Sunday 16 June 2019

Obituary: Dr John

Flamboyant New Orleans musician and guardian of the city's cultural traditions

The Night Tripper: Dr John
The Night Tripper: Dr John Newsdesk Newsdesk

Malcolm 'Mac' Rebennack, better known as Dr John, who has died aged 77, was a New Orleans musician, singer and songwriter recognised as one of the greatest exponents of the city's polyglot musical traditions of jazz, funk and "second line", and went on to be recognised as the foremost guardian of the city's unique musical rhythms and cultural traditions.

Having cut his musical teeth as a teenager in the fertile music scene of New Orleans, working as a session musician, arranger and songwriter, Rebennack rose to prominence in the late 1960s in the exotic guise of Dr John, the Night Tripper.

Taking to the stage in a battered top hat or sequinned turban, dressed in fur coats draped with voodoo charms, magical relics and Mardi Gras Indian feathers, Dr John performed a steamy gumbo of traditional New Orleans funk and rhythm and blues. But behind the flamboyant showmanship was a musician of rare originality and talent.

Described by the record producer Jerry Wexler as "the blackest white man I know", Rebennack was a master of the New Orleans "stride" piano style - a rolling, syncopated variation of boogie-woogie exemplified by such pianists as Professor Longhair, James Booker and Allen Toussaint.

Malcolm John Rebennack was born in New Orleans on November 20, 1941. His maternal grandfather sang and danced in minstrel shows across the southern states of America, and sometimes worked as a circus strongman until an accident lifting a safe confined him to a wheelchair.

Rebennack's father ran an electrical appliance store until he went bankrupt and turned his hand to repairing sound equipment in the clubs around the city's French Quarter. The young Rebennack would accompany him, supplementing his early musical education by listening to the family's 78s of Champion Jack Dupree and Big Joe Turner.

He learned guitar and piano, and by the age of 14 was playing with local bands in bars and juke joints, sharing the stage with strippers and magicians. It was an apprenticeship that would lead to regular work as a session guitarist and arranger, notably at Cosimo Matassa's studios, for a host of local artists including Frankie Ford, Irma Thomas and Shirley and Lee. He released his first single under his own name, Storm Warning, in 1959.

The hours were long, and the rewards erratic. Working for the producer Johnny Vincent, who founded Ace Records, on recordings by such artists as Huey 'Piano' Smith and Jimmy Clanton, Rebennack would frequently be obliged to pull a gun to secure payment.

Rebennack himself almost lost a finger from a gunshot wound, attempting to intervene in a dispute between a musician friend and his girlfriend's husband, an incident that would oblige him to put aside the guitar and concentrate on the piano.

His difficulties were compounded by his enthusiasm for heroin, or "tragic magic" as he called it, an addiction that began as a teenager and which would plague him over the next 40 years. To support his habit, he dabbled in pimping and petty crime and worked briefly as assistant to a back-street abortionist.

It was a drugs bust that would eventually lead to him serving time in Fort Worth penitentiary in Texas. In 1965, following his release from jail, and heeding the advice "not to come through New Orleans, to New Orleans or near New Orleans", Rebennack moved to his sister's home in Los Angeles. He worked as a session musician, playing on records by the likes of the Monkees and Sonny and Cher.

In 1968, assembling a group of exiled New Orleans musicians, and using studio time left over from a Sonny and Cher session, he recorded his first album, Gris-Gris, as Dr John, the Night Tripper.

Gris-Gris was a startlingly original collection of chants and voodoo incantations - "dragon's blood and black cat heart" - in swampy, psychedelic musical settings. It was a formula that was repeated with diminishing artistic returns over three more albums.

In 1972, dropping the "Night Tripper" appellation, and under the direction of Jerry Wexler, he recorded Dr John's Gumbo, a tribute to the New Orleans rhythm and blues that had shaped his musical upbringing, including salutes to Professor Longhair, Huey 'Piano' Smith and Earl King. The cover depicted Rebennack in the hat and tails uniform of a New Orleans funeral marshal.

The following year, he recorded In the Right Place, with the New Orleans group the Meters, produced by Allen Toussaint. With its whip-crack rhythms and songs steeped in Rebennack's hipster circumlocutions and jive talk - "Your sharkskin ain't no better than my Levis, Jim… Your social life ain't no better than my hot-dog stand/Your educamashun ain't no hipper than what I understan'…" - the album gave him the biggest hit of his career. It reached number 9 in the American charts.

Established as New Orleans' pre-eminent musical ambassador, Rebennack collaborated with artists such as Van Morrison, Harry Connick and Rickie Lee Jones, and in 1979 co-produced and played on Professor Longhair's last recording, Crawfish Fiesta.

He opened his own Dr John Temple of Voodoo in New Orleans, selling medicinal preparations and religious paraphernalia and participating in rituals to remedy money difficulties and sexual complaints, presided over by one or other "Reverend Mothers" of the faith.

But no amount of spells were sufficient to keep his own troubles at bay, his career undermined by a combination of "tragic magic" and dubious management. "All around me the money flowed like wine, but the table must have been tilted the wrong way, because none of it flowed to me," he recalled.

For a period in the early 1980s, he was reduced to playing small clubs for "chump change", as he put it, while recording two exquisite solo piano albums for a small Baltimore label, Clean Cuts.

His fortunes revived in 1989 with In a Sentimental Mood, a collection of standards including Makin' Whoopee and Love For Sale. He would later record albums celebrating the work of Duke Ellington, the songwriter Johnny Mercer and Louis Armstrong. Taken up by a younger generation of musicians and fans, he enjoyed greater critical acclaim than at any time in his career.

He also finally conquered his drug addiction, expressing relief that "I don't have to worry about going to the methadone programme tomorrow morning, or the police picking me up tonight. Life is simple. Nice." He took up fishing.

The winner of six Grammy Awards, in 2011 Rebennack was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. He was married firstly, at the age of 17, to Lydia, "the love of my life".

Following Lydia's death, he married for the second time, to Lorraine Sherman. They divorced, and he married, thirdly, Cat Yellen, with whom he collaborated on writing songs. Once asked how many children he had fathered, he replied "enough".

Mac Rebennack, 'Dr John', born November 20, 1941, died June 6, 2019.

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