Malcolm John Rebennack, Jr. was playing piano at the age of three and picked up the guitar in his teens. He started his first band in high school and dropped out to pursue a career in music.
At the age of seventeen, he was already in the musicians’ union and cranking out songs with Seth David. Harold Battiste cherry-picked a few of these for recording on Specialty Records. During his late teens and early twenties, several dozen of Mac’s songs were covered by New Orleans artists.
In 1961, Rebennack injured the index finger of his left hand trying to protect his friend from a gunshot. Doctors could only do so much for him, and he was unable to play the guitar again, at least up to the artistic standards to which he had become accustomed. Undaunted, he returned to his first love, the piano, and was taught by James Booker to play the organ.
That same year saw a mass exodus of musicians from New Orleans to Los Angeles, due in part to a smack-down on clubs suspected of being involved in gambling and prostitution. Mac was one of the scads of musicians who left. It was time to re-establish some old connections. Battiste hired him to play keyboards for Sonny and Cher and also to do session work for the likes of Leon Russell and Phil Spector. These were the late sixties, and Mac needed;or felt like he needed;a gimmick. Combining New Orleans roots rock with voodoo incantations, Malcolm morphed into Dr. John, The Night Tripper. The name was taken from a 19th century witch doctor Rebennack had read about in an old, dusty book.
Mac became fascinated by voodoo mythology, and like something out of a comic book, he transformed his stage persona into the self-proclaimed Bambarra prince’s namesake. The result was Gris-Gris, a panoply of old New Orleans mysticism and trendy psychedelia, and it soon gained a cult following. Two follow-ups fizzled, pigeon-holing Dr. John as a one-album wonder at best, a novelty act at worst. Everybody except for the drummer jumped ship.
A couple of rock icons climbed aboard, however, in the guises of Eric Clapton and Mick Jagger, and a handful of studio aces helped Dr. John lay down tracks for The Sun, the Moon and Herbs. In spite of its star-studded cameos, the album sold poorly. Apparently, people could only take so much voodoo. His next effort was more mainstream, although it still drew on New Orleans influences. Allen Toussaint called in The Meters to back Dr. John on his next LP, In the Right Place, and the subsequent single, “Right Place, Wrong Time”, which cracked the top ten. Its follow-up albums, Desitively Bonaroo and Hollywood Be Thy Name, went nowhere, and Dr. John took a hiatus from recording his own albums, contenting himself with session work instead.
He appeared on Aretha Franklin’s recording of “Spanish Harlem” and Carly Simon and James Taylor’s re-working of “Mockingbird”, then tried his hand at producing A Period of Transition for Van Morrison. He also made a cameo appearance in Martin Scorcese’s tribute to The Band entitled The Last Waltz, and the ill-fated Beatles tribute Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. Dr. John was even immortalized by Jim Henson in Muppet form as Dr. Teeth.
In 1978, he released City Lights on Horizon Records. Success in the ’80s came in the strange form of TV ads for Popeye’s and Wendy’s. He also wrote the music for the Nick Nolte/Debra Winger film Cannery Row, and released a pair of albums, The Brightest Smile in Town and Dr. John Plays Mac Rebennack, which emphasized his pianistic virtuosity. It was, to coin a phrase, a period of transition for him, in which he explored blues and jazz on albums such as Bluesiana Triangle and In a Sentimental Mood, on which he covered the likes of Duke Ellington and Cole Porter.
In the late ’80s and early ’90s he struggled to overcome a longtime heroin addiction. His spiritual rebirth caused him to harken back to music of his hometown, New Orleans. Simply titled Goin’ Back to New Orleans, his next album comprised works of the Mardi Gras Indians, Jelly Roll Morton, and the aforementioned Allen Toussaint and the Meters.
The 1990s were an incredibly prolific period for him which included the release of six albums: Afterglow, Anutha Zone, Crawfish Soiree, Duke Elegant, Television, and Trippin’ Live. He ended the decade by appearing as one of the Louisiana Gator Boys in Blues Brothers 2000.
As you might imagine, Hurricane Katrina hit Dr. John close to home, in all senses of the word, and he assisted in the healing by appearing on the Shelter from the Storm: A Concert for the Gulf Coast telethon. He also recorded the EP Sippiana Hericane, the proceeds from which went to the Jazz Foundation of America, the New Orleans Musicians Clinic, and The Salvation Army.
2006 was a busy year for Dr. John. He performed the national anthem at the Super Bowl, along with Aretha Franklin, Aaron Neville , and scores of choristers. Three days later, he performed at the Grammys with The Edge, Bonnie Raitt, Irma Thomas, and old friend Allen Toussaint . Three months later, he appeared on Live from Abbey Road in concert with Massive Attack and Leann Rimes. In July 2006, he played a benefit at the Black Orchid Theatre in Chicago in honour of arranger and composer Wardell Quezergue, in conjunction with the New Orleans Musicians Relief Fund.
Dr. John regularly appeared on Later with Jools Holland, a British television programme hosted by the former Squeeze keyboardist.
He died of a heart attack in June 2019 when he was 77 years old.
Here he is performing “Right Place, Wrong Time”…