The Birth of Mac Rebennack
Dr. John was born in 1941 as Malcolm John Rebennack Jr. in New Orleans, Louisiana. His father, Mac Sr., owned an appliance store and his mother was a model. At a young age, Mac Jr. was exposed to all kinds of music through his father, who would, on the side, acquire work repairing P.A. systems in bars and nightclubs.
Often Mac Jr. would accompany his father on these ventures. To satisfy the youngsters appetite for local music, Mac Jr. ended up learning to play guitar and piano from Walter (Papoose) Nelson, a talented guitarist, who played backup for Fats Domino. Eventually, Mac Rebennack dropped out of high school to pursue music full time.
Despite being a very talented musician from a young age, Mac Rebennack had a knack for getting into trouble. His crimes included prescription forgery, plus a whole lot of street hustles that he learned while playing at nightclubs, strip clubs and on the street.
Prison Stint to Session Musician
In 1960, while living in Florida, Mac was shot in the hand. Though this incident underscores the kind of low life that Mac lived in his younger days, the New Orleans musician was, in reality, coming to the defense of a friend being pistol-whipped.
Nonetheless, Mac had one of his fingers shot off. The appendage was sewed back on, but remained dysfunctional for the rest of his life. This disability forced Doctor John to abandon the guitar and concentrate on playing the keyboards.
The one activity that landed Mac in prison was heroin use, which got him a two-year Texas sentence in 1963. When he was released in 1965, he headed straight for Los Angeles, where things started to change for the better.
In southern California, Mac's piano skills brought him recognition and ample session work. He backed Sonny & Cher, Canned Heat, and Frank Zappa. In 1965, he formed the Zu Zu Blues Band with fellow New Orleanian Jessie Hill, recording a one-off single ("Zu Zu Man") for A&M Records.
The Birth of Dr. John
Working with the likes of Jessie Hill convinced Mac to experiment with his own swamp-boogie, voodoo style of New Orleans music. So much so that in 1968, the former Mac Rebennack changed his stage name to Dr. John, added the Night Trippers as his backup band, and released his debut album, Gris-Gris. Though a bit unpolished, the unusual recording style made quite a splash, as did the stage act that started touring the country.
In the early '70s, Dr. John hit his stride with two albums produced by Allan Toussaint and backed up musically by the Meters. To hear Dr. John's classic New Orleans sound, check out Gumbo (1972) and In the Right Place (1973).
The Last Waltz
Dr. John was a brilliant live performer and excellent songwriter. He came on the radar of many rock fans after seeing Martin Scorsese's 1978 documentary, The Last Waltz. This was The Band's farewell concert in San Francisco on Thanksgiving Day 1976, and Dr. John is one of the film's highlights. He's smooth as silk, nailing "Such a Night" with The Band expertly backing him up.
Commercial Breakthrough to Sobriety
After his artistic and commercial breakthrough in the 1970s, Dr. John continued creating new music, playing at music festivals, and even working in Hollywood. He wrote and performed the score for Cannery Row (1982) and was part of the backing band in Blues Brothers 2000. The wild nights of the Night Trippers were gone, but John managed to put together some inspiring music, especially after finally kicking his heroin habit in 1989.
In fact, it was in the summer of 1989 that Dr. John toured in the first Ringo Starr & His All-Starr Band. Here he is singing the New Orleans classic, "Iko, Iko," originally written and performed by the Dixie Cups, but here Mac is backed by Ringo, Billy Preston, Joe Walsh, and Rick Danko from The Band.
Dr. John: A Legacy of Showmanship
Though the Doctor remains one of a handful of unique and talented New Orleans piano players, it is his stage theatrics that makes him stand out from the crowd. Professor Longhair, James Booker, Fats Domino and Huey Smith were all very talented and highly entertaining musicians. Yet none could quite match the showmanship that Dr. John delivered, especially when he donned his feathered headdress and got his Night Trippers back-up band going with the Creole Soul. At the time, the rock'n roll world had never seen any thing quite like it.
© 2019 Harry Nielsen
Harry Nielsen (author) from Durango, Colorado on June 15, 2019:
I lived in New Orleans for seven years (Irish Channel to be exact) and so I had a chance to see the doctor on stage several times. It's interesting to note that sometimes he played solo and sometimes he was in Night Tripper mode with backup band. Either way he was great fun to watch.
James C Moore from Joliet, IL on June 12, 2019:
I began paying attention to the "Nawlins" music scene during the '80s. The Neville Brothers, Harry Connick Jr and Dr John are the first that come to mind. He was a legend. I really appreciate his you tube clips that you included.