Malcolm John Rebennack Jr., who died Thursday at age 77, was a onetime Catholic schoolboy who remade himself into a bona fide high priest of funk — and a lifelong ambassador of gritty, glittery New Orleans groove.
Inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2011, Dr. John — the name and characterization he adopted in 1968 with the release of the landmark Gris Gris album, based in part on stories of a 19th-century voodoo priest — earned 15 Grammy nominations and six wins during a career that spanned more than 50 years. He beat drug addiction, did a long-ago stint in jail, knew witches and invented his own particular sideways way of speaking English. (The title of his 1974 album Desitively Bonnaroo was half old Creole slang and half his singular patois, and gave the name to one of America’s most successful music festivals — whose founders, having come of age in New Orleans worshiping Dr. John, are likely astonished to be mentioned in most remembrances of the music icon.) In 2013 he accepted an honorary Ph.D. from Tulane University, making him a double doctor.
Mac, as his friends and most of New Orleans called him, worked with a murderer’s row of cool cats over his lifetime — none, admittedly, as cool as he — including Mick Jagger, Willy DeVille, Buddy Guy, Ringo Starr, Frank Zappa, Gregg Allman, Rickie Lee Jones and the Black Keys’ Dan Auerbach. And he left behind an awe-inducing catalog of music, from his early sessions at Cosimo Matassa’s J&M Studio — ground zero for rock & roll — to his career-defining glorious merger of swamp grooves and psychedelia in his storied Night Tripper persona to his many skillful and heartfelt tributes to the luminaries of the Great American Songbook. It’s hard to pick just a few from the many, but here’s a few to start.
“Storm Warning” (1959)
In 1959 the magazine insert that the daily New Orleans Times-Picayune devoted to entertainment and other light fare ran a feature on 17-year-old Malcolm J. “Mac” Rebennack, Jr., “A Boy With 4000 Songs.” (New Orleans archive-digger James Karst tweeted a screencap on June 6th.) Indeed, the teen — still a student at Jesuit High School and in fact, a recent winner of its talent contest — was already selling his compositions to local recording artists, and playing guitar on sessions at engineer Cosimo Matassa’s J&M Studios, where Little Richard had recently cut “Tutti Frutti.” “Storm Warning,” released on Matassa’s own Rex Records label, was an ominous guitar rumble with a zany, careening saxophone part and a chugging, propulsive rhythm. It was also Mac’s official debut as an artist, and it made an announcement: To paraphrase another Southern luminary, there was a boy child coming. He was gonna be a son of a gun.
“Bad Neighborhood” (1962)
This rollicking rhythm & blues novelty, complete with clacking pool-ball sound effects, was a collaboration with Mac Rebennack’s high-school classmate Ronnie Barron, recorded under the name Ronnie and the Delinquents. (Together, they also waxed a delightful paean to a local television B-horror-movie program host, “Morgus the Magnificent,” credited to Morgus and the Three Ghouls.) It was during a fight after a gig with Barron that Mac’s finger famously took a bullet, prompting both his decision to switch from guitar to piano and — a stint in a Texas prison on drug charges helped make the decision too — a move to Los Angeles, where New Orleans musicians like drummer Earl Palmer and composer-arranger Harold Battiste were doing nicely. Battiste, the musical director for Sonny and Cher, came up with the voodoo-priest-inspired Dr. John character along with Mac: They wanted Barron to do it, but he was bound a record contract that said he couldn’t. Thus, Mac Rebennack became the inimitable Dr. John, Dr. John Creaux to his recording credits. (And as for “Bad Neighborhood,” Bob Dylan included it, in an episode of his “Theme Time Radio Hour” program, on the deluxe edition of 2009’s Together Through Life.)
“I Walk on Guilded Splinters” (1968)
Writing for Rolling Stone in 1999, Tom Moon declared “I Walk on Guilded Splinters,” the closing track from Dr. John’s 1968 album Gris Gris “everything you want in voodoo music.” Fifty-one years ago, who knew they even wanted voodoo music? Ahmet Ertegun, luckily, who put out the newly -minted doctor’s debut LP on Atlantic’s Atco subsidiary (and several subsequent goofer-dusted albums of psychedelic rootwork, besides — even though, quoted by Mac in his 1994 autobiography Under A Hoodoo Moon, Ertegun hit the roof when he heard it, shouting, “How can we market this boogaloo crap?”) This was the New Orleans–in-exile team conjuring the myths of their city via tripped-out rock & roll: Harold Battiste producing, John Boudreaux on drums, Ernest McClean on guitar, Shirley of Shirley & Lee and Tami Lynn on vocals, using studio time Battiste’s employers Sonny & Cher turned out not to need. “I Walk on Guilded Splinters” was a unearthly spell whispered over unearthly congas and snaps, a potion of LSD and black cat bone and rum for the loa. “We were looking for an unusual, textured sound, and the cats nailed it,” Dr. John wrote.
“Mama Roux” (1968)
Also from Gris-Gris, the spooky, snaky “Mama Roux” was a co-composition with local New Orleans R&B star Jessie Hill, who’s probably best known for his 1961 hit “Ooh Poo Pah Doo,” for writing and performing with Professor Longhair (though sadly, not recording together) and for being an elder in the sprawling New Orleans musical family that includes Fats Domino guitarist Walter “Papoose” Nelson, jazz trumpeter Melvin Lastie and Troy “Trombone Shorty” Andrews, among others. Hill was out in L.A. making his severely underrated solo soul LP Naturally, and fell in with the gang of New Orleans expats laboring together to put Dr. John out into the world. With incantatory background vocals that seem composed to invoke a spirit, and showcasing Mac’s distinctive accent to great effect (listen to how he chews the word queen) “Mama Roux” is deeply, funkily New Orleans in ways beyond its muttered references to spy boys and second lines. The clattering Afro-Caribbean percussion shares ancestry with the music’s foundational rhythms — or more recent connections with the clang and bang on tunes like Dave Bartholomew’s “Shrimp and Gumbo” or the Dixie Cups’ version of “Iko Iko” (which Mac would soon, of course, put his own stamp on).
“The Patriotic Flag-Waver” (1969)
In the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina and Hurricane Rita in 2005 and again after the BP oil spill in the Gulf Coast in 2010 (or maybe he hadn’t really calmed down in between) Dr. John became fiercely politically outspoken, mourning the injury to his beloved city and state and condemning corporate and government neglect. He joined protest marches and made timely music, too — the 2005 EP Sippiana Hericane and the Grammy-winning 2008 album City That Care Forgot, the former an elegy and the latter a fight song. For an ongoing post-Katrina documentary project that collected portraits of locals with brief statements written on the their hands, he scrawled “Chew my drawers BP” on his. But those weren’t his first forays into political thought. On 1969’s Babylon, his second full-length album, he delivered the acerbic and funny “The Patriotic Flag-Waver,” which pulled no punches at all. A children’s choir weaves in and out, singing “My Country ‘Tis of Thee,” interrupted by lyrical invective and sarcasm in a warm country-soul groove. “Stick all the Communists in one neighborhood, terrorize their children, it’ll feel real good,” he sings unhurriedly. “Send the draft card burners back to Vietnam, if they protest over there, I won’t give a damn.” In Under a Hoodoo Moon, he wrote, the doomy climate of the latest part of the Sixties had moved him to comment. “(It was) the year of the Tet Offensive, and of the assassinations of Bobby Kennedy and Martin Luther King, Jr.,” he wrote. “… In its lyrics and music, this album reflects these chaotic days.”
“Mardi Gras Day” (1969)
Dr. John’s “Mardi Gras Day” or “All on a Mardi Gras Day” has had its title borrowed for both a documentary on black Carnival in New Orleans and an episode of the HBO show Treme. The sound of it — released a few years before the first actual Mardi Gras Indian funk LP from the Wild Magnolias tribe — not only mimics the general chaos of a Fat Tuesday, the brass and the shouts, but also the particular call-and-response tone of the chants sung for at least 100 years by the black men and women who sew elaborate feathered and beaded suits and parade in the city streets on particular holidays. “Mardi Gras Day” — like his take on “Iko Iko” a couple of years later, the Indian chant that became an R&B hit for many artists — is just one of Dr. John’s many deeply understood tributes to that culture. “This guy has the whole history of New Orleans music in his head,” HBO’s David Simon told the New York Times, an understatement, in 2010.
“Iko Iko” (1972)
Throughout his career, Dr. John would devote albums to honoring the great pop and jazz composers of the American century: Duke Ellington, Johnny Mercer, Louis Armstrong, all heartfelt and skilled. But some of his finest moments of veering away from the glitter-spangled psychedelic funk were his trips in the wayback machine to his old hometown: that New Orleans rhythm & blues he’d honed his chops on. (“Goin’ Back to New Orleans,” his similar 1992 project, won him a Best Traditional Blues Album Grammy.) The first time he did so was for his 1972 album Dr. John’s Gumbo, his fifth, recording a slew of Crescent City classics and reuniting many alumni of Cosimo Matassa’s studio. The stellar track list includes a gorgeous version of Professor Longhair’s iconic “Big Chief,” as well as Mac’s own take on the Mardi Gras Indian–inspired “Iko Iko.”
“The song was originally called ‘Jockamo,’ and it has a lot of Creole patois in it,” Dr. John wrote of “Iko Iko” in the album’s liner notes. “Jockamo means ‘jester’ in the old myth. It is Mardi Gras music, and the Shaweez was one of many Mardi Gras groups who dressed up in far out Indian costumes and came on as Indian tribes. The tribes used to hang out on Claiborne Avenue and used to get juiced up there getting ready to perform and ‘second line’ in their own special style during Mardi Gras. That’s dead and gone because there’s a freeway where those grounds used to be. The tribes were like social clubs who lived all year for Mardi Gras, getting their costumes together. Many of them were musicians, gamblers, hustlers and pimps.”
“Junko Partner” (1972)
The highlight of Gumbo might be “Junko Partner,” with its bawdy, cheery horn solo and introductory parade-band drums that slide into a lazy, swaggering strut. Later recorded by everyone from Dr. John’s fellow New Orleans piano great James Booker to the Clash, the song was something of an underworld standard in Rebennack’s hometown. “It was a New Orleans classic,” he wrote in the Gumbo liners, “the anthem of the dopers, the whores, the pimps, the cons. It was a song they sang in Angola, the state prison fams and the rhythm was even known as the ‘jailbird beat.’”
“Right Place Wrong Time” (1973)
Working with Allen Toussaint in 1973 meant that Dr. John got the producer’s young and rising house band, the Meters. This is when things got, as Mac would say, desitively funky, and the tight, creeping groove of “Right Place Wrong Time” landed him his first and only Top 10 hit. In a review for Rolling Stone in 1973, Jon Landau opined that the Meters were “the greatest R&B studio band since Booker T. and the MGs” and that furthermore, “genius drummer Joseph ‘Zigaboo’ Modeliste drives the song with more power than we have any right to expect.” It sizzles, and it provides the paradoxical line that resonates with so many: “My head is in a bad place,” diagnoses the doctor, “but I’m having such a good time.”
“Such a Night” (1973)
Also from the In the Right Place album, with the Meters supporting, “Such a Night” is still funky but sweet, a bit of a Toussaint signature — and also a look at Dr. John’s love for moon-and-June pop songwriting, with throwback lines like “sweet confusion under the moonlight.” He performed it, of course — in a large pink bowtie, huge sunglasses and sparkling dinner jacket, like some crazed lounge singer — as part of the Band’s epic 1976 Last Waltz concert. In 2017, he joined the 40th anniversary tour celebrating the show.
“Makin’ Whoopee” (with Rickie Lee Jones) (1989)
Dr. John won his first Grammy for this duet off his sweet and swanky collection of jazz and pop standards: the Night Tripper and the Duchess of Coolsville, growling and cooing in blissful contrapunto over a tinkling piano. They were well-matched, two hipster denizens of L.A.’s sordid streets who had found friendship and common creative ground there back in the Seventies. When Jones sojourned in New Orleans to write 1981’s Pirates, Mac told her who the key acts to see were (James Booker) and how to keep troublesome spirits out of her apartment with a little bit of the right gris-gris. Years later, the two made magic with this playful and tender partnering, in mutual appreciation for the American pop songbook. On the afternoon of Dr. John’s death, Jones tweeted: “Good bye Mac. I still remember the day we met. I was 23 years old. I saw you coming on La Brea Avenue, sauntering toward me in your full on Mojo protection clothes, with the snake head cane, beret and patchouli oil… we drove around that summer in your station wagon, over the canyon, back over the canyon. then, ten years later, you asked me to sing on your record, and we had a big hit together. You go now. I’ll holla at you later.”
In 2012, Dr. John accepted an invitation from the Black Keys’ Dan Auerbach to work together on a project that would be hailed as a sort of return to form of those voodoo-juiced Atco days. Locked Down, critically celebrated as just that, won the best blues album Grammy award in 2013, and hit number 15 on Rolling Stone’s list of that year’s top 50 albums. “Full of muscled, vintage R&B grooves, fevered soloing, psychedelic arrangements and oracular mumbo jumbo, it’s the wildest record Rebennack has made in many years,” Will Hermes wrote. Heavy with soul horns and groovy Farfisa swirls under fierce — as the title might imply — if vague lyrics about dissent and call to action, this is the good doctor honed razor-sharp.