“Towards the break of day June 6, iconic music legend Malcolm John Rebennack, Jr., known professionally as Dr. John, passed away of a heart attack.” And thus the news of the great man’s passing was announced to the world yesterday. So larger than life had Dr. John been, you half expected to hear that he had actually made the announcement himself.
Long before he released his debut album Gris-Gris in 1968 the New Orleans musician had already led a full and colourful life, one characterised by playing in juke-joints in his home city, heroin addiction, petty larceny and time spent in the State Pen for burglary. During these so called “goofball years” he lost the use of his ring-finger in a shooting incident forcing him to switch instruments to piano (he had earlier played as a session guitarist with blues legend T-Bone Walker).
Having turned his life round in the mid-60s, Dr. John established a musical career that would then extend for more than half a century. It was one that owed much to his home city’s rich musical heritage, and drew upon the wide and varied influences of R&B, funk, psychedelia, Dixieland jazz, blues, boogie woogie, honky-tonk and ragtime, all shot through with his deep fascination for voodoo, the occult and mysticism.
He took his stage name “Dr John Greaux, The Night Tripper” from that of a voodoo practitioner who had lived in New Orleans in the early 1800s.
Dr. John leaves behind an incredible recorded legacy, including more than 30 albums produced in his own name – his reputation was undoubtedly forged through his early albums such as his debut record, Remedies (1970) and In The Right Place (1973), but later offerings like Tribal (2010) and Locked Down 2012) showed he lost none of his creativity, power or relevance – as well as countless collaborations with musicians ranging from Frank Zappa to The Grateful Dead and American jazz drummer Art Blakey to Spiritualized.
I had the great fortune and undoubted privilege to see Dr. John perform twice, first at the Rhythm Festival just outside Bedford, England in 2007 and then three years later on the Jazz Stage at Glastonbury Festival. Somewhat bizarrely given that he was the self-styled Night Tripper, both performances took place mid-afternoon in glorious sunshine. But whether it was day or night it was always the right time to see Malcolm John Rebennack, Jr.
Photos: Simon Godley