From his early Sixties work in L.A.’s session players known as the Wrecking Crew, to his flirtation with pop success in the Seventies and excavation of New Orleans musical history throughout his entire carer, Dr. John, born Malcolm John Rebennack, infused his musical output with the heart and soul of his birthplace. The piano-playing icon, who died Thursday at age 77, is today being eulogized for the essential role he played in taking the jazz, boogie-woogie and funk of his hometown throughout the world.
Although his connections to country music were few, his influence spanned nearly all genres for decades. Jason Isbell was among the artists to pay homage to Dr. John in a 2014 concert event titled “The Musical Mojo of Dr. John,” and in 2000, Country Music Hall of Fame legend Willie Nelson released Milk Cow Blues, a blues album that included the “Night Tripper” among its special guests. Initially recorded in the mid-Nineties with the house band from the venerable Austin blues club, Antones, the LP featured cameo appearances from other blues acts such as Kenny Wayne Shepherd, Susan Tedeschi, Keb’ Mo’ and B.B. King.
In a 2000 A&E TV special, Live by Request, Nelson enlisted Dr. John to join him for a slow-rolling performance of “Black Night,” a tune penned by songwriter Jessie Mae Robinson, also known for writing the 1957 Wanda Jackson raver, “Let’s Have a Party.” A Number One R&B hit for Charles Brown in 1951, it logged 14 weeks at the top of the chart. In 1989, Dr. John cut a version of it for his In a Sentimental Mood album.
With Shepherd on electric guitar, Nelson playing his trusty acoustic guitar, and Dr. John on piano, the tune features the latter’s famed growling vocals as he takes the lead on the second verse of the despondent tune. Throughout, Dr. John’s distinctive rolling licks on the piano help accentuate the song’s dark, melancholic nature.
A statement from the Rebennack family noted that a memorial for the musician would be “arranged in due course.” New Orleans musician Kermit Ruffins has announced plans for a second line parade in Dr. John’s honor, starting at 4 p.m. CT today at Ruffins’ Mother-in-Law Lounge.