Dr. John, 1941–2019
The musician who embodied New Orleans
Like gumbo, Dr. John’s “N’awlins fonk” blended multiple traditions. The singer-pianist created a unique musical stew out of the sounds of his native New Orleans—boogie-woogie, swamp blues, R&B—and spiced it up with a dash of psychedelic rock. In his 1970s heyday, he performed in witch-doctor robes adorned with feathers, amulets, and beads, reciting voodoo chants and singing in a gravelly Bayou patois. Yet behind Dr. John’s theatrics was an acclaimed musician who won six Grammy awards for his 30-plus albums and landed a Top 10 hit with 1973’s deeply funky “Right Place, Wrong Time.” Through it all, his hometown’s melting pot served as a constant source of inspiration. “In New Orleans, in religion, as in food or race or music,” he said, “you can’t separate nothing from nothing. Everything mingles.”
Malcolm John Rebennack Jr. was born in New Orleans “into a family of French heritage that had settled in Louisiana in the early 1800s,” said The Times (U.K.). His father played Louis Armstrong records to the young Rebennack, and an aunt taught him the piano. By his early teens, Rebennack was playing the keys at “strip joints, shake dances, and whorehouses,” and when he was 15, his piano and guitar work began to appear on singles by artists such as Art Neville, Allen Toussaint, and Joe Tex. “Even as he built a reputation as a formidable musician, he fell into a spiral of heroin addiction and petty crime,” said The New Orleans Advocate. A gunshot during a nightclub brawl injured one of Rebennack’s fingers—forcing him to largely give up the guitar—and after a stint in prison for drug possession, he moved to Los Angeles in 1965 to work as a studio musician.
There, he “added barrelhouse piano flavor to pop and rock records, doing sessions with Sonny & Cher, the O’Jays, Frank Zappa, and others,” said The New York Times. In 1968, he unveiled his Dr. John persona—inspired by folktales of a 19th-century medicine man—on his debut album Gris-Gris. He made his mainstream breakthrough with the hit 1973 LP In the Right Place, but saw his career slump in the ’80s as heroin addiction took its toll. Rebennack finally got clean in 1989, and despite health problems kept performing and championing New Orleans into his 70s. “It’s the proper thing for a musician to keep playing,” he said, “until the last song is sung and you fall over and die.” ■