Mac Rebennack, the New Orleans pianist, singer-songwriter and producer better known as Dr. John, died Thursday at the age of 77. The cause of death was a heart attack, according to his family.
“Towards the break of day on June 6, 2019, iconic music legend Malcolm John Rebennack, Jr., professionally known as Dr. John, passed away of a heart attack,” his family said in a statement. “As a Rock N Roll Hall of Fame inductee, six-time Grammy winner, songwriter, composer, producer and performer, he created a unique blend of music which carried his hometown, New Orleans, at its heart, as it was always in his heart. The family thanks all whom have shared his unique musical journey, and requests privacy at this time. Memorial arrangements will be arranged in due course.”
“A true friend and fellow musical traveler died today,” the Allman Brothers Band wrote on Twitter. “The Allman Brothers Band family express their sincere sadness in his passing. Mac played many times with the Brothers. Walk on Gilded Splinters our Old Friend, we will all meet up at The Right Place.”
“God bless Dr. John,” Ringo Starr wrote on Twitter. “Peace and love to all his family. I love the doctor.”
“There was no other performer like Dr. John, and there never will be,” Louisiana native Ellen DeGeneres wrote. “Tonight my heart is in New Orleans.”
Although best known for his Seventies solo work and radio hits like “Right Place, Wrong Time,” Rebennack had a career that spanned pop history. He was a key part of the “Wrecking Crew” stable of ace Los Angeles session musicians in the Sixties. He played on recordings by Cher, Aretha Franklin, Canned Heat, Frank Zappa and countless others, fusing funk with R&B and boogie woogie.
Rebennack began putting out his own records in 1968 with the release of his debut album Gris-Gris. It was the beginning of his larger-than-life Dr. John Creaux the Night Tripper character, with Rebennack incorporating elements of voodoo into his outrageous stage show. He quickly grew a large following, introducing much of America to New Orleans music.
Born Malcolm John Rebennack on November 21st, 1940, Dr. John was immersed in the music of his native city from an early age. He started banging on a piano when he was three, venturing to African-America clubs when he was teenager and working at a studio in town during that time. His first instrument was the guitar, not the piano, and he soon met and began playing with Professor Longhair, the New Orleans piano icon. As a teenager, Dr. John had played in bands, wrote songs for local acts like Lloyd Price and Jerry Byrne and worked an A&R job at Ace Records.
His life and music took a fateful turn when, in 1960, he broke up a fight and his left index finger was hit by a bullet. With that, he switched to piano, which would be his primary instrument throughout his career. When the New Orleans music scene gave way to Detroit’s Motown world and other hot cities, Dr. John relocated to Los Angeles in 1964, where he began his session-man career.
Originally, he had planned for another musician to play the “Dr. John” character, modeled after a voodoo priest, but when that player opted out, Rebennack took over the part himself. “I had it all planned and set to go, so I just did it myself out of spite,” he once said. “I never thought I would be doing another record. I never wanted to be a frontman. All of a sudden, I got into it, and it wasn’t as bad as I thought.” He soon had fully renamed himself and started a solo career that blended New Orleans, blues and psychedelia, with accompanying robes and headdresses of his new character.
Signing with Atlantic, by way of legendary producer Jerry Wexler, Dr. John found his groove and his voice, starting with Gumbo, the landmark 1972 album that featured his renditions of “Iko Iko,” “Let the Good Times Roll” and other New Orleans classics. The next year, he hit his commercial peak, when his funky stomp “Right Place, Wrong Time” hit the Top 10. Those albums showcased not only his loose growl and rhythmic sense but his piano playing, which incorporated boogie and swinging syncopation.
Speaking to Rolling Stone in 1973, Rebennack discussed his internal battle over making “commercial” music. “The only thing that makes a record commercial is if people buy it,” he said. “Originally, I felt to go commercial would prostitute myself and bastardize the music. On reflecting, I thought that if without messin’ up the music and keeping the roots and elements of what I want to do musically, I could still make a commercial record I would not feel ashamed from, I’m proud of, and still have a feel for, then it’s not a bad thing but it even serve a good purpose.”
He was popular enough by 1976 to be invited to perform at The Band’s Last Waltz alongside Bob Dylan, Neil Young, Eric Clapton, Muddy Waters and other greats of the era, but his commercial fortunes waned in the Eighties and an addiction to heroin hobbled his career for years. He kicked the drug in 1989, around the time that Ringo Starr helped revive his career by bringing him on the road for his inaugural All Starr Band Tour. He was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2011.
Rebennack released dozens of albums over the course of his career as both a solo musician and member of Bluesiana Triangle, a trio he formed with jazz giants Art Blakey and David “Fathead” Newman. He made jazzy pop (1979’s City Lights), pre-rock pop standards (1989’s In a Sentimental Mood) and homages to his home town (1992’s Goin’ Back to New Orleans). In 2012, he released the Dan Auerbach-produced album Locked Down, which landed on Rolling Stone‘s Best Albums of the year.
He continued to tour heavily until 2017 when health problems took him off the road. “I don’t go out to each too much,” he told Rolling Stone in 2010. “I can’t eat things like lamb because I have cirrhosis of the liver. So I have a pretty limited diet and I like to eat a lot of seafood. So that’s kind of depressing.”
Rebennack summed up his career back in 1973, when he told Rolling Stone that audiences didn’t need to know anything about New Orleans or voodoo to enjoy his music. “If you’re gonna get off on somethin’ you don’t need to know nothin’ about it, music is a universal language,” he said. “If it’s opera in Italian, you ain’t supposed to know nothin’ about Italy. You can just sit there and dig on it.”