The cultural icon who introduced a generation to voodoo and “funkology” died of a heart attack at 77
We’re taught as kids that we should never judge a book by its cover—and while the same is true for celebrities and public figures, we can often learn a lot about them from the cover they present to the world. Enter Malcolm John Rebennack, the ultimate example of a person who translated a significant chunk of his message through the way he dressed, walked, talked and performed the role of the musician known as Dr. John.
Rebennack died of a heart attack the morning of June 6 at 77, having spent most of his years devoted to the music of his New Orleans hometown. He launched his career early—he was barely a teenager when he started gigging around town and became a producer at Ace Records at 16—and quickly became one of the sought-after session musicians collectively known as the Wrecking Crew. Long before he coined the stage name “Dr. John,” Rebennack was gaining recognition for his keyboard skills by chart-climbing artists like the Rolling Stones, Sonny and Cher and Aretha Franklin. His progression from studio player to solo musician in the late 1960s made sense: He had a lot to say as a young man during the rush of the ’60s, and he had the talent and connections necessary to make something of his ambitions.
Gris-Gris was the first concrete indication that something special was brewing for Rebennack. Released as Rebennack’s first solo album in 1968 under the name “Dr. John, the Night Tripper,” Gris-Gris was like a typical debut in that it claimed to have something new to say, and it differed in that it wasn’t overly concerned with drawing lines around what exactly that message was. The music had elements of psychedelic rock, blues and mysticism, a blend that wasn’t outrageous for the 1960s but wasn’t exactly mainstream, either. It did, however, fit in perfectly with the New Orleans culture Rebennack had grown up surrounded by, as well as the persona Rebennack was building.
Rebennack launched his solo career with an artistic statement that was fueled by creativity and open to possibilities, and he never seemed to stray from that exploratory mission driven by the open-ended question, “What happens when…?” Those “whens” gave Rebennack a chance to test new boundaries and add layers to his developing identity. He was rewarded for his artistry with six Grammy Awards, several more Grammy nominations, an induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and widespread respect from other artists. His voodoo-fueled legend wasn’t limited to awards and accolades: he was arrested on drug charges, ran a brothel, had one of his fingers injured by gunfire and introduced visual elements to his performances that might have seemed jarring were they brought onto anyone else’s stage. The public-facing Rebennack was a man who wore colorful suits adorned with glitter, feathers, miniature skulls and anything else that fit his fancy. But none of it seemed like part of an act; it was authentically Dr. John.
As far as Rebennack went in exploring the sounds and visuals of his music, he never strayed far from his commitment to New Orleans. He thrived on the city’s musical and cultural melting pot and acknowledged its importance; and when his hometown needed help most after Hurricane Katrina made landfall in 2005, Rebennack was one of the musicians who stepped up to give back. He remained appreciative and in awe of the community that fostered the sense of “otherness” that wouldn’t have been as widely accepted most anywhere else, following his creative instincts with the knowledge that Dr. John would always have a home. The legend Rebennack built wouldn’t have been possible without New Orleans as its backbone, but not every artist would have used that opportunity to build a cultural icon. We have Dr. John to thank for that.
VIDEO: Johnny Winter & Dr. John in Session 1988
Dr. John – Chicago Blues Festival 1989-06-11 (full show, audio only)
VIDEO: Dr. John on Don Kirshner’s Rock Concert (1974)