Dr. John Was Both Deeply Traditional and a Total Freak

The late pianist was an inspiration to New Orleans, The Muppets, and me.

Dr. John.
Dr. John performs in Nashville in 2016. Natasha Moustache/Getty Images for Skyville

Among the many amazing things that can be said about the late Dr. John, who died Thursday, is that his real name, Malcolm John “Mac” Rebennack, was even cooler than his alias. Rebennack was one of the most wildly talented American instrumentalists of the rock ’n’ roll era and one of the most gifted musicians to ever emerge from the city of New Orleans, and he’d surely prefer we emphasize the latter.

Dr. John was born on Nov. 20, 1941, a fact he himself may or may not have even been aware of until recently—in his 1994 memoir, the (literally and figuratively) incredible Under a Hoodoo Moon, he confidently stated that he was born in 1940. The second paragraph of that book opens by declaring that “My maternal grandfather, who sang and hoofed for a while for the Al G. Fields Minstrel Show operating out of Mobile, Alabama, was the one who passed the music on to me in a down way for the first time,” a statement equal parts exhilarating in its poetry (passed the music on to me in a down way) and bracing in its history. In 1994 many white musicians might have been inclined to downplay the fact that their grandfather had been a blackface performer, but Dr. John recognized the inerasable nature of this despicable but crucial chapter of America’s popular-musical past, as well as the importance of never denying that from which you came. It’s a sentence that, in just a few words, tells you almost everything you need to know about its author.

His parents were both music fanatics, with voracious and thoroughly undiscriminating tastes, and by his own recollection, the young Mac Rebennack first began skipping school to hang out outside New Orleans juke joints around the age of 10. While he would become best known to the world as a piano player, Rebennack actually began his musical career as a guitarist, and a brilliant one at that. He first learned the instrument playing along to the records of Lightnin’ Hopkins and T-Bone Walker (classic beginners’ stuff!) before coming under the tutelage of Papoose Nelson, Fats Domino’s guitarist. After paying his dues as a sideman and session player, Rebennack released his first solo recording, the guitar-and-sax instrumental “Storm Warning,” in 1959.

“Storm Warning” wasn’t much of a hit, but if it were the only record Mac Rebennack ever made, he would have still become a legend in the sorts of cultish circles that would have inevitably dug this thing up. It sounds like Link Wray’s “Rumble” and Bo Diddley’s “Who Do You Love?” thrown together in a gris-gris bag, a roaring, tremolo-laden tidal wave of rhythm. To my ears, there are five instruments on the recording: guitar, baritone sax, piano, bass, and drums, but there might just as easily be a hundred. (Reflecting on working with Phil Spector in the mid-1960s, Rebennack remarked that Spector could have gotten his famed “Wall of Sound” just as easily by recording with just six musicians from New Orleans.)

A couple of years after “Storm Warning,” Rebennack was shot in the finger, seriously hampering his guitar-playing ability. In characteristically counterintuitive fashion, Rebennack decided to redirect his focus to the piano. In short order, he transformed himself into one of the premier exponents of a New Orleans piano tradition that included Jelly Roll Morton, Professor Longhair, and the incomparable James Booker, another prodigy who was less than two years older than Rebennack.

Rebennack first became Dr. John on the 1968 album Gris-Gris, an audacious mix of psychedelia and New Orleans R&B that’s probably the most ambitious and best album that he ever made. It’s an utterly original work that feels genuinely steeped in folk magic and shadow histories: a “soundtrack of colonial collisions,” as Charles Hughes put it in a terrific essay commemorating the album’s 50th birthday last year. At a time when many rock artists were scaling increasingly grandiose and pretentious heights in search of the freakiest freakout, Gris-Gris was a roots record that managed to outfreak all of them. The album didn’t chart, but it quickly became an underground favorite.

By the 1970s, Dr. John had become a star. He had a Top 10 hit in 1973 with “Right Place, Wrong Time,” recorded with the Meters and produced by Allen Toussaint. (The album it appeared on, In the Right Place, became the best-selling LP of his career.) His leisurely but sneakily precise singing voice could be heard regularly on radio and television. He played with the Rolling Stones, Neil Diamond, Carly Simon, Van Morrison, and pretty much any other A-lister he wanted to. In 1976 he submitted a characteristically graceful and understated star turn at the Band’s famous Last Waltz concert, performing his magnificent composition “Such a Night.” He even served as the inspiration for another budding rock legend, Dr. Teeth, lead singer and keyboardist of Dr. Teeth and the Electric Mayhem, who first debuted on The Muppet Show in 1975.

Through all of this, Mac Rebennack remained implacably himself, even while in the throes of a decadeslong heroin addiction that he wouldn’t kick until the late 1980s. Long after his unlikely rock stardom had faded, he remained a brilliant and tireless ambassador for his city and its musical tradition. In popular culture, he came to function more as a sort of broad and facile embodiment of “authentic” New Orleans than as a singular human being and artist: In the 21st century, almost any casual music fan knows who Dr. John is, but far fewer could probably name more than one or two of his actual works. But if this was a position he ever resented, he never bore it with anything but wit and grace.

In moments like these, it’s always worth taking a minute or two to appreciate the true craft behind the artist, and in Dr. John’s case, there’s an unusually direct opportunity to do so. A number of years back, Dr. John recorded a series of instructional videos called Dr. John Teaches New Orleans Piano that are both unintentionally hilarious and totally breathtaking. Dr. John begins each segment by amiably pontificating on some aspect of the New Orleans piano tradition before launching into utterly spectacular renditions of standards like “St. James Infirmary,” “Goodnight Irene,” and “Key to the Highway.” All the while there is a camera helpfully positioned directly above the keyboard so that you can, you know, follow along at home.

I can’t think of a more effective way of convincing a budding pianist to quit the instrument than showing her these videos. I’ve been playing piano for more than 30 years, and these videos make me want to quit. But I also can’t think of a better way to send off Mac Rebennack than this video of him performing “When the Saints Go Marching In” from said video series. In classic New Orleans funeral fashion, he begins the song in a minor key, somberly drawing out the words and melody, his fingers splaying to impossible dimensions to reach chunking chords filled with lachrymose Sturm und Drang. Then, after finally returning to the top of the form, the Doctor abruptly pivots into the song’s more customary, upbeat, major-key rendition, and we’re treated to a little over two minutes of some of the most virtuosic piano playing you will ever witness with this degree of intimacy. His right hand is a dazzling showcase of trills, rolls, and runs, but as with any great sleight-of-hand artist, if you pay too much attention to it, then you’ll miss the real magic: his left hand, the true hallmark of any great New Orleans pianist. That left hand is all over the place, dancing across the entire lower registry of the instrument, perfectly in time and never making a false step. Watching those hands, startlingly up close and personal, is like witnessing a miracle. Mac Rebennack never claimed to be a saint in life, but today he’s in that number.