsese’s film. Dr. John also appeared with Bobby Charles for The Band’s performance of “Down South in New Orleans”. Finally, two loose jam sessions also formed at San Francisco’s Winterland Ballroom on November 25, 1976. “Jam #1” featured The Band minus Richard Manuel playing with Neil Young, Ronnie Wood and Eric Clapton on guitar, Dr. John on piano, Paul Butterfield on harmonica and Ringo Starr on drums. “Jam #2” had the same personnel minus Robertson and Danko with Carl Radle on bass and Stephen Stills taking a guitar solo.
Rebennack would later appear on the 1977 album by Levon Helm & the RCO All-Stars, , contributing the songs “Washer Woman”, “The Ties That Bind” and “That’s My Home”. Dr. John also collaborated with other people present at The Last Waltz, co-producing Van Morrison’s 1977 album “A Period of Transition” and going on tour with Ringo Starr & His All-Starr Band in 1989, alongside Levon Helm, Rick Danko, Nils Lofgren, Jim Keltner, Joe Walsh, Billy Preston and Clarence Clemons.
Attempting to capitalize on the successful formula, Dr. John also collaborated with Toussaint and The Meters on 1974’s “Desitively Bonnaroo”, producing the single “(Everybody Wanna Get Rich) Rite Away”. It was his last pure funk album until 1994’s “Television”.
In the mid-1970s Dr. John began an almost 20-year-long collaboration with Doc Pomus (Jerome Solon Felder, 1925-1991), creating songs for Dr. John’s 1979 albums “City Lights” and “Tango Palace” but also for B.B. King’s “There Must Be a Better World Somewhere”, winning a Grammy for Best Ethnic or Traditional Recording in 1982.
Dr. John also recorded “I’m On a Roll” – the last song written with Pomus prior to his death – for 1995’s “Til the Night Is Gone: A Tribute to Doc Pomus”, an album which also included covers by Bob Dylan, John Hiatt, Brian Wilson, The Band, Los Lobos, Dion, Rosanne Cash, Solomon Burke, and Lou Reed.
Throughout the ’70’s, ’80’s, 90’s and the new millennium, Dr. John kept on releasing albums in his own name while also finding time to record with numerous others, such as Carly Simon, James Taylor, Neil Diamond, Maria Muldaur, Rickie Lee Jones, Willy DeVille, Johnny Winter, Jimmie Vaughan, B.B. King, Marcus Miller and The Max Weinberg 7. As another example, Dr. John’s 1994 album “Television” features “Shut D Fonk Up”, co-written and featuring Anthony Kiedis, the frontman of Red Hot Chili Peppers.
In 1997, Dr. John appeared on the charity single version of Lou Reed’s “Perfect Day”. In the same year, he played piano and sanging backing vocals on “Cop Shoot Cop…”, the final 17 minute track on the Spiritualized masterpiece “Ladies and Gentlemen We Are Floating in Space”. Spiritualized’s frontman Jason Pierce then reciprocated by guesting on Dr. John’s 1998 album “Anutha Zone”.
“My Kind of Christmas”, her third studio album from the year 2000, features Christina Aguilera singing a duet with Dr. John, having first failed to get Aguilera’s idol Etta James to perform on “Merry Christmas, Baby”.
In the 2009 Disney film “The Princess and the Frog”, Dr. John sang Randy Newman’s “Down in New Orleans”.
Dr. John played keyboards and had a major role in shaping “Low Country Blues” (2011), the next to last studio album by Gregg Allman. Produced by T-Bone Burnett, it was nominated for a 2011 Grammy Award for Best Blues Album. Dr. John had also played on 1977’s “Playin’ Up a Storm” by The Gregg Allman Band, co-writing “Let This Be a Lesson to Ya'” with Allman.
Also in 2011, Dr. John, Allen Toussaint and The Meters performed at the Bonnaroo Music and Arts Festival in Manchester, Tennessee, as part of the festival’s tenth year celebration. The name of the festival was taken from the 1974 Dr. John album, “Desitively Bonnaroo”, which they went on to perform in full. The same year he was inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame along with Neil Diamond, Alice Cooper, Darlene Love and Tom Waits.
2012 saw the release of Dr John’s final studio album of original songs, “Locked Down”. It was rightly well received by critics and features the Black Keys guitarist and singer Dan Auerbach as guitarist, background vocalist and producer.
The album was listed at #15 on Rolling Stone’s list of top albums of 2012. “With production and corrugated guitar by Black Keys mastermind Dan Auerbach”, said Rolling Stone, “the 72-year-old mixes rock, funk and even Afrobeat to describe a soggy wasteland where honest men have equal fear of the KKK and the CIA.”.
At the 2013 Grammy Awards, “Locked Down” won the Grammy Award for Best Blues Album.
Dr. John’s final final studio album was “Ske-Dat-De-Dat: The Spirit of Satch”, released in 2014. Featuring guests like Bonnie Raitt and The Blind Boys of Alabama, it took songs by Louis Armstrong and turned them inside out and upside down, fast-forwarding them to 2014 with hip-hop beats, funk grooves and wildly inventive horn arrangements. Dr. John had also made tribute albums to Duke Ellington (“Duke Elegant”, 2000) and Johnny Mercer (“Mercenary, 2006) during his later years.
Dave Grohl interviewed Dr. John about music in the New Orleans-themed episode of the 2014 Foo Fighters HBO series “Sonic Highways”.
2016 then saw the release of “The Musical Mojo of Dr. John: Celebrating Mac and his Music”, a double album and concert DVD also featuring performances by Bruce Springsteen, Jason Isbell, Cyril Neville, Bill Kreutzmann, Aaron Neville, Charles Neville, Irma Thomas, Allen Toussaint, Widespread Panic, The Dirty Dozen Brass Band, Warren Haynes, Mavis Staples and John Fogerty..
On November 1, 2017, Dr. John celebrated Mac Month as proclaimed by the New Orleans City Council. His birthday was proclaimed Dr. John Day in the City of New Orleans and Louisiana Governor John Bel Edwards issued a Statement of Recognition to Dr. John for “embodying the culture of the state from New Orleans to the Bayou.”
With both now sadly gone, it only seems fitting to end this article with Dr. John performing his seminal hit “Walk On Guilded Splinters” together with Gregg and the others in The Allman Brothers Band.
Studio albums discography as band leader, according to Wikipedia:
Gris-Gris (1968) (Atco 33-234 (monaural)/SD 33-234 (stereo))
Babylon (1969) (Atco, SD 33-270)
Remedies (1970) (Atco, SD 33-316)
The Sun, Moon & Herbs (1971) (Atco, SD 33-362)
Dr. John’s Gumbo (1972) (Atco, SD 7006)
In the Right Place (1973) (Atco, SD 7018)
Desitively Bonnaroo (1974) (Atco, SD 7043)
Cut Me While I’m Hot: The Sixties Sessions (1975) (DJM, 2019) session work compilation
City Lights (1979) (Horizon/A&M, SP-732)
Tango Palace (1979) (Horizon/A&M, SP-740)
Dr. John Plays Mac Rebennack, Vol. 1 (1981) (Clean Cuts, 705; CD: Clean Cuts 720)
Love Potion [AKA Loser for You Baby] (1982) (Accord, 7118)
The Brightest Smile In Town (Dr. John Plays Mac Rebennack, Vol. 2) (1983) (Clean Cuts, 707; CD: Clean Cuts 722)
In a Sentimental Mood (1989) (Warner Bros., 25889)
ZuZu Man (1989) (Trip Records, TLP-9518) studio outtakes compilation
Goin’ Back to New Orleans (1992) (Warner Bros., 26940)
Brer Rabbit and Boss Lion (1992) (Kid Rhino, 70496) children’s album
Television (1994) (GRP/MCA, 4024)
Afterglow (1995) (Blue Thumb/GRP/MCA, 7000)
Anutha Zone (1998) (Point Blank/Virgin/EMI, 46218)
Duke Elegant (2000) (Blue Note/Parlophone/EMI, 23220) (a tribute to Duke Ellington)
Creole Moon (2001) (Blue Note/Parlophone/EMI, 34591)
N’Awlinz: Dis Dat or d’Udda (2004) (Blue Note/Parlophone/EMI, 78602)
Sippiana Hericane (2005) (Blue Note/Parlophone/EMI, 45687)
Mercenary (2006) (Blue Note/Parlophone/EMI, 54541) (a tribute to Johnny Mercer)
City That Care Forgot (2008) (429/Savoy, 17703) (with The Lower 911)
Curious George: A Very Monkey Christmas – Music From The Motion Picture (2009) (429/Savoy, 17748)
Tribal (2010) (429/Savoy, 17803) (with The Lower 911)
Locked Down (2012) (Nonesuch/WEA, 530395)
Ske-Dat-De-Dat: The Spirit of Satch (2014) (Concord/UMe, 35187) (a tribute to Louis Armstrong)