I must not have been on the road, or on Sirius XM online, much early this month. (Those are the instances when I listen to Deep Tracks, the rarer-album-cuts channel.) So I didn’t hear the news of the passing of Malcom John Rebennack Jr. on June 6, at the age of 77, as the result of a heart attack.
That name may not ring bells for many followers of The Music, for Mac Rebennack did most of his recording and performing under the stage name Dr. John. And for most of those familiar with that monicker, it is attached to a few early 1970s singles that got a lot of air play.
But there was a lot more to Rebennack, and Dr. John, whose impact on popular tuneage, blues, jazz, R&B and the music of his native New Orleans, La., extended well beyond the Billboard Hot 100. The winner of six Grammy Awards, and a Rock and Roll Hall of Fame inductee in 2011, he was an ace session music, and collaborated with legends like Doc Pomus, Professor Longhair and Allen Toussaint.
Malcolm Rebennack Sr. owned an appliance store in the Big Easy that also sold records, and his connections put his son in touch with New Orleans musicians early on. Longhair was one of them, and Dr. John began performing with the flamboyant pianist and singer in his early teens, joining the musicians’ union at age 16.
Rebennack was expelled from a Catholic high school after he failed to heed the demands of the Jesuit priests who ran it, that he stop playing in nightclubs. Not long after that, he co-wrote his first rock and roll song, which was a regional hit for another artist.
Initially a guitarist, Dr. John’s career as a picker was sidelined by a gunshot wound to his left (fretting) hand, inflicted during a post-concert incident in Florida. He eventually switched to piano, adapting a style influenced by the Professor.
Rebennack’s career hit another detour in the early 1960s, when he was busted on drug charges — he was also running a brothel at the time — and did a stint in prison. After his 1965 release, fate intervened again: a campaign to clean up New Orleans resulted in the closing of many of its nightclubs, making work hard to find for musicians.
Dr. John ended up in Los Angeles, where he quickly became a top-tier studio musician. As a member of the famous Wrecking Crew set of session artists, he providing musical backing for Sonny and Cher, Canned Heat, the Mothers of Invention and others — and no doubt made connections that would help his career later on.
As a youth, Rebennack had developed an interest in New Orleans voodoo, and while in LA decided to develop an album project and stage show based on the character of Dr. John, a real-life practitioner of that Haitian cultural/religious tradition. When the artist who was supposed to front that band bailed, Rebennack took up the Dr. John personna.
The result was the 1968 LP Gris-Gris, credited to “Dr. John, the Night Tripper.” Melding voodoo themes and chants, New Orleans music and psychedelic rock, it introduced Rebennack to a wider audience, including yours truly and other listeners to The Music.
Dr. John’s debut wasn’t a commercial success — it failed to make it onto the Billboard album chart — but got positive reviews. (Except from Ahmet Ertegun, president of Atlantic Records, who said, "How can we market this boogaloo crap?”) It also set the stage for three albums released over the following three years, all under the Night Tripper name, starting with Babylon, which was heavily influenced by the assignations, protest and riots of 1968.
The last of those was The Sun Moon & Herbs, which included contributions by Eric Clapton, Mick Jagger and other notable musicians. That 1971 release was the first by Rebennack to crack the Billboard chart, and a sign of popular acceptance to come.
The following year, Rebennack — now credited only as Dr. John — released Dr. John’s Gumbo, a collection of traditional New Orleans songs that almost made it into the Top 100 of the Billboard album chart. The LP included “Iko, Iko,” a cover of the Dixie Cups’ 1965 Top 20 hit; Dr. John’s version was his first charting single.
That was followed by In the Right Place, Rebennack’s highest-charting album, a No. 24. That LP featured “Right Place, Wrong Time,” his best chart performance for a single, reaching No. 9 in 1973, and the song that most listeners associate with the artist. (The album also featured musical contributions by Toussaint and the Meters, Neville brother Art playing organ for the latter.)
In the Right Place also produced a No. 42, “Such a Night.” Its followup, Desitively Bonnaroo produced another Billboard Hot 100 single, “(Everybody Wanna Get Rich) Rite Away.” (And also provided the name for the Bonnaroo Festival, an annual, four-day event in Manchester, Tenn., that showcases music ranging from alternative rock to bluegrass to jazz and reggae.)
“Rite Away” was Dr. John’s last charting single, but he’s recorded successful albums since, including two Top 100s during this decade: No. 33 Locked Down in 2012, and 2014’s Ske-Dat-De-Dat: The Spirit Of Satch, a tribute to Louis Armstrong that was a No. 1 on the jazz chart.
Rebennack’s Grammy awards included three for collaborations with other artists, Rickie Lee Jones, B.B. King and Stevie Ray Vaughn. Locked Down — which featured Black Keys guitarist Dan Auerbach — was the Best Blues Album in 2013, and his albums won Best Traditional Blues Album in 1992 and Best Contemporary Blues Album in 2008.
Those, and the other two-dozen-plus studio albums he recorded, represent an amazingly diverse and accomplished career — one that ended while he was still actively creating. May he rest in peace.
Me, I’m going to try to acquire Gris-Gris, which knocks me out, particularly the (sort of) title tune and “I Walk on Gilded Splinters.” Also maybe Gumbo, for “Iko” and “Tipitina,” and one or more of those other 1970-75 releases. And check out Locked Down, too.