Bluesman, shaman, legend: In the late Dr John, the world has lost a true New Orleans original, who lived life in the fastest lane
By Jonathan Wingate
July 25 2019
Adorned with elaborate head-dresses, beads and feathers and performing with a skull atop his piano, Dr John, who died on 6 June, was one of the most recognisable figures in music. He was also a musician of towering importance – an inductee of the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame and the winner of six Grammy Awards, who lived a roller-coaster life that was as colourful as a Mardi Gras parade.
Dr John was the persona of Malcolm John Rebennack Jr, born in New Orleans in November 1941. Mac, as he became known, was immersed in New Orleans’ cultural melting pot from the beginning, accompanying his father to local nightclubs where he watched musicians like Professor Longhair rehearsing while Rebennack Sr, an electricals man, fixed the PA.
Tutored by Walter ‘Papoose’ Nelson, who played guitar with Fats Domino, Mac dropped out of high school and was soon leading his own bands and sitting in at Bourbon Street clubs and strip joints, falling into a life of petty crime and developing a heroin habit along the way.
“When you’re in the game, the whole lifestyle of it kinda takes over,” he explained to me a few years ago. “Whatever morals, scruples and principles you’re born with just disappear. I don’t remember it ever hitting a lowest point… It just kept sinking.”
At the age of 21, Rebennack’s dreams of becoming a professional guitarist disappeared when the end of his left ring finger was blown off by a gangster in Jacksonville, Florida. “This guy was pistol whipping my buddy, Ronnie Barron, and I was freaked, ’cos Ronnie’s mother told me she was gonna chop my cojones off with a butcher’s knife if anything happened to her son. I’m trying to get the gun, and I thought my hand was over the handle, but it was over the barrel, and pop! That was that.”
He asked his friend James Booker to teach him to play organ, and built a reputation as one of the city’s most in-demand musicians.
His heroin habit eventually landed him a two-year prison sentence. After his release, he relocated to Los Angeles, where he became part of the Wrecking Crew, a group of session musicians who played with everyone from Aretha Franklin to Frank Zappa.
In 1968 he released his debut album, Gris-Gris, introducing the world to his outlandish alter ego, Dr John, The Night Tripper, loosely based on a legendary Louisiana voodoo practitioner of the 1800s.
The music of this shamanistic showman wove voodoo incantations and bayou patois into a psychedelic gumbo of rock and roll, Rhythm & Blues, funk and jazz.
“My original idea when was to do a record so that we didn’t lose a piece of our New Orleans culture that was disappearing,” Rebennack recalled. “We had all these strange, wild instruments that really made things like an exotic collage.”
Described by producer Jerry Wexler as “the blackest white man in the world”, Dr John continued to draw on the African-American heritage of pioneering New Orleans musicians such as Jelly Roll Morton, Fats Domino and Professor Longhair throughout his career. He worked with artists including the Rolling Stones, Bob Dylan and John Lennon, and recorded a string of timeless albums including Babylon, Dr John’s Gumbo and In The Right Place, which produced his sole Top 10 hit, ‘Right Place Wrong Time’.
He didn’t quit drugs until he was in his fifties, but Dr John continued touring the world and releasing award-winning records throughout his life. When he reflected on his wildest days of the 1960s and ’70s, he did so with the casual air of wry amusement you only get from a man who has lived his life in the fastest lane imaginable.
“The managers said they were gonna help me with my drug problem,” he recalled of one occasion he landed under lock and key. “They put me in a psych ward and had me declared incompetent.
It was a scam to f___ me out of the money. I was only in for maybe a week before I escaped,” he chuckled. But how? “I had one of my old ladies put some gum in the door so that it didn’t lock. I told her to get my shit together and wait in the car for me, and we split. I just walked out the door.”