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Dr. John Was Committed to Honoring the Black Music of New Orleans

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Dr. John performs a concert at the bull ring in Valencia, Spain, on June 23rd, 2004.

The voice of Mac Rebennack, also known as Dr. John, sounded the same all the time, whether he was using it as a tool for speaking or a tool for singing: smooth, but with undertones of gravel. His words poured out with a slow rhythm, almost marching after one another in perfect step.

The first and only time I heard Dr. John speak in person was at a concert in his hometown of New Orleans, sometime in the late 2000s. After his first two songs, he told the story about how his finger got shot off in 1960; the injury pulled him away from guitar and toward the piano, the instrument he became most widely known for. While Rebennack was on tour with a young band in Jacksonville, Florida, a man began pistol-whipping the band’s singer, Ronnie Barron. When Dr. John stepped in to try and wrestle the pistol away, the gun went off while his hand was on the barrel: a clean shot right through his left ring finger. When it was sewed back together, it didn’t work as well as it had used to. Dr. John could no longer bend strings on the guitar without a lot of pain.

Dr. John told this story to the audience as a way of joking around about how he’d become a pianist. It was an origin story, in a way. For his whole career, Dr. John was interested in building his own origin stories, his own characters and myths. From the time he was 13 years old and gigging with fellow New Orleans music legend Professor Longhair, Dr. John learned that to succeed in the music business, he’d have to make himself larger than life.

Dr. John died earlier this month, succumbing to a heart attack on the morning of June 6th. He fought for and against a lot of things in his life, but the most notable thing he fought for was the preservation of New Orleans music history. From the beginning, he was known as Dr. John the Night Tripper. He released the album Gris-Gris on Atco Records, a division of Atlantic Records, in 1968. Ahmet Ertegun, the president of Atlantic, had at first insisted that he couldn’t put the album out, calling it “boogaloo crap” and suggesting that Dr. John go back and record something else. But what else could Dr. John have made? Gris-Gris was created with New Orleans arranger and producer Harold Battiste, and though it was recorded in Los Angeles, it kept the sounds of New Orleans R&B, even as it fused them with the winding, trippy psychedelic rock of the era. Like many masterpieces that the world isn’t entirely prepared for, Gris-Gris made very little waves in the United States until years later, when it came to be revered as the adventurous and unique record it was.

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