Music News

Happy Birthday, Dr. John!

"They call me Dr. John, known as the Night Tripper." With that guttural growl, the once and future Mac Rebennack assumed the persona that would continue to define his guise going forward. One of New Orleans true originals and a musician who helped further the Crescent City sound, he was born in that place on November 21, 1940 and in spirit and sensibility, he's never really left. Adept on both piano and guitar, he's assumed a variety of different identities and musical styles, sometimes making him seem a schizophrenic of sorts while also endearing himself to a diverse following of fans and devotees. In so doing, he's demonstrated his ability to adapt to every era and make a demonstrative statement that defined his stance. Here, then, are the four incarnations that made this man so intriguing:

An early hit, and session man success 

Rebennack's original role was playing with local Louisiana bands under the various banners of Mac Rebennack and the Skyliners, Frankie Ford and the Thunderbirds and Jerry Byrne and the Loafers, prior to achieving a regional instrumental hit called "Storm Warning" in 1959. After a gunshot wound caused an injury to his left ringer finger, he was forced to temporarily give up guitar, resulting in a switch to bass and, later, piano. 

In the mid '60s, he relocated to L.A. and found work as a session player and back-up musician for such disparate acts as Sonny & Cher and Canned Heat.

Enter the Night Tripper 

The new musical underground and encroachment of psychedelia proved a perfect cue for Rebennack to don his early guise as Dr. John, the Night Tripper. A high priest of voodoo and incantations, his elaborate stage costumes and spooky persona summoned the spirit of New Orleans's traditional religious rituals. According to the liner notes accompanying the reissue of Gris-Gris, his first album recorded using that identity, Rebennack hoped his longtime pal and fellow New Orleans musician Ronnie Barron would play the role of Dr. John, but when Baron proved unavailable, Rebennack assumed it himself. Ironically, the original Dr. John was a19th century voodoo practitioner who also cloaked himself in various guises. To confuse matters even more, on the early albums released under that alias - Gris-Gris (1968), Babylon (1969), Remedies (1970) and The Sun, Moon and Herbs (1971) - the songs were credited to a variation of that alias, Dr. John Creaux. The latter album reflected his growing acceptance and elevated rock star status, given the guest stars - Eric Clapton and Mick Jagger among them - that added incidental support. 

Crescent City credibility 

Rebennack had conceived the Dr. John approach as early as his initial arrival in L.A., picturing it as a fusion of various New Orleans styles. However, it wasn't until Dr. John's Gumbo in 1972 that he shed the frivolous accoutrements and psychedelic suggestion and focused entirely on musical tradition. The album was essentially a covers collection that parlayed the city's specific genres, and it yielded a substantial hit in the durable standard, "Iko Iko." He continued that trajectory with 1973's In the Right Place, which led to his first Top Ten hit, "Right Place Wrong Time," a song that featured lyrical contributions from Bob Dylan, Bette Midler and Doug Sahm. 

That all-star collaboration was among the first of many. As Dr. John settled into his role as musical purist and an R&B standard-bearer of New Orleans funk, he found himself working with other leading lights - Michael Bloomfield, John Paul Hammond, Allen Toussaint, the Meters, Professor Longhair and the Band, not to mention noted producers like Thomas Jefferson Kaye and Bob Ezrin, as well as the prolific songwriter Doc Pomus. He subsequently expanded his approach even further, shifting his stance towards jazz, boogie-woogie and Tin Pan Alley standards, and grew his associations accordingly. His studio work continued to flourish and he found himself recording with the likes of the Rolling Stones, the Neville Brothers, Carly Simon, James Taylor, Al Hirt, Pete Fountain, Maria Muldaur, Van Morrison, Spiritualized, Rickie Lee Jones, Willie DeVille, and, most recently, Gregg Allman for his T-Bone Burnett produced album Low Country Blues. At the same time, he successfully ventured into the realm of television and film soundtracks. 

Super Star 

In 1989, his Class A credentials were further confirmed when he toured with the first incarnation of the Ringo Starr All-Starr Band, sharing the stage with the likes of Rick Danko, Levon Helm, Nils Lofgren, Joe Walsh, Jim Keltner, Clarence Clemmons and Billy Preston. He can also be heard on the amalgam's self-titled debut. More recently though, he's focused almost entirely on bringing New Orleans' music the international spotlight it deserves. He performed the Fats Domino song "Walkin' To New Orleans" to close out the 2005 Shelter from the Storm benefit for the victims of Hurricane Katrina, and later that year, he released an EP titled Sippiana Hericane in support of the New Orleans Musician Clinic, the Salvation Army and the Jazz Foundation of America. A year later, he shared the stage at the Super Bowl with Aaron Neville and Aretha Franklin in a special pre-game tribute to his hometown. In 2007, he contributed to the album Goin' Home: A Tribute to Fats Domino and in 2008, he was belatedly inducted into the Louisiana Music Hall of Fame. 

It's also fitting that when he played the tenth anniversary of the Bonnaroo Festival earlier this year with Allen Toussaint and the Meters, he culled largely from this album Desitively Bonnaroo. It was that album that gave the festival its name.

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Lee Zimmerman