If you didn’t know anything about Dr. John, you’d immediately think a couple things upon a quick Google search such as his music is akin to a Cajun cross of Randy Newman and Jim Croce and his appearance and sense of style is somewhere between a Vegas fortuneteller and a pimp practicing Voodoo.
There’s no denying his prowess and contributions to the music industry, however. John Legend inducted the doctor into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2011 alongside Tom Waits, Darlene Love, Alice Cooper, and Neil Diamond, he won 6 Grammys (and was nominated 15 times), and he had a music career that lasted around 51 years or 64-plus years (depending on whether you include his time before adopting the Dr. John persona or not). For the record, these are just the surface-level accolades.
Dr. John’s music journey began as most often do: by getting expelled from a Catholic college prep-school for refusing to stop playing music in night clubs, which allowed him to focus on music full-time. To be fair, it wasn’t like he wasn’t prepared. His father introduced him at an early age to the influence of King Oliver and Louis Armstrong (who inspired his album “Ske-Dat-De-Dat: The Spirit of Satch”). Also due to his father, Dr. John was able to gain access to the recording studios Little Richard and Guitar Slim. Along the way, he met Professor Longhair, whom John admired for his sense of style both in dress and musically. Thus, it escalated for Dr. John to start performing with Professor Longhair at the age of 13 – back when the doc was still Mac Rebennack.
Following this, Rebennack a successful career onstage and in the studio as a writer, guitarist, and overall artist. He co-wrote two regional hits – one with Jerry Byrne and another with Bo Diddley. A year or so after those hits, Mac’s left ring finger was shot off in a gun violence incident before a gig in Florida while trying to defend a bandmate. This is, perhaps, the true first in a series of dominoes that clearly led to “Dr. John” as he briefly transitioned to bass before settling on piano as his primary instrument with a style directly influenced by Professor Longhair.
Rebennack got involved in usage and distribution of drugs while also running a brothel in the early 60’s. He was soon caught and sentenced to a federal prison until 1965. Once out, he left for Los Angeles where he became a session musician – one of the infamous “Wrecking Crew” – where he played on albums for the likes of Sonny & Cher, Canned Heat, and Frank Zappa. Around this time, he developed the “Dr. John” concept, which was based on a real Senegalese prince/witch doctor, for a fellow musician who ended up backing out of the idea. Rather than let it go to waste, Rebennack was no more, and he assumed the identity of “Dr. John” with the release of the debut album “Gris-Gris” in 1968.
Early Dr. John infused his R&B influences, including Jelly Roll Morton, Fats Domino and Dave Bartholomew, with psychedelic rock, voodoo rhythms and chants, and a stage performance that heavily leaned into religious voodoo ceremonial traditions. This fantastical roux of sounds and influences earned Dr. John a following all his own, which included Mick Jagger and Eric Clapton – both whom guest-featured on the 1971 album “The Sun, Moon & Herbs”. That album would transition to his more well-known R&B and funk sound that he adopted on the pursuant album recorded with the help of producers Jerry Wexler and Allen Toussaint.
On and on, Dr. John’s career and life seemed to continue ever upwards and influentially as the years passed – all while maintaining an array of funk, blues, R&B, and that distinctive New Orleans sound. His most recognizable hit to this day, “Right Place, Wrong Time”, peaked at number 9 on the Billboard Hot 100 chart, and received lyrical contributions from Bob Dylan, Bette Midler, and Doug Sahm to name a few. His album, “Desitively Bonnaroo”, in 1974 would be the album that Tennessee’s massive music festival “Bonnaroo” would take its name from. The list is, frankly, too long to include his entire career, so here are some highlights from the years that followed:
· He provided backing vocals for the Rolling Stones on “Let It Loose”, Carly Simon and James Taylor’s duet of “Mockingbird”, and Neil Diamond’s album, “Beautiful Noise”.
· He co-produced and played on Van Morrison’s album, “A Period of Transition”.
· He performed on SNL in 1977.
· He provided vocals for the Popeye’s jingle.
· He recorded a version of “Do You Know What It Means to Miss New Orleans?” with Harry Connick Jr. that was released on Connick's album, “20”.
· From the late 70’s through ’91, he wrote 115 songs with Doc Pomus, some of which, were recorded by legends like B.B. King.
· He contributed to film with Martin Scorsese’s, “The Last Waltz”, the musical of “Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band”, Blues Brothers 2000, Foo Fighters’ “Sonic Highways”, the Princess and the Frog, and 101 Dalmations to name a few.
· In 1989, the same year he got sober – and remained so through the rest of his life – Dr. John toured with Ringo Starr.
· He wrote an autobiography in 1994 called “Under a Hoodoo Moon”.
· After Hurricane Katrina, he performed the National Anthem at Superbowl XL alongside Aretha Franklin and others.
The list goes on and on: playing live at Abbey Road Studios, playing live on Late Night with Jimmy Fallon and The Late Show with Stephen Colbert, performing at New Orleans relief benefits, performing for NBA All-Star games, and being introduced by Brian Williams at a New Orleans concert held in the doc’s honor only to follow up by playing “Right Place, Wrong Time” with Bruce Springsteen.
The Thing about Dr. John’s sound was there were so many sounds in his so-called “gumbo”: New Orleans blues, swamp blues, boogie-woogie, R&B, New Orleans R&B, jazz, soul, funk, psychedelic funk, blues rock, rock, swamp rock, and even country. It’s no surprise that his music touched so many people in so many walks of life.
After his death in 2019, his family went on record and beautifully stated the following: “He created a unique blend of music which carried his home town, New Orleans, at its heart, as it was always in his heart.” Oh, and while Dr. John may have started as a stage name, in 2013, he received an honorary Doctorate of Fine Arts from Tulane University; not bad for someone who didn’t finish high school. Long-live Dr. John, Ph.D.
Written by Will Nolan