Music is a diverse form of expression that takes in many styles. It's a popular field that can only be briefly sampled in a short article.
Dr. John's Early Life
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.
Walkin' the Walk and Talkin' the Talk
Despite being a very talented musician at 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. However,the one activity that landed Mac in prison was heroin use, which got him a two-year Texas sentence in 1963. When Mac Jr. was released from prison in 1965, he headed straight for California, where things started to change for the better.
While living in Florida, Mac Rebennack 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 who was 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.
Mac Rebennack Hitting the Charts as a New Orleans Recording Artist
In Southern California, Mac Rebennack's's piano skills brought him some recognition and work as a recording artist. It was in this regard that Mac got to know and work with such noted musicians as Frank Zappa, Sonny and Cher and the O'Jays. It was during this time that the New Orleans started to experiment with his own swamp-boogie, voodoo style of New Orleans music.
In 1968, Mac Rebennack changed his stage name to Dr. John, added the Night Trippers as backup and released Gris-Gris, his first album. 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. For a look at the classic Dr. John's New Orleans sound, check out "Gumbo" and "In the Right Place".
Channeling an 19th Century Root Doctor and Healer
Back in the 1800s, there lived in New Orleans another Dr. John, whose real name was Jean Montanee (or Montanet). He was born in Senegal, came to New Orleans as a young man and lived to be a hundred years old. Jean was a slave in the West Indies for a while, but his master freed him, allowing the man to work as a cook on several ships before arriving in New Orleans.
In New Orleans, Montanee began using his knowledge of medicinal plants to treat patients suffering from a variety of ailments. Over the years his reputation grew and he is widely accepted as one of the Crescent City founders of voodoo.
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Keeping the Spirit Alive
After his big artistic and commercial success of the early seventies, Dr. John did not fade away into oblivion. Instead, he kept working and creating new music, playing at festivals and even had a chance to create some new songs for Hollywood. The wild nights of the Night Trippers were gone, but still, John managed to put together some inspiring music, especially after finally kicking his heroin habit, once and for all, in 1989.
Dr. John Live
Following are a few samples of Dr. John playing live. First up is the farewell concert of the Band at Winterland in San Francisco, where Dr. John performs Such a Night with Robinson, Danko, Helms and company backing him up.
Next in line is Dr. John making his second Montreux appearance in 1995. Here Mac along with his back-up band does perhaps his biggest hit, Right Place, Wrong Time.
And then last but not least, you will find Dr. John (introduced by Ringo Starr) and then accompanied by Starr along with Billy Preston, Joe Walsh, Rich Danko and a host of others on a New Orleans classic Iko, Iko, which was originally written and performed by the Dixie Cups..
Such a Night at the Last Waltz
Montreux in 1995
Dr. John with Ringo Star and Company
What Made Dr. John Stand Out
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.
Second Line for the Late Mac Rebennack, aka Doctor John
© 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.