Dr John obituary

Pianist, singer and songwriter steeped in the musical forms and voodoo culture of his native New Orleans

Wherever musicians gathered, Dr John, who has died aged 77, was revered as songwriter, singer, arranger and pianist. He became closely identified with the rich musical roots of his native New Orleans and as well as his mastery of the Crescent City’s various musical forms (which included blues, jazz, funk, boogie-woogie and rock’n’roll) he was steeped in its mysterious voodoo culture and folklore.

He began to develop a cult following with the release of his first major-label album, Gris-Gris (1968), a startling brew of voodoo funk and strange incantations, epitomised by the eerie eight-minute mantra I Walk on Guilded Splinters. Nobody had heard anything like it, including his label boss, Ahmet Ertegun. “Ahmet asked me: ‘What is this record you gave me … Why didn’t you give me a record that we could sell?’” Dr John recalled. He took the album on tour with a show resembling a bayou magic act, decking himself out in outlandish feathers, witch-doctor robes and headdresses. For a time the act also featured a man calling himself Prince Kiyama, who would bite the heads off live chickens onstage.

Two follow-up albums to Gris-Gris – Babylon (1969) and Remedies (1970) – began to make him influential friends, including Eric Clapton and Mick Jagger, who both appeared on The Sun, Moon & Herbs (1971), and in 1973 he released the biggest selling album of his career, In the Right Place. Produced by Allen Toussaint and with the Meters as backing band, it reached No 24 on the Billboard album chart and gave him a US Top 10 hit single with Right Place, Wrong Time. It also included Such a Night, which Dr John would perform at the Band’s 1976 farewell concert, filmed by Martin Scorsese as The Last Waltz. He failed to reach such sales heights again, but was widely acclaimed across the rest of his career, and won six Grammys for various albums and singles.

Dr John’s real name was Malcolm John Rebennack, the same as his father. Rebennack Sr ran an appliance shop in the East End of New Orleans, fixing radios and televisions and selling records. “Mac” grew up listening to his father’s hoard of 78s by blues artists such as Big Bill Broonzy and Memphis Minnie, jazz by Louis Armstrong, Miles Davis and King Oliver, and country music from Hank Williams and Roy Rogers. His mother, Dorothy (nee Cronin), who had been a fashion model and made her own clothes and hats, arranged for her baby son to feature in advertisements for Ivory soap in the 1940s.

His family was intensely musical, with numerous aunts, uncles and cousins who were amateur musicians. From a young age Mac attended local gigs and, with his father’s assistance, visited recording sessions at the fabled J&M Studio. It was a meeting with the piano player Professor Longhair when he was 14 that persuaded him to pursue a musical career, and he began performing at local clubs. When Jesuit high school told him he must choose between schooling and music, he picked the latter. Proficient on piano and guitar, at 15 he began playing on recording sessions and accompanied artists such as Art Neville, Toussaint and Joe Tex. By 16 he had started producing tracks and was hired as an artists and repertoire man by Johnny Vincent at Ace Records.

Dr John in 1970, the year of his third album, Remedies, which began to make him influential friends, including Eric Clapton and Mick Jagger.
Dr John in 1970, the year of his third album, Remedies, which began to make him influential friends, including Eric Clapton and Mick Jagger. Photograph: Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images

In 1960 he was involved in a fight when playing a show in Jackson, Mississippi, and had the ring finger of his left hand almost shot off. He eventually recovered the use of the finger, but it affected his guitar playing and caused him to concentrate on the piano. Working in the New Orleans clubs, he became embroiled in the criminal underworld of drugs and prostitution, and acquired a heroin addiction while dealing drugs himself.

After completing a two-year jail sentence in Fort Worth, Texas, for drug possession in 1965, he moved to Los Angeles and soon was 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, worked with Aretha Franklin and Roberta Flack, recorded with Bob Dylan and Doug Sahm and played with Frank Zappa, until Zappa sacked him for using drugs.

Gris-Gris was recorded on studio time borrowed from Sonny & Cher, with whom he had been working in Los Angeles and who had helped him secure a deal with Atco records. Produced by Harold Battiste, another New Orleans native transplanted to the West Coast, it marked the first appearance of Rebennack’s pseudonym Dr John Creaux, alias Dr John the Night Tripper.

After The Sun, Moon & Herbs he brought out the album Dr John’s Gumbo (1972), conceived as a tribute to New Orleans music, particularly the compositions of Professor Longhair. Following the positive reaction to In the Right Place in 1973, his next album, Desitively Bonnaroo (1974), was much less successful and it proved to be his last album with Atco. He moved to United Artists for the live album Hollywood Be Thy Name (1975), which was also received unenthusiastically.

From the mid-70s onwards Dr John began a long partnership with the songwriter Doc Pomus that led to songs for his albums City Lights and Tango Palace (both 1979). He then made the solo piano album Dr John Plays Mac Rebennack (1981), a virtuosic showcase of his keyboard skills, and repeated the feat with The Brightest Smile in Town (1983). In 1989, the year he signed to Warner Bros and finally put his heroin addiction behind him, he released In a Sentimental Mood, a sleekly-produced collection of standards including Makin’ Whoopee, a duet with Rickie Lee Jones that earned the pair a Grammy for best jazz vocal performance. He won another Grammy for his second Warners album Goin’ Back to New Orleans (1992), this time for best traditional blues album.

Dr John receives his trophy from John Legend at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame induction ceremony in New York, in 2011.
Dr John receives his trophy from John Legend at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame induction ceremony in New York, in 2011. Photograph: Evan Agostini/AP

In 1994 he published his autobiography, Under a Hoodoo Moon: The Life of The Night Tripper (co-written with Jack Rummel), a lurid memoir of his musical life in New Orleans that did not shy away from details about drugs, violence, prostitution and the dark side of the music industry. Nonetheless he was beginning to assume the aura of a respected senior citizen, winning 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) comprised John’s takes on favourite Duke Ellington pieces, while Mercernary (2006) was his tribute to another classic songwriter, Johnny Mercer.

The obliteration of New Orleans by Hurricane Katrina in 2005 spurred Dr John to release the fundraising EP Sippiana Hericane, and then City That Care Forgot (2008), an album-length tribute to his grievously wounded home town. It won him Grammy number five, in the best contemporary blues album category, and in 2013 Locked Down brought him a sixth for best blues album. New Orleans was on his mind once again when he made Ske-Dat-De-Dat: Spirit of Satch (2014), a homage to Armstrong, the city’s founding father of jazz.

Dr John performed or recorded with innumerable other artists, including the Rolling Stones, Van Morrison, Levon Helm, Ringo Starr and his All-Starr Band, Harry Connick Jr and Gregg Allman. He also appeared on the all-star charity version of Lou Reed’s Perfect Day in 1997. Among memorable covers of his own songs were versions of I Walk On Guilded Splinters by Cher and then Paul Weller, and Right Place Wrong Time by Tom Jones. He was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2011.

He is survived by his third wife, Cat Yellen; a daughter, Karla, from his first marriage, to Lydia Crow, which ended in divorce; two daughters, Tara and Jennifer, from his second marriage, to Lorraine Sherman, which ended in divorce; two children, Max and Tatiana, from other relationships; a granddaughter, Stephanie; and a sister, Barbara. Another daughter, Jessica, died in 2003, and a grandson, Allen, also predeceased him.

Dr John (Malcolm John Rebennack Jr), musician, born 20 November 1941; died 6 June 2019

• This article was amended on 7 June 2019 to update details of surviving family members.


Adam Sweeting

The GuardianTramp

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