New Orleans Music Legend Dr. John Dies At 77

Jun 7, 2019
Originally published on June 7, 2019 7:14 am
Copyright 2019 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

America has lost one of its most original masters of song. Malcolm John Rebennack, better known as Dr. John, died yesterday of a heart attack at the age of 77. He was a giant of the New Orleans rhythm and blues era of the '50s and '60s, and he created a persona that endeared him to rock 'n' roll fans around the world. Dr. John won six Grammys. He was inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame back in 2011.

NPR's own John Burnett was one of his big fans, and he brings us this remembrance.

(SOUNDBITE OF DR. JOHN SONG, "RIGHT PLACE WRONG TIME")

JOHN BURNETT, BYLINE: Mac Rebennack was in the right place at the right time. He grew up hearing Mardi Gras Indians chanting in the back streets of New Orleans. He listened to blues records sold in his father's appliance store. He learned his craft from the progenitors of New Orleans rhythm and blues - Professor Longhair, Dave Bartholomew and Huey "Piano" Smith. And it all found an outlet in Rebennack's bountiful musical mind.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "RIGHT PLACE WRONG TIME")

DR. JOHN: (Singing) I been in the right place, but it must have been the wrong time. I'd have said the right thing, but I must have used the wrong line.

BURNETT: Mac Rebennack was also one of the great raconteurs of American music. Here he is from a 2000 NPR interview remembering the characters on the streets of New Orleans.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)

DR. JOHN: Guys like Marblehead (ph), Pinhead (ph), Mad Duck the Geek (ph) - there was just a lot of characters. And the one I used to love - they called him Good Lord the Lifter - pickpocket. You've got to love guys that that was their names, you know?

BURNETT: Rebennack was a character, too, walking on the dark side as a heroin addict, a drug dealer and a pimp. He spent two years in federal prison on a narcotics conviction. When he got out in 1965, he joined his New Orleans compatriots who'd migrated to Los Angeles. There, in 1967, he created the stage persona of Dr. John the Night Tripper.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "I WALK ON GUILDED SPLINTERS")

DR. JOHN: (Singing) Put gris-gris on your doorstep - soon you'll be in the gutter. Melt your heart like butter, and I can make you stutter. Kon (ph), kiddy, kon kon. Walk on gilded splinters.

BURNETT: He walked on stage dressed like a swamp shaman, combining Mardi Gras Indian costumery with psychedelic rock. As he told WHYY's Fresh Air in 1987...

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)

DR. JOHN: The Dr. John thing was to take all of the tricknology (ph) that I knew of show business from over the years, like throwing glitter to make the effect of magic, snake dancers and all the regular voodoo shows of New Orleans.

BURNETT: That word, tricknology - it belongs in Dr. John's extensive personal glossary. His eccentric speech was as original as his music. Rebennack never intended to be a singer or a piano player. He started out as a guitarist until he took a bullet in the ring finger of his left hand when he tried to break up a fight. But he went on to embody the rhythmic brilliance of the city's storied piano professors.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)

DR. JOHN: A lot of music - the baseline would be playing, like, half-time, like (playing piano). And the right hand would double the time then (playing piano).

BURNETT: Rebennack demonstrated the Latin, Caribbean and boogie-woogie influences that converged in the city of New Orleans for NPR in 1988.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)

DR. JOHN: (Playing piano) And then the two time signatures makes it what we call funky or danceable music.

BURNETT: Throughout his long musical life, Dr. John remained a believer in the folk wisdom and healing powers of gris-gris, the New Orleans version of voodoo. He summed up his personal theology this way. There's the spirit world and the meat world, and you've got to stay in constant understanding of the two.

John Burnett, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SUCH A NIGHT")

DR. JOHN: (Singing) Such a night. It's such a night, sweet confusion under the moonlight. Such a night... Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.