Dr John, legendary genre-bending New Orleans musician, dies aged 77

Renowned artist Dr. John, known for his unique fusion of black and white music with a spellbinding stage presence and gritty bayou accent, has passed away at the age of 77, according to his family.

Dr. John, a New Orleans musician who mixed black and white music with a stage presence that played hoodoo and gritty bayou noise, died Thursday, his family announced. He was 77 years old. In a statement released through their publicist, the family said Dr John, born Mac Rebennack, died “in the early hours” of a heart attack. They did not say where he died or provide other details. He hasn’t been seen much in public since late 2017, when he canceled several concerts. He is resting at his home in New Orleans, publicist Karen Beninato said in an interview last year. A memorial service was arranged. “The family thanks everyone who shared their special horror journey and asks for privacy at this time,” the statement read. 

The artist’s debut in 1968, Gris-Gris, combined blues and blues with a rock and roll and surprised the audience with its sinister sense of otherworldly magic. He ended up having Top 10 hits with Right Place, Wrong Time, worked with many top rockers, won several Grammys, and was inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame. A white man who found a home among black musicians in New Orleans, he first got into music at the side of his father, who ran a record store and repaired PA systems in New Orleans bars. Orleans.

As a teenager in the 1950s, he played guitar and keyboard in a concert and made the legendary Cosimo Matassa’s studio his second home, Rebennack said in his 1994 memoir, Under a Hoodoo Moon. 

He went into music full-time after high school, dabbled in drugs and petty crime, and lived a dangerous life. His gigs ranged from escape clubs to halls, bus stations and chicken coops.

Rebennack’s left ring finger was blown off in the 1961 shooting in Jacksonville, Florida. He blamed Jim Garrison, JFK’s conspirator and New Orleans district attorney, for driving him out of the city he loved in the early 1960s. all night. Rebennack was thrown into prison by the world’s annihilation. By this time, he was a respected session musician who played on the old records of R&B stalwarts such as Professor Longhair and Irma Thomas. He was addicted to heroin. After being released from a federal prison in Fort Worth, Texas, at the age of 24, Rebennack joined his friend and mentor Harold Battiste, who had left New Orleans, to make music in Los Angeles. Rebennack, long interested in the occult and voodoo, told Battiste that he created a version of music from Dr. John, the male version of Marie Laveau, the voodoo queen.

In his memoir, Rebennack said, he was inspired by a New Orleans legend about a root doctor who grew up in the mid-1800s. Battiste, in a 2005 interview, recalled, “It was really kind of a game.” 

But Dr. John was born in Rebennack and made his first recording with what became Gris-Gris, a 1967 album of American underground music.

In the years that followed, he appeared with the Grateful Dead, appeared as a member of director Martin Scorsese’s documentary The Last Waltz, performed on the Rolling Stones album Exile on Main Street, and collaborated with others, including Earl King, Van Morrison. and James Booker.

   He immersed himself in the sounds of New Orleans from a young age, first through the local radio station and then went to nightclubs with his father, where Malcolm Sr. will set up the PA because young Mac is looking out the window, watching the musicians as Professor Longhair repeats. .

Mr. Rebennack, a piano and guitar virtuoso, was tutored by Walter (Papoose) Nelson, who played guitar with Fats Domino. “Back when it was difficult for a black person and a white person to get along, for a black person to give guitar lessons to a white person” it was “more beautiful”, Mr. Rebennack finally remembered.

He started playing clubs and records as a teenager and dropped out of high school to pursue music full time. Photo 

Dr. John performs at the annual Ponderosa Stomp music festival in New Orleans in 2008. Credit… See Celano for The New York Times 

He plays guitar for 18 hours a day, seven days a week – sitting in Bourbon Street clubs and nightclubs, leading his own band, mixing band players from white and black musicians separated from the community and recorded more sessions than he could count. .

“We had meetings every day, sometimes two or three a day, and you had to fight to get through,” he recalled in 1973. During his time, Mr. Rebennack wrote songs (he said he was the unpaid writer of Lloyd Price’s 1960 hit “Lady Luck”) and worked as an A&R at Ace Records.

He also developed heroin and regularly committed low-level crimes. “I’ve tried all the scams, but I’ve never been good at most of them,” he wrote in his book, “Under a Hoodoo Moon” (1994, with Jack Rummel). “It turned out that the only scam I was successful in was counterfeiting prescriptions.”

In late 1961, Mr. Rebennack became involved in a fight when a friend was being shot; for his trouble, he took a bullet in his finger. The injury forced him to switch to piano and organ as the main instrument. Not long after that, New Orleans District Attorney Jim Garrison closed down many of the city’s restaurants and barricades, while the area’s music collapsed. (Mr. Garrison had been the chief conspirator in the assassination of President John F. Kennedy.) 

When the heroin was seized, Mr. Rebennack served time in prison, and when he got out, in 1965, he went straight to Los Angeles.

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