Few artists have straddled the contradictions of popular music like Dr John, who passed away on June 6 at the age of 77. The New Orleans-born musician defies easy categorisation – his music ranging across blues, jazz, boogie-woogie and rock and roll. Over more than half a century he shared stages and studios with rock aristocracy, like The Rolling Stones and The Band, as well as blues legends like BB King and Etta James but didn’t fall easily into either camp.
With Dr John, even the bare facts of the matter were shrouded in ambiguity. His stage name, “Dr John the Night Tripper” was a persona. He was born Malcolm “Mac” Rebennack. Even his date of birth was difficult to pin down and was only established as 1941 last year when New Orleans newspaper The Times-Picayune unearthed it through records.
Dr John had lied about his age as a young prodigy, to circumvent age restrictions and get gigs in clubs. Rebennack’s subsequent career exemplified and distorted tropes of musical authenticity. Dr John was both a staged creation and yet a character that Rebennack wore seamlessly on and off stage. A New York Times profile noted that talking to him was an adventure thanks to his penchant for made-up words in his trademark growl and his usual evasiveness.
The person in the persona
Authenticity or a sense of the so-called real deal is a slippery concept in popular music. A sense of believability or honesty is indispensable. On the other hand, authenticity is also the currency of the musical marketing system – it is what appeals to people. However, an aura of mystery can be, paradoxically, a marker of individuality and a sense of an artist being true to themselves.
For Dr John, this was a combination of stagecraft, musicality and his own idiosyncrasies. It involved deep knowledge of his genre and simultaneously a magpie-like approach of drawing on a clearly delineated musical world while working across the realms of commercial music. Which is, incidentally, a technique also adopted by artists like Tom Waits, Prince and arguably, Madonna.
The character, derived from his interest in voodoo, wasn’t even originally intended for Rebennack. It was based on a 19th-century voodoo practitioner Dr John Monateefrom Senegal and was originally developed for Rebennack’s friend and fellow musician Ronnie Barron. Rebennack became the front man, inhabiting the persona that would define his public image.
That said, his own colourful history and musical history were themselves rich enough in incident. While he found fame as a pianist, his first instrument was the guitar. After losing part of his left hand’s ring finger to a gunshot when he intervened in a brawl in Jacksonville Florida to help Barron, who was getting pistol whipped, he switched instruments – first to bass, and then piano.
Despite emerging from a tradition of New Orleans players – Professor Longhair, Allen Toussaint, James Booker – Rebennack spent much of his career in exile from the city. Like his Night Tripper character, he had a history of working in the shadows and was involved in the drugs and prostitution that surrounded the club milieu of New Orleans in the 1950s and ‘60s. He fell into and out of heroin addiction before finally kicking the habit in 1989. Following an arrest on drugs charges and a spell in federal prison, he was advised to leave the city in the midst of a crackdown on the music scene by then district attorney Jim Garrison who is often better remembered as a Kennedy assassination conspiracy theorist.
His career developed, instead, in Los Angeles, initially as part of the loose grouping of elite session musicians known as the “Wrecking Crew”, including recordings for Sonny and Cher, Canned Head and Frank Zappa. His first solo album, Gris-Gris, was recorded in studio time left unused in sessions for Sonny and Cher.
Rebennack operated at the intersection of tradition and innovation. Gris-Gris, named after a voodoo amulet, set the tone for a catalogue drawing on a melange of influences, infusing New Orleans blues and funk with elements of psychedelic rock. Having established this template, the theatrical, psychedelic-voodoo element of his show slowly made way for a more traditional approach, exemplified by Dr John’s Gumbo – a set of covers of New Orleans classics such as Iko Iko.
Quintessentially New Orleans
Ultimately, the key to Dr John’s musical identity is less a matter of genre, or character, than a question of geography. At over 40 albums, his recording career was prolific and acclaimed. He was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2011 and was the recipient of six Grammy Awards across the categories of jazz, blues, rock and pop.
He managed to combine authenticity in terms of being true to a tradition and a place with a sense of a unique musical voice through the expansion of the scope of that tradition. Quintessentially New Orleans, he threaded a host of other American musical traditions through that sound, while taking the New Orleans rhythmic and melodic feel into the broader popular musical culture, peppering his output with his distinctive wordplay and patois. Indeed his own musical and personal cadences came to stand for New Orleans in the broader cultural shorthand.
Dr John’s sound and image permeated popular culture. Dr Teeth, of the Muppet’s band was based on him and his best paydays came from advertising jingles for Popeye’s Chicken, Oreos cookies and others. His voice also graced the theme tune My Opiniation to the otherwise unremarkable, but very popular, 1990s sitcom Blossom. When Disney needed to exemplify a New Orleans sound for The Princess and the Frog song down in New Orleans, he was the obvious choice. As Randy Newman, song’s composer and a contemporary of Rebbenack on the 1960s session scene put it: “They wanted his voice, which is not a bad idea if you’re going to do New Orleans. He’s the real thing in every kind of way.”
Sound of the streets
Dr John’s emphasis on New Orleans became, perhaps, more explicit in later years. There’s something about adversity that can focus a sense of identity. The devastation wrought by Hurricane Katrina in 2005 and particularly, the feeling that the city’s residents had been abandoned by the authorities, energised albums including 2005’s Seppiana Herricane and 2008’s City That Care Forgot.
His concerns mirrored the relationship between New Orleans’ social fabric and its musical heritage. The city’s recovery from the hurricane, for instance, was marred by its effect on second lines – the drum-led parades that accompany funeral processions. Gentrification had brought noise complaints and, ten years after the hurricane, Dr John railed against local government officials trying to discourage musicians from marching in second lines.
“I mean, they are trying to get guys in the bands not to march in the second lines,” he said. “That’s ridiculous. That wasn’t in the picture before... In a way, the second lines are vital to New Orleans’ recovery, they are the medicine that comes with the grieving.”
His legacy, then, is both international and intensely local. Creating a personal sound, indelibly stamped on a globally recognised recording career, he also acted as the torchbearer for decades of New Orleans tradition. Despite his brushes with the law, he ended up feted by New Orleans City Hall, who incorrectly commemorate November 21 as Dr John Day.
Louisiana’s governor John Bel Edwards added his “acknowledgement of countless musical contributions embodying the culture of the state from New Orleans to the Bayou and for celebrating 77 years in the music industry”. But his music was, literally, of the streets, as the second line that formed in New Orleans to pay tribute on June 7 amply demonstrated.