Malcolm John Rebennack, known to funk and blues fans the world over by his voodoo-inflected stagename, Dr. John, has died. Perhaps the 20th century’s most successful exporter of New Orleans style and sound, Dr. John’s accomplishments were as numerous as they were colorful. After all, how many other people can claim to be a Rock & Roll Hall Of Fame-er, SCTV alumni, Grammy winner, Martin Scorsese concert film subject, and the inspiration for a famous Muppet, all in a single life?
Born in New Orleans’ Third Ward as the son of a prominent record shop owner, John slipped easily into the world of music, scoring early success as a guitar player in local night clubs. (He only switched to piano, the instrument he’s now best known for, after having a finger nearly blown off by a gunshot during an altercation after a gig.) After a brief detour into the worlds of drug trafficking, brothel management, and federal prison—in roughly that order—he departed the south in the mid-1960s. But even when he arrived in Los Angeles (becoming a key part of the famed “Wrecking Crew” collective of highly prolific session musicians in the process), he brought New Orleans with him: First as flamboyant, eye-catching costume, and later as sincere, life-long tribute to the city of his birth.
It was in L.A. that the persona of “Dr. John, The Night Tripper” first came into fullest form, serving as the centerpiece of Rebennack’s voodoo-themed stage show. Those same influences came through even more strongly on his 1968 debut, Gris-Gris, which blended Haitian chanting, psychedelic rock, and New Orleans R&B into an eclectic and irresistible combination. (Irresistible to later audiences, anyway, who still hold the album up as a modern masterpiece; contemporary reviewers were a bit more flummoxed).
But the thing about trying to look straight on at the career of Dr. John is that you end up seeing it as this constantly shifting thing, a man happy to analyze and discard elements of his own self-image and style as dictated by his rapidly evolving tastes. And so, for instance, “The Night Tripper”—his credited name as a songwriter on his first several albums—eventually became simply Dr. John, while many of the more exaggerated elements of his stage persona dropped away, leaving behind exactly who he was: An immensely talented, knowledgeable, and passionate practitioner of classic Louisiana music.
The result of said shift: 1972's Dr. John’s Gumbo, which—along with the connections he was swiftly forging as one of California’s most frequently sought-out session players—helped transform him into a classic musician’s musician, beloved by everyone from The Rolling Stones, to members of The Beatles, to Carly Simon, Neil Diamond, and more. Gumbo—largely comprised of covers of old standards—is still considered one of the classic albums chronicling the city’s sound, and it’s one of two Dr. John releases to make Rolling Stone’s 2003 list of the 500 greatest albums of all time. (Gris-Gris was the other.) He continued to release music throughout his life, including multiple albums wrestling with his feelings about New Orleans’ near-destruction by Hurricane Katrina in 2005.
It’s difficult to overstate how thoroughly Dr. John infiltrated the world of modern music and pop culture; his legacy is practically unavoidable, even for those who’ve never sought out his work. He appears in The Last Waltz and Disney’s The Princess And The Frog (and David Simon’s Treme, of course). He inspired Jim Henson to create his laid-back bandleader, Dr. Teeth. He performed the theme song of Blossom. He once traded banter with John Candy on SCTV, and has been the subject of, or best part on, so many different tribute albums that it can honestly be kind of difficult to keep track. He did it all with a smile and a genuine love for his craft, creating a larger-than-life version of himself that nevertheless never overshadowed the music that was the central focus of his life.
He died earlier today, of a heart attack. He was 77.