Dr. John was a musical genius and New Orleans legend who combined jazz, blues, and boogie-woogie into voodoo-inspired performances. Born Malcolm John Rebbeneck, he was sure to turn heads as people passed him by. He is arguably one of the most influential characters in music history and permeated jazz into communities worldwide with a storied career and Disney+. A Rock & Roll Hall of Famer, Dr. John won six Grammy Awards and appeared in two episodes of “Touched By An Angel”. Despite dropping out of Jesuit High School, he eventually received an honorary doctorate from Tulane University. Dr. John fostered an iconic history with his truly unique career.
How does someone describe Dr. John? One could start with his local celebrity status. He frequented Jazz Fest lineups and his face adorns art across the city. His popularity is driven by his unique character - a fashion and style only overshadowed by an immense music talent. He looks like a muppet in real life and on the screen as Dr. Teeth, whose appearance is inspired by Dr. John’s likeness. His hits like “Right Place, Wrong Time” are embedded in our subconscious - one of those songs that you randomly hear in a movie you haven’t seen in 15 years. More importantly, the city continues to give back the same amount of love he gave to the city.
Dr. John was surrounded by the craft of music for most of his life. His father would help him visit recording studio sessions, where his life changed with meeting Professor Longhair. After performing with Professor Longhair, Dr. John went on to work with many New Orleans artists in the studio and on the road. He mainly played the guitar, but that changed when at 19 years old, his ring finger was shot off during a gig in Jacksonville. This afforded him extra room to flip people the bird, but caused him to switch instruments.
Throughout the 60’s, Dr. John was continually penalized by authorities for his association with black musicians and presence in black clubs. He soon expanded his endeavors to selling narcotics and opening a brothel. Following a drug-charge arrest, he served a two-year sentence in a federal prison and was released in 1965. It was after a move to Los Angeles that he was able to work with artists like Aretha Franklin, Sonny & Cher, and Frank Zappa.
Fans flocked to Dr. John with the release of his first album Gris-Gris. Combining exotic incantations with funk voodoo, the album includes “I Walk on Guilded Splinters,” a mantra that lasts 8 minutes. Dr. John toured this album performing a show that incorporated bayou witchcraft. He wore extreme costumes with feathers, headdresses, and robes - before it was cool.
In 1980, he signed with Warner Bros and managed to get clean from his heroin addiction. Some argue the opposite effect usually happens. His second album Goin’ Back To New Orleans won the Grammy for Best Traditional Blues Album. He continued to accumulate awards and collaborations over the years, working with the Rolling Stones, Van Morrison, and Ringo Starr. He passed away at age 77, and his presence and reputation are still felt in musical circles world-wide.
Me gonna do everything me could
In the spirit of Dr. John’s legacy of philanthropy in New Orleans, now is an amazing chance for our city to overcome by coming together. If you’re in need, there are resources available to help you through these difficult times. For musicians and performers struggling to find work, contact organizations like MACCNO to see if you qualify for a cultural relief grant. If you are a Lafayette Parish musician that has lost income due to COVID-19 check out the Lost My Gig Fund, supporting those who make a living playing live events in New Orleans.
If you want to help, please consider giving where you can. Learn more about Feed the Front Lines, or reach out to your neighbors to find opportunities to help them or someone they know. We got this - together.