Dr. John: The Joy and Mystery of a New Orleans Saint

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Robbie Robertson has seen a lot in six decades of rock & roll, but nothing quite like what happened at the Toronto Pop Festival in 1969. He and the Band were on a bill that included the New Orleans studio musician and songwriter Mac Rebennack, newly reinvented as Dr. John, the Night Tripper. “This guy I’m talking to, he has strands of beads and shit coming off his head and powders coming out of his ears and rags hanging down,” recalls Robertson. “He’s got a walking stick that looks like something you perform magic tricks with.” When rain began to pour down on the grounds, Robertson watched as Dr. John, playing an incantatory style of swamp pop dubbed “voodoo rock” by a baffled media, raised the stick to the sky, and held it for a moment. Just then, the rain stopped. As Robertson remembers, “We’re like, ‘Man, the doctor is really a doctor!’ ”

Dr. John was always modest about his place in the history of New Orleans music. “Everything I’m about, the old-timers showed me,” he once said. “Nothing I got is nothing original.” He’d be the first to admit that he picked up his spry, rolling-river piano-playing from predecessors like Professor Longhair, Fats Domino, and Huey “Piano” Smith. But few embodied the spirit of New Orleans, or helped take it to strange new places, the way Dr. John did. Even though he scored just one pop hit, 1973’s “Right Place Wrong Time,” his impact on modern music was huge, beginning with murky-swamplands masterpieces like 1968’s Gris-Gris and 1972’s Dr. John’s Gumbo (a tribute to New Orleans that helped introduce rock fans to standards like “Iko Iko”). Nineties kids know him from his theme song to the sitcom Blossom; Gen Z recognizes his voice from animated films like The Princess and the Frog; and anyone who remembers The Muppet Show knows the dapper bandleader Dr. Teeth, modeled on Dr. John. (The Bonnaroo festival was even named after his 1974 album, Desitively Bonnaroo.) “He wasn’t just New Orleans, he was worldwide,” says Aaron Neville, who met Dr. John when both were teenagers. “He brought New Orleans everywhere.”

And with Dr. John’s death near New Orleans at age 77 on June 6th, of a heart attack, rock lost one of the last links to its Wild West days. He witnessed the grimy, gangster-ridden underbelly of early rock & roll, coming away with a heroin habit, a prison sentence, and half a finger blown off in the process. His surly-tomcat rasp conjured the Southern Chitlin Circuit and funky bars where R&B and rock were birthed. “He was a human melting pot, growing up with different races and experiences,” says the Black Keys’ Dan Auerbach, who produced Dr. John’s 2012 comeback album, the Grammy-winning Locked Down, “and it made him the most incredible mutt ever.”

From Bob Dylan to Lana Del Rey, musicians have regularly wiped their slates clean, but few did it with as much style as Rebennack did when he became Dr. John in the late 1960s. He always carried himself with a sense of mystery, addressing the world through witty pronouncements from behind his molasses-thick swamp-rat drawl. Where did Mac Rebennack end and Dr. John begin? As he would say in one of his unique phrasings, “I got some confusement here.”

Malcolm Rebennack Jr. wasn’t necessarily destined to become Dr. John. As a baby in New Orleans’ Third Ward, a middle-class neighborhood, Mac was so adorable that he was featured in an Ivory soap ad. Harry Connick Jr. had a relative who lived next to the Rebennacks, and, in light of Dr. John’s mangy image, was surprised to find out how conventional young Mac’s house was. “It’s in a pretty nice part of town,” Connick says. “It was hard for me to imagine that neighborhood would be his.”

Dr John in 1958. Photo credit: Gilles Petard/Redferns/Getty Images Gilles Petard/Redferns/Getty Images

Yet the late-night side of town proved irresistible for Rebennack. His father owned an appliance store that carried records — what his son later called “gospel, bebop, real filthy party records, and hillbilly stuff like Hank Williams” — and repaired sound systems at local venues. Tagging along with his dad on club visits, Mac glimpsed legends like Professor Longhair. His aunt gave him piano lessons as a kid, but he soon switched to guitar. “New Orleans produced a lot of good piano players and some good drummers,” he said, “but for some reason there weren’t a lot of guitar players around, so I kind of filled the need.” By his teen years, he was playing sessions and writing songs for local acts. “We called him ‘the ratty dude,’ ” says Neville, who sang on an early Rebennack session. “He was hip. Instead of ‘How you doing?’ he’d say, ‘Where you at?’ He was a bad dude on guitar.”

In 1961, Dr. John was on the road with soul singer Ronnie Barron when a motel manager pulled a gun on Barron, who may have been sleeping with the man’s “old lady.” Rebennack reached for the weapon and it went off, leaving part of his left ring finger “hanging by a thread,” as he wrote in his 1995 memoir, Under a Hoodoo Moon. “It changed his whole thing around,” says Neville. “I don’t know if he would have done the same things on guitar like on piano. Things happen for a reason.”

The shooting was a pivotal moment in Dr. John’s life, forcing him to switch to bass and then piano. But the injury also accelerated a heroin habit that had already begun. “At the moment I was shot, I saw not just my life, but my career, pass before my eyes,” he wrote. “To get through it all, I tried to make myself as null and void as possible — a state I achieved through a heightened habit.” Busted for possession, he wound up serving time in a federal prison. According to Neville’s brother Charles, during an earlier prison stint, Dr. John became known as the “zuzu man,” selling cigarettes and sweets.

Upon his release in 1965, he wound up in L.A., home to many relocated New Orleans musicians. (He would long blame district attorney Jim Garrison, played by Kevin Costner in JFK, for clamping down on New Orleans nightclubs and depriving local musicians of steady work.) He became a session player for Sonny and Cher, Buffalo Springfield, and other pop acts, but he also wanted to make his own music. With other New Orleans transplants, he recorded his first album, Gris-Gris, in 1967. It was named after the term for the charms, amulets, and incantations used by voodoo believers that were meant to fend off evil. As shadowy and murky as the swamps, Gris-Gris — and its centerpiece, eight minutes of eerie, lurking chants called “I Walk on Guilded Splinters” — embodied the way Dr. John took his hometown’s musical heritage to new outer-space dimensions. Dr. John mixed in funk, psychedelia, field hollers, Latin rhythms, and rock & roll, a template that would continue for decades.

While working on the album, Dr. John came up with a plan for his live shows that would transport Mardi Gras to the stage. Working with producer Harold Battiste, he concocted the idea of a “Dr. John,” named after a 19th-century Louisiana voodoo priest and jack-of-all-mystical-trades. “I was just tryin’ to hustle album deals, just tryin’ to hustle money,” he said in 1997. “The Dr. John thing was just a concept, a one-off thing.” Barron was supposed to play the character onstage, but when he declined, Rebennack donned the headdresses, feathers, and beads himself. “Nobody else could have done it like he did,” says Neville. “He brought it to life.”

The persona was even wilder onstage: Someone Dr. John called the Chicken Man would bite off the heads of live poultry while nude dancers paraded around. (In St. Louis, the band was busted and Dr. John, as bandleader, was arrested.) “I was trying not to make him self-conscious by looking at what he was wearing,” says Bonnie Raitt, who saw one of those early shows and later toured with Dr. John. “I hadn’t been exposed to the voodoo side, so I brought a whole lot of ‘whoa’ when I met him.”

How authentic was the character? “I don’t believe Mac had nothin’ to do with no voodoo,” says Neville. “It was all part of his shtick. He had a good heart.” In 1972, Dr. John’s publicist sent around pellets of “gris-gris repellent” that were “made from dragon’s blood” to promote an album, and Battiste himself called the character “tongue-in-cheek.”

Dr. John himself demurred as to whether he was an actual voodoo practitioner or not (“I don’t have voodoo dolls or anything like that,” he said at the time). “There’s a lot of the Mardi Gras spirit in many areas of show business,” he said. “It’s always been my feeling that when someone goes to see a show, they should get all their senses pleased.” Asked if David Bowie, Alice Cooper, and Elton John owed him a tip of the hat, he said, “Oh, I definitely think they got a lot of their basic show-business ideas directly from me.”

Photo credit: Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images

Yet his fascination with hoodoo rituals was also sincere. Dr. John once said his grandmother, in some sort of trance, had lifted a heavy wooden table in their home. He was baptized Catholic, but as a teen, he sometimes played at the Guiding Star Spiritual Church, which welcomed Christians, Jews, and voodoo practitioners. “I dug the spiritual and hoodoo-church people because their bag wasn’t like organized religion,” he said.

To cast a spell on anyone he didn’t want around, Dr. John would make “goofer dust,” a combination of graveyard dirt, gunpowder, and grease from the bells of a graveyard chapel. “He believed in [voodoo rituals] — it was not a shtick,” says Bill Bentley, one of his publicists. “He had all these herbs he would carry around with him. He once said this lady put a spell on him and something bad happened to him.” When Dr. John visited the Band before the 1971 New York shows that resulted in their Rock of Ages album, he saw they were nervous and sprinkled mysterious powder around a hotel room. “He said, ‘It’s gonna be OK now,’” says Robertson. “He was always spreading his juju whenever it was necessary.”

With “Right Place Wrong Time,” Dr. John brought his gris-gris funk to the Top 40. (In Under a Hoodoo Moon, he claimed Bette Midler contributed a line to the song, but Midler now says she only “knew him a little” and had nothing do with writing it.) But the Night Tripper persona proved too expensive and controversial to maintain, and he soon replaced it with a more urbane style and wardrobe, embodied by his appearance at the Band’s Last Waltz show in 1976, when the Doctor played “Such a Night.” “That song was the feeling of the evening,” says Robertson. “His presence was so warm and beautiful, and that performance projected that as much as anything that happened the whole night.”

By then, Dr. John had relocated to New York, where he befriended Doc Pomus, the wheelchair-bound tunesmith who had co-written “Save the Last Dance for Me” and an array of classic Sixties hits. The two quickly became friends and collaborators. “It blew my dad’s mind that Mac knew so many of the songs my dad wrote,” says Sharyn Felder, Pomus’ daughter. “He said he never felt as musically connected to anyone since the early days as he did with Mac.”

The two would huddle in the bedroom of Pomus’ Upper West Side apartment, drinking root beer and cranking out songs, including “There Must Be a Better World Somewhere,” which B.B. King covered. But Dr. John remained a heroin user and often shot up in the family bathroom. Girlfriends and ex-wives (he was married three times, most recently to songwriter Cat Yellen, and had six children) would call Pomus to ask where his songwriter partner was. “Don’t tell ’em I’m here!” Dr. John would tell Pomus. “My dad loved Mac as much as he loved his own, but he would drive him crazy,” says Felder. “He was always worried about Mac and would get angry and upset at him.”

After his commercial heyday, Dr. John survived by touring, singing jingles for Pop-eyes chicken, and appearing on soundtracks. He released solo piano albums that revisited the barroom style of his youth, and in the 1980s he helped pioneer the concept of rock stars playing pre-rock standards on In a Sentimental Mood. Along the way, he developed a casual fatalism about the music business. “I’ve seen the record business from a lot of ways, and don’t nothin’ surprise me anymore,” he said in 1997. “I’ve been dropped by a lot of labels, and the only thing that surprises me is that they don’t drop me sooner.”

Around 1989, he finally cleaned up, checking into rehab for his drug abuse. At Pomus’ funeral in 1991, Dr. John played organ and gave a eulogy referring to himself as “a guy who used to be a scumbag dope fiend” who was saved by Pomus. Recalls Robertson, “Years later, when I would see him I’d remind him of one of these stories, and he would say, ‘Oh, yeah, man, I try to put that shit behind me.’ ” With guest appearance by members of Portishead, Primal Scream, and Supergrass, his 1998 album, Anutha Zone, revealed his influence on another generation of rockers.

Disaster brought him back home. Newly clean, Dr. John began recording and touring regularly, and attending recovery meetings in New York. But after Hurricane Katrina, he found a new mission. His 2008 album, City That Care Forgot, expressed his anger over the neglect of New Orleans. Soon after, he moved back to his native city. “He wanted to see this city rebuilt and people come back to New Orleans,” says his daughter Karla Pratt. He played a charity concert for displaced musicians in the Ninth Ward; later, he personally went to a Walgreens to buy medications the musicians required.

Art Blakey, Dr John and David ‘Fathead’ Newman also known as ‘Bluesiana Triangle’ at Acme Studios in Mamaroneck, New York on March 5, 1990. Photograph by Ebet Roberts/Redferns/Getty Images Ebet Roberts/Redferns/Getty Images

In 2010, Auerbach felt the time had come for Dr. John to return to the mood of his swamp-rock work. After tracking down his phone number, Auerbach called but could barely decipher anything, thanks to Dr. John’s “smokescreen, extra-thick” accent. “I found out later that this was his defense mechanism for strangers,” says Auerbach. “He’d been ripped off by so many different people over the years.” (Dr. John himself called his business “the music racket.”)

Getting his address, Auerbach flew to New Orleans and showed up, unannounced, at a duplex Dr. John shared with a newly released ex-con friend. (“When you get out, call me,” Dr. John had told him.) When Dr. John opened the door, Auerbach recalls, he looked “incredible . . . He was dressed in a guayabera shirt and wearing full beads, hair perfectly braided. Not necessarily a stage costume, but the most incredible thing you’ve ever seen.” Dr. John agreed to make the album, although trombonist and producer Sarah Morrow, one of Dr. John’s collaborators, recalls some initial anxiety. “He really liked Dan, but I remember Mac calling me and he was very uncomfortable,” she says. “He was being pushed out of his comfortable territory. But what Dan did for him was amazing. That album was a modern-day Gris-Gris.

Released in 2012, Locked Down came in the middle of a comeback for Dr. John. TV producer and writer David Simon featured Dr. John’s music — and the man himself — in his Big Easy-set HBO series, Treme, and Dr. John was inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame. Locked Down took home the Grammy for Best Blues Album — which, Auerbach recalls, “meant the world to him as validation.” Those who got to know the real man could understand why. “Mac was surprisingly insecure for someone who was this icon and beloved by so many,” says Morrow. “Even if you’re sober for years, you still have that guilt or doubt you carry around with you. He didn’t think he really deserved the fame, the wealth, or whatever it is that he could have had.”

He remained tied to his city and its traditions in other ways. He still dined occasionally on local delicacies like possum and raccoon. During walks, he’d pick up only certain-colored leaves for some type of home altar (when leaving on tour, he would light candles and ask that they burn out on their own for good luck). Another friend, local bassist Jeff Beninato, looked on as Dr. John boiled a squirrel, removed the bones, and affixed them to one of his canes. At various times, one or another of his walking sticks would include a yak bone and a pouch made from a kangaroo’s scrotum.

Before he undertook a passion project, a Louis Armstrong tribute album released in 2014, Dr. John invited Morrow on a boat ride through the Louisiana swamps to introduce her to his world. During the trip, they stopped to dine on squirrel brains, which involves cracking the small baked skull with one’s teeth. “Oh, it was horrifying!” Morrow laughs. “But he’d done it his whole life. It was no big thing for him.”

When a Twitter account was set up for him a decade ago, he’d announce an idea for a post with “I got a Twizzler for the computer machine!” “Characters” were “care-actors.” Even his “textiles” (texts) — no spaces between words — captured his swamp-frog elocution. “I hope someone does a glossary of his language,” says Raitt. “There was no possibility of auto-correct, ever.”

But as he entered his seventies, health issues began to overtake him. Due to cirrhosis of the liver, he could no longer eat his beloved New Orleans shellfish. He began spending more time with his kids, splitting time between his son’s house on Lake Pontchartrain and daughter Karla’s house in New Orleans. Karla would watch her father crack up watching reruns of The Carol Burnett Show. “He loved Tim Conway and Harvey Korman,” she says. “He would laugh until tears were falling down his face.”

Dan Auerbach and Mac Rebennack aka Dr. John head to their Superjam performance during the 2011 Bonnaroo Music and Arts Festival on June 12, 2011 in Manchester, Tennessee. Photo credit: Erika Goldring/WireImage WireImage

He continued performing despite increased physical discomfort. “He had this outward appearance of being old and slow, but, man, you talk about eagle eyes,” says bassist Roland Guerin, his last musical director. “He knew exactly what everybody was doing. When his head was down and he was playing piano, the audience would be watching his hands, but his eyes were looking directly at me above his glasses. It kept me on my toes.” Starting around 2017, Dr. John 
began making what would be his last album, recording country covers and remakes of older songs like “Such a Night.” Neville appeared on a cover of the Traveling Wilburys’ “End of the Line,” a jolly song about accepting one’s life and fate. “Mac liked it,” says Neville. “He knew he was on the way out, and he was at peace with it.” Karla begs to differ: “I do not believe he knew he was about to die. He was looking forward to getting out of there and getting back to his old routine. He never gave up.” (The album, completed before his death, does not yet have a release date.)

Last year, Dr. John was diagnosed with aphasia, a condition that impedes speaking; he eventually received speech therapy and moved into a rehabilitation center. On June 2nd, he was visited there by Jon Cleary, a British musician who’d toured with him. Cleary brought along a portable record player, and the two listened to records from Dr. John’s youth, like New Orleans singer-guitarist Smiley Lewis. Dr. John held Cleary’s hand and, despite his inability to speak, sang along as best he could.

After Dr. John’s death four days later, New Orleans gave him a traditional second-line funeral, with revelers and a brass band snaking through the city of his birth. Transported through the streets by a horse-drawn carriage, his casket was trailed by mourners, including one holding a poster with dual photos: one of the young Night Tripper; the other, an older, more dapper version. Right to the end, 
the devilish and the debonair were always one and the same.