He was known as Dr. John, the Night Tripper, part hoodoo medicine man, part psychedelic parishioner. The individual behind this persona was Mac Rebennack, who as a person and musician, embodied all the mysticism that fills the heart and soul of New Orleans. Rebennack died June 6 at the age of 77.
New Orleans is littered with boogie woogie piano players. Setting Rebennack apart from the crowd was his virtuoso capabilities on the piano and guitar. Add to this his flamboyant personification of the New Orleans spirit, and this earned Dr. John a top tier spot with Louisiana keyboard greats like Fats Domino, Professor Longhair, Art Neville, Huey “Piano” Smith, James Booker and Jerry Lee Lewis.
To attend a Dr. John show was the equivalent of a Mardi Gras celebration, cut with a voodoo ceremony and the rambunctious nature of a traveling medicine show. There was funk, blues, a dash of jazz and pop, and rock-n-roll all mixed together that dripped thick with New Orleans, like the mixing bowl that city has always been.
His bandmates would set a hard funky beat for several minutes before the Night Tripper would come strutting out onto the stage, always at his own pace. In the second half of Dr. John’s career he was New Orleans royalty, and never had to move fast for anyone.
Rebennack always looked the part, sporting a fashionable chapeau to compliment his pointed greying beard, tribal beads were strung around his neck and he carried along his trademark oversized wooden walking stick. This accessory was a sight to behold, adorned with voodoo beads, a yak bone, an alligator tooth and milestone rings from Narcotics Anonymous. It spoke volumes about the life of the man who carried it.
Born Nov. 20, 1941 in New Orleans, his awakening as a musician began around age 12, when he started performing with Professor Longhair, and was tutored on guitar by Walter (Papoose) Nelson, who played guitar for Fats Domino. Rebennack would play guitar up to 18 hours a day, seven days a week – sitting in at Bourbon Street clubs and strip joints.
He dropped out of high school to pursue his passion full time after the Jesuits informed a young Rebennack that he would need to steer clear of the New Orleans clubs. By the late 1950s, his professional career was off and running as he became a well regarded session musician on the scene. To his credit, Rebennack would piece together integrated bands, which at the time was not something commonly seen, especially in the deep South.
This life brought with it certain perils that are all too familiar to those who make a living after midnight. Rebennack took part in many of the criminal hustles of the day and developed a well recognized and lengthy heroin habit. A pivotal moment came in the early 1960s, when Rebennack aided a friend being attacked, and was shot in the ring finger of his left hand. This necessitated a switch in musical instruments, from guitar to piano.
In 1968, Rebbenack recorded “Gris-Gris,” which captured his unique blend of the New Orleans sound, Creole magic and psychedelic rock. Included on this debut was the Dr. John classic, “I Walk on Guilded Splinters.” This record also saw the introduction of Rebbenack’s Dr. John character.
This classic blending of styles and sounds was further evidenced on the 1972 recording, “Dr. John’s Gumbo.” Allen Toussaint produced and the Meters backed up Dr. John’s recordings of New Orleans classics like “Iko Iko” and “Tipitina.”
Hit songs were not something that defined a performer like Dr. John. He was more atmospheric and the duly appointed representative of the New Orleans sound, yet he did score one Top 40 single in 1973, “Right Place Wrong Time,” that reached No. 9 on the Billboard chart.
Considering all the albums he recorded, more than 30, winning six Grammy Awards and a 2011 induction into the Rock-n-Roll Hall of Fame, records were not the part of his musical career that earned him the most money. It was his side gig cutting jingles and theme music. There was Popeyes chicken, Scott tissue and Oreo cookies. His trademark delivery was heard by a new generation of young people in the theme music for “Blossom” and in the opening song of the “Curious George” cartoon. Rebennack also was the inspiration for Dr. Teeth, the leader of the Electric Mayhem on the Muppets.
You can also credit Dr. John as responsible for providing the name given to a little music festival that takes place annually in Manchester, TN. Organizers were researching old recordings to find inspiration in naming their new festival, and came upon Dr. John’s 1974 release, “Desitively Bonnaroo.” The Bonnaroo Music and Arts Festival has continued to grow in size and influence since 2002, pulling in 80,000-plus attendees annually.
Rebennack gave voice to his blending of sounds and culture in his 1994 autobiography, “Under a Hoodoo Moon,” saying, “In New Orleans, in religion, as in food or race or music, you can’t separate nothing from nothing. Everything mingles each into the other – Catholic saint worship with gris-gris spirits, evangelical tent meetings with spiritual-church ceremonies – until nothing is purely itself but becomes part of one funky gumbo.”
Mac Rebennack was a man with one funky soul. We’re going to miss you Dr. John – R.I.P.