Dr. John (1941-2019) was a celebrated New Orleans singer and piano player who mixed black and white musical influences.
Dr. John’s real name was Malcolm John Rebennack. He grew up listening to his father’s 78s by Blues artists and Jazz by Louis Armstrong and country music from Hank Williams and Roy Rogers.
When he was 14-years-old, he met piano player Professor Longhair who persuaded him to pursue a musical career, and he began performing at local clubs. His Jesuit high school told him that he had choose between school and music; he picked music. Proficient on piano and guitar, at 15-years-old he was already playing on recording sessions for other artists. At 16 he signed with Ace Records.
In 1960, he was involved in a fight while playing a show in Jackson, Mississippi, and was shot in his ring finger of his left hand. He eventually recovered the use of the finger, but it affected his guitar playing, causing him to concentrate on the piano. Working in the New Orleans clubs, he became part of in the criminal underworld of drugs and prostitution, and he became a heroin addiction, along with dealing drugs himself.
After two years in prison for drug possession, in 1965 he moved to Los Angeles and found himself in great demand as a studio session musician. He played on countless tracks for the producer Phil Spector for artists including The Ronettes and The Righteous Brothers. He worked with Aretha Franklin and Roberta Flack, recorded with Bob Dylan and played with Frank Zappa.
He made a solo piano album Dr. John Plays Mac Rebennack (1981), a virtuosic showcase of his keyboard skills, and then did it again with The Brightest Smile in Town (1983). In 1989, he finally kicked his heroin habit, he released my favorite of his albums In A Sentimental Mood, a perfectly produced collection of standards including Makin’ Whoopee, a duet with Rickie Lee Jones that earned them a Grammy Award. He won another Grammy for his album Goin’ Back To New Orleans (1992), a traditional blues album.
He published a memoir, Under A Hoodoo Moon: The Life Of The Night Tripper (1994), a lurid telling of his musical life in New Orleans that did not shy away from gritty details about drugs, violence, prostitution and the dark side of the music industry.
Nonetheless, he kept recording and won a third Grammy in 1996 for the track SRV Shuffle from the album A Tribute To Stevie Ray Vaughan, and a fourth in 2000 for his duet with BB King on Is You Is Or Is You Ain’t My Baby. Duke Elegant (2000) is a lush album of Duke Ellington pieces, while Mercernary (2006) is his tribute to another classic songwriter, Johnny Mercer.
After Hurricane Katrina in 2005, Dr. John released the fundraising album Sippiana Hericane, and then City That Care Forgot (2008), a tribute to his devastated hometown. It brought him a fifth Grammy, and in 2013 Locked Down brought him a sixth. New Orleans was celebrated again with Ske-Dat-De-Dat: Spirit Of Satch (2014), his homage to Louis Armstrong, his city’s founding father of Jazz.
Dr. John performed and recorded with Rolling Stones, Van Morrison, Ringo Starr and his All-Starr Band, Harry Connick Jr., Gregg Allman, and Lou Reed. Among memorable covers of his own songs were versions of I Walk On Guilded Splinters by Cher and Right Place Wrong Time by Tom Jones.
He was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2011. Rebennack had not been seen in public since late 2017 after canceling several performances. He left this world on Thursday, taken by a heart attack at 77-years-old. He is a favorite at my house and will be missed.
I think all musicians influence each other. I don’t think any musician plays anything that is new. Everything musical has been played.