Honoring a New Orleans Legend: Dr. John

Honoring a New Orleans Legend: Dr. John

The keyboardist, guitarist, singer and songwriter Malcolm “Mac” John Rebennack Jr., better known as Dr. John, was one of American music’s last remaining folk heroes. His death of a heart attack on Thursday, at age 77, feels like yet another reminder that the culture and characters of the 20th century are falling away fast, and that they are irreplaceable.

Of course, Rebennack was an utter original when he was still in his 20s. He was the architect of a personal meld of roots and psychedelia that deftly balanced the earthy and the supernatural; the designer of a specific shaman-like look that was extraordinary enough to inspire a Muppet; and the purveyor of a way of singing and talking so unforgettable that Frank Zappa did an impression of it.

Rebennack was born and raised in New Orleans, the only city remarkable enough to form him, and his life couldn’t have been more colorful if a novelist conjured it up. A white high school dropout who absorbed his city’s African American musical traditions firsthand, Jim Crow be damned, Rebennack became a precocious presence on New Orleans’ rough-and-tumble nightclub scene. Under the tutelage of Cosimo Matassa at NOLA’s J&M Recording Studio, an incubator for early rock and roll, he also learned his way around a studio and a song form. But along with the standards and syncopations of New Orleans music, he worked toward mastering petty crime and feeding a burgeoning heroin addiction that would land him in jail as a young man and follow him until he got clean in the late 1980s.

In the early ’60s, Rebennack had a finger shot during a scuffle, curtailing the guitar playing he’d been perfecting and provoking an even deeper dive into the lyrical pummel of Crescent City piano masters like Professor Longhair. By the middle of the decade he’d move to Los Angeles, where his recording career would take otherworldly flight. What follows is a sort of primer on that prolific half-century of LPs that earned Rebennack six Grammy Awards, a spot in the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame and a fan base spanning generations. It’s also a well-meaning attempt to explain an indescribable man.

“I Walk on Guilded Splinters” (1968)

The legend of Dr. John the Night Tripper begins here, after Rebennack had left New Orleans for the life of a session musician in California. The character took his name from a real-life folk figure, though Rebennack’s family history held plenty of magic on its own. (He described his grandmother as a root doctor who told terrifying stories, and his grandfather as a onetime vaudevillian who sang the early American repertoire around his grandson.) This spooky, slow-burning staple of the Dr. John set list closes his most essential LP, Gris-Gris, an “only-in-America” experiment that brought New Orleans’ in-the-pocket musicianship and wild mysticism to a new, natural home in hippiedom.

“Iko Iko” (1972)

The irrepressibly funky “Iko Iko” kicks of Dr. John’s Gumbo, a collection of NOLA standards encouraged by Atlantic Records’ Jerry Wexler. Forgoing much of the visionary weirdness of Rebennack’s previous output, the album firmed up another invaluable angle of the Dr. John persona: the torch carrier for New Orleans’ musical heritage, who took its street songs, jazz classics and R&B hits to the world.

“Right Place Wrong Time” (1973)

Here we have the Dr.’s greatest hit, and his only Top 40 single, which peaked at No. 9 in Billboard. The song, like the album it’s taken from, In the Right Place, proved that Rebennack could deploy pop craftsmanship as expertly as he used New Orleans grooves. The same could be said for the album’s producer, Allen Toussaint, of course, and the presence of the Meters on the record completes a heaven-sent Big Easy trifecta. Also, David Spinozza’s guitar solo simply kills.

“Desitively Bonnaroo” (1974)

Like any folk hero, Dr. John infiltrated the general culture, from jingles and TV themes—anyone in his or her 30s or 40s should recall his ebullient opener to the sitcom Blossom—to the New Orleanian name of a sprawling music fest held every summer in Tennessee. The album from which this brief R&B gem takes its title did indeed inform the Bonnaroo Music & Arts Festival, where Rebennack, Toussaint and the Meters paid tribute to the 1974 LP in 2011. This writer was there to cover the set for a jazz magazine, and testifies that it made the entire sleepless, sunburnt, dust-saturated experience worthwhile.

“Such a Night” (1978)

One of the many joys of hearing Rebennack live was this go-to closer, which would be extrapolated into a Mardi Gras farewell. Included on the In the Right Place album, “Such a Night” saw its profile snowball after this serene performance by Rebennack and the Band, at the San Francisco concert that yielded Martin Scorsese’s The Last Waltz.

“Revolution” (2012)

This cut comes from Locked Down, an absolute triumph of a late-career record that saw the Black Keys’ Dan Auerbach give Rebennack the Rick Rubin treatment. Well, sort of—you could easily argue that Locked Down not only matches but surpasses some of the man’s best-loved voodoo-psych LPs. “Revolution” is a great teaser for the perfection binding this Grammy-winning Nonesuch release: arranging and production that are timeless rather than nostalgic; influences reaching even further than the Dr.’s heyday gumbo (Mulatu Astatke’s Ethio-jazz bubbles up here); and a vocal performance at full-strength and peak charisma.

“Gut Bucket Blues” (2014)

Ske-Dat-De-Dat … The Spirit of Satch, Rebennack’s final studio album, was another late-coming pearl, and a conceptual no-brainer. Like Louis Armstrong, Rebennack was an artist whose career was defined by both startling innovation and decades of upholding New Orleans tradition via reverent takes on time-honored songs. Also like Satchmo, he was a preternaturally sweet and generous spirit. Ske-Dat-De-Dat came with plenty of guests—Bonnie Raitt, the Blind Boys of Alabama and Ledisi among them—and this expectedly fonky take on “Gut Bucket Blues” features New Orleans trumpet great Nicholas Payton.

 

Photo credit: Bruce Weber/Courtesy of Concord Recorded Music

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