Personalities | Dr. John | Seventies | Jazz & Blues

Malcolm John ‘Mac’ Rebennack Jr., a.k.a. ‘Dr. John the Night Tripper’, was born in New Orleans in November 1940. The singer and pianist began his professional career while he was still a teenager.

He backed local favourites including Joe Tex and Professor Longhair on guitar and keyboards, produced and arranged sessions at Cosmio Studio, also frequented by Allen Toussaint, and issued a few singles of his own as Mac Rebennack. A hand injury caused him to abandon the guitar in the mid-1960s, and soon he migrated to Los Angeles for studio work.

Voodoo Blues

The Dr. John persona emerged in the late 1960s, as Rebennack began to formulate his ‘voodoo music’, a unique fusion of blues, jazz, R&B and rock elements. His rough, drawling voice, combined with horn licks, deep blues, Mardi Gras funk and electric psychedelia, gave Dr. John an instantly recognizable sound. In live performances he draped himself and the stage with coloured beads, feathers, furs and exotic props, conducting a religious/musical ritual of sorts.

His stage theatrics were an amazing blend of authentic voodoo tradition and modern New Orleans hokum, perfectly complementing his otherworldly music; this was exemplified by ‘I Walk On Gilded Splinters’ and the title track of his debut album Gris Gris (1968), which Dr. John had recorded during studio time left over from a Sonny and Cher session on which he had worked. This album and its follow-up, Babylon (1969), were especially heavy on voodoo symbolism and social commentary, often with the sounds layered so densely that the lyrics were hard to discern. In tuneful, often swinging, sometimes sultry pieces, he drew from the standard New Orleans repertoire of jazz, Cajun, Creole and R&B tunes. He quickly integrated the electric piano and keyboards into his signature sound and challenged his generation of guitarists with the mock-heroic ‘Lonesome Guitar Strangler’. His approach to music was so unusual and fresh that he built a small but loyal cult following. In the meantime, he also worked in support of artists such as Canned Heat, Jackie DeShannon, B.B. King, Buddy Guy, Albert Collins and John Sebastian.

In The Right Place

In 1972, on Dr. John’s Gumbo, he garnered more attention by interpreting New Orleans standards, including ‘Iko Iko’ and ‘Junko Partner’, which had wider public appeal than his prior psychedelic fusions. The following year he broke out on to the mass market with an unlikely hit; on ‘Right Place, Wrong Time’, Dr. John was backed by the Meters, New Orleans’ premier funk and soul band. The public ate up the infectious rhythms and his rasping voice, placing the tune high on the charts. It was the most substantial hit of his career and did well enough to seal his legacy.

He attempted to duplicate the winning formula without success on his next few recordings, and even tried a venture into disco. He made an appearance on The Band’s Last Waltz show in 1977, playing ‘Such A Night’, but a...

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Source: The Definitive Illustrated Encyclopedia of Jazz & Blues, founding editor Howard Mandel


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