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Dr. John, RIP

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  • Dr. John, RIP

    Oh man. This is not a good week for New Orleans icons.

    Malcolm John Rebennack Jr., better known as Dr. John, initially aspired to be a professional songwriter, producer, session musician and sideman, like the utilitarian New Orleanians who forged his creative worldview in the 1950s. He wanted to work behind the scenes, not out front.

    But after assuming the persona of Dr. John the Night Tripper in the late 1960s, Rebennack was behind the scenes no more. His idiosyncratic style and sound – the gravelly growl, the sly deceptively leisurely phrasing, the hipster patois, the hybrid Big Easy piano – embodied both New Orleans and its music.

    Rebennack, an icon of New Orleans music who remained an active creative force and a voice for his hometown up until he abruptly disappeared from public view 18 months ago, died Thursday of a heart attack, his daughter confirmed. He was 77.

    Sainthood is not required for rock immortality. The young Mac Rebennack was gangsta to a degree that would likely shock Lil Wayne.

    But over the course of a remarkable life and career, he evolved. From addiction to decades of sobriety. From sordid escapades as a dealer and pimp to Disney soundtracks and the model for sleepy-eyed, jive-talking Muppet musician Dr. Teeth. From hometown outcast to one of its most outspoken advocates.

    Hurricane Katrina reawakened his sense of social responsibility. He vented his outrage at official ineptitude and negligence from the stage and on the Grammy-winning CD "City That Care Forgot." After the Gulf of Mexico oil spill, he led protests and railed against BP.

    And he experienced a remarkable late-career resurgence thanks to a collaboration that took him out of his New Orleans comfort zone, and tapped into the Night Tripper aesthetic of old.

    Rebennack grew up in New Orleans’ Third Ward. By the time he was a student at Jesuit High School, he was already hanging around recording sessions as an aspiring guitarist and songwriter.

    He fell into a spiral of addiction and petty crime. A gunshot during a nightclub brawl damaged one of his fingers. As a result, his focus shifted from guitar to piano.

    He served time in a Texas prison on drug charges. After his release in the 1965, he joined a community of expatriate New Orleans musicians in Los Angeles.

    Those musicians included Harold Battiste, the noted producer and arranger who served as Sonny & Cher’s musical director. Battiste gave Rebennack work, and also helped him shape a musical project that would be named for Dr. John, a figure from New Orleans’ voodoo past.

    Initially, Rebennack was to be the behind-the-scenes bandleader; a vocalist named Ronnie Barron was the intended singer for this new project.

    But Barron dropped out and Rebennack, somewhat reluctantly, moved to the foreground.

    In January 1968, Atco Records released his debut album, “Gris-Gris.” On the album cover, Rebennack was billed as “Dr. John the Night Tripper”; his songwriter credits inside identified him as “Dr. John Creaux.” Recorded in Los Angeles with Battiste producing, “Gris-Gris” was a spooky synthesis of New Orleans music and psychedelic rock. It concluded with “I Walk on Guilded Splinters,” one of his signature songs. Decades later, Rolling Stone magazine would name “Gris-Gris” one of the 500 best albums of all time.

    In the late 1960s and early ‘70s, Rebennack fully embraced the voodoo trappings of his “Night Tripper” persona. Onstage, he wore elaborate headdresses and dispensed glitter from a pouch (much to the chagrin of Gregg Allman, who once recalled having to clean glitter from his keyboards after sharing a bill with Dr. John).

    On his landmark 1972 album “Dr. John’s Gumbo,” he revisited a program of New Orleans rhythm & blues classics.

    His 1973 album “In the Right Place,” produced by Allen Toussaint and featuring the Meters as Rebennack’s backing band, yielded two of his signature songs: “Right Place, Wrong Time” and “Such a Night.”

    Over the ensuing decades, he released a number of albums that are essential to the New Orleans music canon, even as he evolved into one of the city's most enduring, respected and iconoclastic musicians and cultural figures. His body of work is inextricably bound to the city that raised him, nearly ruined him and then finally took him back.

    On his ambitious 1992 album “Goin’ Back to New Orleans,” he captured the breadth and depth of the city’s music, from Mardi Gras Indian music to funk to jazz to rhythm & blues. He enlisted a who’s who of contributors for the recording, including the Neville Brothers, Pete Fountain, Al Hirt and more.

    He was a prominent member of the pantheon of New Orleans piano legends, part of a lineage that included Fats Domino, Huey “Piano” Smith, Allen Toussaint and Art Neville.

    His band the Lower 9-11, especially when powered by the late drummer Herman Ernest, trafficked in stone-cold New Orleans funk.

    In his later years, he lent his distinctive voice to a wide variety of projects. He sang “Down in New Orleans” on the soundtrack of Disney’s New Orleans-set animated film “The Princess and the Frog.” Rebennack’s movie and TV credits also included the theme song for an animated “Curious George” TV show and a version of “The Bare Necessities” for Disney’s 2016 remake of “The Jungle Book.” He performed a popular “love dat chicken” jingle for Popeyes Chicken & Biscuits

    In 2011, he was inducted into the Rock ‘n’ Roll Hall of Fame alongside Neil Diamond, Alice Cooper, Tom Waits, Leon Russell and '60s girl group singer Darlene Love.He joined fellow New Orleanians Fats Domino, Dave Bartholomew, Allen Toussaint, Lloyd Price, Jelly Roll Morton, Professor Longhair, Louis Armstrong and Mahalia Jackson in rock’s official shrine.

    The following year, he released “Locked Down,” one of the most acclaimed albums of his career. Dan Auerbach of the rock duo The Black Keys served as the producer for the project. He sought to strip away layers of cliché and rote routine to unearth the real Mac Rebennack.

    He succeeded by extracting Rebennack from his Big Easy comfort zone, pairing him with a set of young, invigorated musicians and encouraging him to take on unfamiliar songs and write new ones.

    The album was recorded in Auerbach’s Nashville studio; he persuaded Rebennack to play electric keyboard instead of piano, which altered the entire complexion of the music.

    The New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, the Chicago Tribune, the Wall Street Journal and National Public Radio, among many other media outlets, hailed “Locked Down” as a masterpiece. Rolling Stone awarded “Locked Down” four out of five stars.

    As recently as 2017, Rebennack logged nearly three-dozen performances across the country, including dates with the Avett Brothers at Red Rocks amphitheater near Denver and at the Greek Theater in Los Angeles. He also played several shows on a tour marking the 40th anniversary of The Band’s “Last Waltz” farewell concert (he was part of the original “Last Waltz”). In April , he sat in with fellow New Orleanian Jon Batiste’s band on “The Late Show with Stephen Colbert.”

    During the 2017 Jazz Fest, he performed on the main Acura Stage on the fest’s first Sunday, April 30. The day’s earlier acts were washed out by thunderstorms, but Rebennack, resplendent in a green suit, was unruffled by the day’s turbulent weather.

    He fronted his revamped Nite Trippers, a band consisting of New Orleans drummer Herlin Riley, bassist Roland Guerin, guitarist Eric Struthers and guest saxophonist Charles Neville. They closed their set with an epic “Big Chief” and a salacious “Such a Night.” Rebennack then strutted offstage, grinning, surround by a trio of scantily clad young ladies.

    That turned out be the final Jazz Fest show for both Rebennack and Charles Neville, who died the following spring of cancer.

    By the fall of 2017, there were signs that Rebennack’s health was deteriorating. Over the years, he battled a litany of health issues, including bone spurs in his neck — the result, he believed, of years spent on methadone — arthritis and carpal tunnel syndrome.

    Though it was never confirmed it publicly, Rebennack in recent years apparently suffered from as.

    On Oct. 25, 2017, he taped a tribute to Domino during the “Austin City Limits” Hall of Fame Induction celebration in Texas. Onstage with Elvis Costello, Troy “Trombone Shorty” Andrews and members of the Neville Brothers' backing band, Rebennack seemed to have trouble navigating his piano and vocal parts on Domino’s “Ain’t That a Shame.”

    A week later, on Nov. 2, 2017, Rebennack celebrated his 77th birthday with a lunchtime reception at the Napoleon House in the French Quarter. Later that evening, he materialized on the stoop of Fats Domino’s old house in the Lower 9th Ward at the conclusion of a memorial parade in Domino’s honor.

    That was Rebennack’s last significant public appearance.

    He reportedly has spent the past year and a half living quietly with one of his sons on the north shore, even as his team maintained his Twitter account with a steady stream of vintage photos, footage and milestones.

    “What goes around slides around, and what slides around slips around,” Rebennack said 2011, just before his Rock ‘n Roll Hall of Fame induction. “As long as it’s slippin’ and slidin’ around, we ain’t got to trip through the shortcuts of life. We can take the long way around. It’s the shortcuts that kill you.

    “The best thing you can be ‘like’ in music is yourself.”

    And there was no one else like him.
    Last edited by Quint; 06-06-2019, 05:14 PM.

  • #2
    Wow. Thanks for the heads up.

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    • #3
      Oh, no! Very sad day...

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      • #4
        This one's a gut-shot. And that just about does it for the performing cadre of New Orleans artists that I most associate with "the sound" and who I most looked-forward to seeing during Jazzfest. I'll be running through the recordings and my memories of Dr. John's performances for a respectful time. I hope he had his gris-gris bag on him for the passage. RIP

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        • #5
          Oh, I'm so thankful I saw him a few times. Rest in peace, Mac.

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          • #6
            A life lived, fully. A treasure.

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            • #7
              Missed his supposed October birth date. Born late. Born big.
              Love it that his mother referred to him as her “Thanksgiving Turkey”.

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              • #8
                I had a bad feeling this was imminent, but still hard to believe. I saw him at my very first Jazzfest in 1988, and every time I could since. A hero to me. RIP.

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                • #9
                  This breaks my heart....

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                  • #10
                    I'd been dreading this lately, his absence from performing becoming more and more ominous. But what an amazing body of work and influence on others he produced. Thanks, good Doctor.

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                    • #11
                      Damn!

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                      • #12
                        He was an amazing musician. Was lucky to have seen him many times and will cherish the memories. Last time I saw him about 2 years ago at a little fest in Wilmington, Delaware he looked very frail and had a hunch he wouldn’t be touring much longer. RIP, Mac, thanks for the great music.

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                        • #13
                          damn, RIP MAC

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                          • #14
                            I'm deeply saddened. His voice was New Orleans music to me. RIP Mac Rebennack.

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                            • #15
                              RIP, you new orleanian legend.

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