Not a lot of guys make it into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame with a mere one hit song. Then again, not many one hit wonders had careers spanning nearly six decades, rubbed shoulders with greats from Sonny & Cher to Frank Zappa to the Neville Brothers. And won Grammys in four different music genres. Oh, and did we say, inspired a muppet too? Today we remember Dr. John, who passed away two years ago today.
You can call him Dr. John, or you can call him “Mac” or you can call him the Night Tripper. Or, you could try Malcolm Rebennack, which is what his parents called him, when he was born in the early-’40s. Probably 1941, but appropriate for such a mysterious and unusual type, even the year of his birth generates a little debate.
The musical King of New Orleans grew up in a musical, but non-performing family. From all accounts they listened to a lot of music and sang at home, but never took their talents to the stage. His dad ran a shop which sold radios and records and that helped the little “Dr.” be exposed to all sorts of music. As a lad he preferred jazz, but as he got a bit older and pop tastes changed, he shifted a bit to early rock, especially when his dad introduced him to Little Richard.
He began playing guitar when young, and irked Jesuit priests enough to be kicked out of their school by age 13, at which time he devoted himself to music full-time. With a little study of voodoo on the side, since it was after all, New Orleans. He worked in various bands in the late-’50s and at age 16 was already beginning to produce records for other local artists. It should be noted in a story that is now 60 years old, but seems timely still, that Rebennack is White, with German and Brit ancestry. But he liked all people and was fond of Black music, which didn’t go down well all the time in the Deep South. One time in 1960 at a gig in Jacksonville, a member of the crowd attacked his band’s singer and began pistol-whipping him. Dr. John intervened (he recalls that the young singer’s mom had told him to get her son home safe or she’d cut his cajones off and he believed her!). His left ring finger got blown off in the altercation, which is doubtless painful but also got him to put down his guitar and take a go at the piano, which turned out to be his real forte.
The young Dr John had an adventurous life which practically begs for a movie to be made. Among his follies was running a bordello in The Big Easy and liking a lot of illicit substances at the time. That earned him a couple of years in federal prison, and when he got out, he briefly relocated to the west coast, where he quickly became an in-demand session player, often working with the famous Wrecking Crew on records from the likes of Sonny & Cher, and even Frank Zappa. By 1968,he began recording his own stuff, an eclectic mix of “boogie woogie, blues and rock” and headed back home to the mouth of the Mississippi.
From there, he ended up recording at least 32 studio albums, including a tribute to Louis Armstrong and a Curious George movie soundtrack. Not a lot of artists would be able to claim that, nor that they won six Grammys, including ones in jazz, blues, rock and pop categories. All the while he put on quite a show live, utilizing elements of all things Louisiana including Mardi Gras and voodoo. His reputation was huge enough to get the Muppets to style their “Dr Teeth” character after him. Along the way he did little things like take part in the Foo Fighters’ Sonic Highways album and documentary, played the anthem at the Super Bowl with Aretha Franklin and Aaron Neville singing and showed up in the crime drama NCIS- New Orleans.
For all that, or maybe because of that, mainstream success was elusive. Few of his albums sold large quantities and for most listeners, there’s only one Dr. John song – “Right Place, Wrong Time.” The gruffly-voiced funky song with jazz horns made the top 10 in the U.S. and Canada in ’73 and helped the album it came off, In the Right Place, be his biggest.
As Kristina Benson wrote, in a 2011 interview with him, he produced “super-charged jazz and funk” and there was no “living person who embodies the spirit of New Orleans” better. John Legend echoed that while inducting him into the Rock & roll Hall of Fame, saying “no other place has shaped our music and captured our imagination like the Crescent City” and that the city’s “leading international ambassador” was the cook of “musical gumbo” known as Dr. John.
Rebennack passed away from a heart attack a year ago, survived by his second wife and “lots of kids!”.