He had the look of a pimp. And the soul of a funky, voodoo high priest.
Legendary New Orleans-based musician Dr. John, also known as “The Night Tripper,” died at the age of 77, his family announced in a tweet. He died of a heart attack early on Thursday morning.
“Towards the break of day June 6, iconic music legend Malcolm John Rebennack, Jr., known as Dr. John, passed away of a heart attack. The family thanks all whom shared his unique musical journey & requests privacy at this time. Memorial arrangements will be announced in due course.
— Dr. John (@akadrjohn) June 6, 2019
Born Malcolm John Rebennack, Jr. on Nov. 20, 1941 in New Orleans, the musician became known for blending elements of jazz, R&B, funk and blues to create a sound that was soulful and bawdy as his birthplace of New Orleans.
“Mac” Rebennack started out in New Orleans as a teenage guitar slinger in the 1950s, hanging around historic Black nightclub, the Dew Drop Inn. He also hustled, often doing session work at engineer Cosimo Matassa’s J&M Recording Studios.
The musician would gig with local bands including Mac Rebennack and the Skyliners, (Paul Staele/Dennis “Bootsie” Cuquet, drums; Earl Stanley, bass; Charlie Miller, trumpet; Charlie Maduell, sax; Roland “Stone” LeBlanc, vocals), Frankie Ford and the Thunderbirds, and Jerry Byrne and the Loafers. He had a regional hit with a Bo Diddley-influenced instrumental called Storm Warning on Rex Records in 1959.
At A&R, he and Charlie Miller recorded monophonic singles on 45s for Johnny Vincent and Joe Corona for local labels Ace, Ron, and Ric. He oversaw the rhythm section while Miller wrote the horn arrangements and headed up the horns. This continued until Miller moved to New York and to study music formally.
His career as a guitarist was suddenly stunted the early 1960s, when his left ring finger was reportedly injured by a gunshot during an incident at a Jackson, Mississippi gig. After the injury, Rebennack concentrated on bass guitar before making piano his main instrument.
Rebennack became involved in illegal activities in New Orleans, using and selling narcotics and running a brothel. He was arrested on drug charges and sentenced to two years in a federal prison at Fort Worth, Texas. His sentence ended in 1965 and he left for Los Angeles.
The soon-to-be Dr. John would gain a following in 1968 after the release of his album Gris-Gris and an appearance at the Bath Festival of Blues and Progressive Music. He performed a lively, theatrical stage show inspired by medicine shows, Mardi Gras costumes and voodoo ceremonies.
He recorded more than 20 albums and in 1973 produced a top-10 hit, Right Place, Wrong Time. The song landed at no. 9 on the Billboard Hot 100 that year.
The Dr. John persona originated from Rebennack’s interest in New Orleans voodoo. Dr. John was a Senegalese prince, a medicinal and spiritual leader who came to New Orleans. According to Rebennack, the character was a free man of color who lived on Bayou Road and claimed to have 15 wives and over 50 children. He kept an assortment of snakes and lizards, along with embalmed scorpions and animal and human skulls, and sold gris-gris, voodoo amulets that protected the wearer from harm.
When he moved to Los Angeles, Rebennack actually developed the concept of Dr. John for his good friend and former Ronnie & The Deliquents bandmate, Ronnie Barron. Apparently, Barron had a record contract that stopped him from taking on the role, so Rebennack took on the mantle.
Dr. John appeared in The Last Waltz as well, Martin Scorsese’s documentary that chronicled the Band’s final show in San Francisco in 1976.
Over the years, he collaborated with a wide array of artists that cut across styles and genres, including the Rolling Stones, Lou Reed, Neil Diamond, Van Morrison, Christina Aguilera, B.B. King, Ringo Starr, The Black Keys among many others.
In his long career, Dr. John won six Grammy Awards, most recently for Best Blues Album in 2013 for Locked Down. He was also inducted into the Rock N Roll Hall of Fame by John Legend in 2011.