Dr John performing at the ‘The Last Waltz’ concert in San Francisco in 1976. Getty Images
Dr John performing at the ‘The Last Waltz’ concert in San Francisco in 1976. Getty Images

The death of rock ‘n’ roll’s voodoo doctor

  • Dr John’s death on 6 June at the age of 77 marked the demise of the most important envoy of the treasured musical tradition of New Orleans
  • In his six-decade-long career, he drew out the best of that city’s musical genres and culture—jazz, blues, funk, boogie-woogie and voodoo.

It was in Martin Scorsese’s The Last Waltz that I first heard (and watched) Dr John. The seminal 1978 rock ‘n’ roll film is based on The Band’s farewell concert and Dr John is one of the series of guest musicians who feature in it. The bearded pianist and singer appears in the film to perform his song Such A Night. Wearing black shades, a black beret, a pink bow tie and a checked jacket, he sits at the piano as his vocals, as distinctive and eccentric as his sartorial style, take us on a trip to the bayou, to the nightclubs and bars of his home city of New Orleans. It would be much later that I explored Dr John’s (birth name: Malcolm John Rebennack Jr) records, beginning with his popular breakthrough album from 1973, In The Right Place.

When Dr John died on 6 June at the age of 77, it marked the demise of arguably the most important envoy of the treasured musical tradition of New Orleans. In his six-decade-long career as a singer, songwriter, producer and arranger, Dr John drew out the best of that city’s musical genres and culture—jazz, blues, funk, boogie-woogie and voodoo. He was a musician’s musician, respected and admired by artists across the world for his innovative and, often, outrageously unconventional style. In 1974, Dr John presented a live concert in Chicago that showcased some of the best talents from New Orleans. In it, he begins by introducing, in his inimitable style, Professor Longhair, the blues and R&B singer who died in 1980: “Some people say Elvis Presley and Little Richard and all invented rock ‘n’ roll but we have the man here that really originated funk and rock ‘n’ roll… the high priest of them all, the king, Professor Longhair…"

That gig (available in its entirety on YouTube) includes performances by, besides the Professor, the delta blues singer and guitarist Earl King, the New Orleans funk band The Meters, and, best of all, a rousing set by Dr John & The Night Trippers, during which he appears on stage costumed as a voodoo witch doctor, but with his musical and vocal style as uniquely funky as ever. Rebennack’s alter ego of Dr John, a name that stuck to him from his early days, was partly fashioned on the high priests of voodoo but there was a strong psychedelic aspect to his image as well as his music. “The Night Trippers", for instance, was a reference to tripping on LSD and in much of his music—whether he delved into traditional swampy blues, jazz or funk—psychedelia is as prominent in the blend as those other genres.

On In the Right Place, which is his sixth studio album, Dr John is accompanied by his hometown band The Meters, and each one of the 11 songs, most of which are written by him, is outstanding—but the best track is undoubtedly Such A Night, the song that he played at The Band’s farewell gig. But his career really took off much earlier, in 1968, with the album Gris-Gris, a mysterious, mind-bending album that introduced listeners to snaky, spooky sounds and the concept of New Orleanian voodoo. A theme runs through the album with Rebennack introducing himself as Dr John, a tripper and purveyor of medicinal cures. The music is a cauldron of potent sounds drawn from jazz, Cajun folk, funk and blues.

It is a pity that although he was revered by music connoisseurs and other musicians, Dr John remained largely a cult figure in contemporary music, shunning the arc-lights of fame and battling heroin addiction for a large part of his life. He began as a guitar player in his early teens but switched to piano, according to lore, when he got involved in a fight and was shot in one of his fingers. His passionate involvement with his hometown’s voodoo culture would not only inflect his music and songwriting but also his sartorial sense—he often appeared in colourful Mardi Gras type headdresses and costumes and carried what looked like a voodoo priest’s roughly-hewn wooden staff.

Over the years, besides his own recordings and performances, Dr John contributed to dozens of other projects and albums, many involving some of rock ‘n’ roll’s biggest stars. He has played the piano and sung backing vocals on the Rolling Stones’ Exile On Main St; played with Van Morrison, Gregg Allman, Ringo Starr, Johnny Winter and B.B. King, besides numerous others.

Some artists reciprocated by appearing on Dr John’s own albums. In 1971, when he cut TheSun, Moon & Herbs, a studio album, top names from rock collaborated with him. On that album, you can hear Mick Jagger on backing vocals, Eric Clapton on guitar duty and Graham Bond playing the saxophone.

Much loved and revered, Dr John will be missed by music fans who have been touched by his albums and performances. As will be his cameo appearances in films. In the HBO TV series If God Is Willing And Da Creek Don’t Rise (2010), on New Orleans after the catastrophic Hurricane Katrina struck the city, Dr John played himself in some of the episodes; and he was also the inspiration for the Muppet character Dr Teeth. As he becomes part of the great gumbo in the sky, joining his long-time hometown peers such as Professor Longhair and Earl King, may he rest in peace.


Five tracks by Dr John to bookend this week

1. ‘Such A Night’ from ‘The Last Waltz’

2. ‘Mama Roux’ from ‘Gris-Gris’

3. ‘It Don’t Mean A Thing (If It Ain’t Got That Swing)’ from ‘Duke Elegant’ (a tribute to Duke Ellington)

4. ‘Zu Zu Mamou’ from ‘The Sun, Moon And Herbs’

5. ‘Shoo Fly Marches On’ from ‘In The Right Place’

First Beat is a column on what’s new and groovy in the world of music.


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