Dr. John belongs to a prestigious lineage of New Orleans keyboard greats that includes such names as Professor Longhair, Huey “Piano” Smith and Fats Domino.
His name has become synonymous with the city in which he was born. Dr. John’s music is stamped with the rhythms and traditions of the Crescent City, and he has spent a career that now spans more than half a century championing its music.
His best-known work includes Gris-Gris, an album steeped in the otherworldly sounds of Louisianan voodoo culture; Gumbo, wherein he offered an authoritative overview of New Orleans’ finest music; and In the Right Place, which gave him the Top Ten hit “Right Place, Wrong Time.” His concerts are ritual invocations of New Orleans’ enduring musical spirit. More broadly, he’s helped bring the sound of New Orleans into the national mainstream.
Born Malcolm John “Mac” Rebennack, he learned piano and guitar as a child. As a child growing up in the 1940s, he was steeped in the music of the city. “It was a special time in New Orleans,” he told USA Today’s Edna Gunderson. “The radio stations played basically New Orleans music, and I thought that was what the whole world heard.” His father ran an appliance store that carried records, and he also repaired P.A. systems for clubs around town, so through him young Mac gained exposure to the world of music in New Orleans.
As a musician, he was schooled by local legends like Walter “Papoose” Nelson (Professor Longhair’s guitarist), guitarist Roy Montrell, keyboardist James Booker and Cosimo Matassa (whose J&M Studio was the hub of the city’s recording scene). Rebennack became one of the first white sessionmen on the local scene. A fixture in New Orleans’ clubs and studios, Rebennack found himself making music almost literally night and day. “We used to work twelve hours a day, seven days a week, on Bourbon Street,” he told interviewer Robert Santelli. “That was real easy to do because there were so many clubs.”
He participated in sessions for records released on such labels as Ric and Ron, Minit, Ace, Ebb, Specialty and AFO (“All For One,” started by a cooperative of New Orleans musicians).
In short, Mac Rebennack was a pure product of New Orleans. “The old-timers schooled me good,” Dr. John reflected. “They brainwashed me to respect music, whether we were playing rockabilly or blues or rock and roll.”
Rebennack began recording as far back in 1957 and released his first single under his own name, “Storm Warning,” in 1959. As much as he loved New Orleans, he moved to Los Angeles in 1962, joining an exodus of local musicians who left town after a new district attorney began cracking down on clubs and nightlife in an effort to curb vice. Working in L.A. with producer Harold Battiste, a fellow Crescent City expatriate, he created the character of Dr. John the Night Tripper, a voodoo sorcerer and healer. His first album, Gris-Gris, masterfully evoked the mystical spirit of back-alley voodoo in a musical setting of otherworldly “N’Awlins” swamp funk, and it meshed perfectly with the age of psychedelia in which it was released. Dr. John cut this startling release during unused session time for a Sonny and Cher album, as that duo had become involved in a movie project. Such cuts as “I Walk on Gilded Splinters” and evoked a late-night, back-streets netherworld of ritual and mystery. The album remains a unique achievement in the realm of popular music, a touchstone to a world that few even knew existed.
Gris-Gris was followed by three more albums in the same vein: Babylon, Remedies and The Sun, Moon & Herbs. The last of these was intended to be a three-record set, each reflecting a different time of day. Some sessions were conducted in England, with such musicians as Eric Clapton and Mick Jagger participating. However, because of technical and budgetary issues, it was pared down to a single album.
In the first half of the 1970s, Dr. John released a series of albums that mixed New Orleans classics with original material, all driven by his remarkable piano playing and superb bands. This change in direction from underground mystic to overground eminence began with Gumbo, Dr. John’s fifth album, released in 1972. The idea that he pay tribute to New Orleans’ musical legacy came from Jerry Wexler, the renowned producer and talent scout for Atlantic Records, who coproduced Gumbo with Harold Battiste. Dr. John was signed to Atco, an Atlantic subsidiary, and Wexler made the suggestion after hearing him warm up with such material in the studio. It brought broader exposure to both the artist and his former city’s musical heritage.
This paved the way for a pair of albums, In the Right Place (1973) and Desitively Bonnaroo (1974), that carried his career to the next level. Both were made in collaboration with Allen Toussaint and the Meters, longtime stalwarts of the New Orleans scene. “Right Place, Wrong Time,” from In the Right Place, became a Top Ten hit that spent nearly half a year on the chart. The album’s other hit single was “Such a Night,” which Dr. John performed at the Band’s The Last Waltz farewell concert.
In the late Seventies, he moved to New York and worked with producer Tommy LiPuma and lyricist Doc Pomus, resulting in the albums City Lights and Tango Palace. In the early Eighties he made his first solo piano recordings (Dr. John Plays Mac Rebennack and The Brightest Smile in Town). He ended the decade with In a Sentimental Mood, an album of standards that reunited him with LiPuma.
The Nineties witnessed an artistic rebirth and rekindled connection with his New Orleans roots. In 1992, as remarkable as it may seem, Dr. John actually recorded his first album in New Orleans. Entitled Goin’ Back to New Orleans, it was “like a little history of New Orleans music – from way back in the 1850s to the 1950s,” Dr. John explained. In 1998, he returned to the mystical aura of his Gris-Gris period on Anutha Zone, which included cameos from such younger British admirers as Paul Weller and members of Spiritualized and Supergrass. Creole Moon, released in 2001, assimilated the various aspects of New Orleans music into a tasty gumbo. In 2004, Dr. John again saluted the Big Easy’s musical heritage on N’Awlinz: Dis, Dat or D’Udda, which rounded up such New Orleans legends as Earl Palmer, Clarence "Gatemouth" Brown, Willie Tee, Snooks Eaglin, Eddie Bo, the Dirty Dozen Brass Band and a member of the Preservation Hall Jazz Band.
Beyond his vast discography as a recording artist, the list of sessions on which he’s played for others is lengthy and impressive enough to merit his induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame as a sideman, too. Dr. John’s bottomless sessionography includes releases by Maria Muldaur, Johnny Winter, Buddy Guy and Junior Wells, Van Morrison, the Band, Frank Zappa, Ringo Starr, Canned Heat, the Rolling Stones and countless others. He’s even done well for himself as a jingle writer, tinkling the ivories on funky-sounding commercials for Levi’s blues jeans and Popeye’s Chicken.
For more than three decades Dr. John has been a perennial performer at the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival. He has also become an unofficial spokesman and ambassador for the city and its musical history. Meanwhile he continues to make creative, challenging records in the New Orleans style.
In 2008 Dr. John and his band, the Lower 911, released City That Care Forgot. The most topical and hard-hitting album of his career, it addressed the toll taken on his beloved hometown by decades of neglect and its near destruction by Hurricane Katrina in 2005. City That Care Forgot won Dr. John a Grammy for Best Contemporary Blues Album – the fifth of his career. Meanwhile, he continues to keep the city’s musical heritage and history alive.
“The most important thing to remember is this: New Orleans music was not invented,” Dr. John noted in 1992. “It kind of grew up naturally...joyously...just for fun. That’s it. Just plain down-to-earth happy-times music. When I was growing up in the Third Ward, I used to think, ‘Oh, man, this music makes me feel the best!”
Dr. John (piano, guitar, vocals; born November 21, 1941)