Dr. John Was Committed to Honoring the Black Music of New Orleans
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.
When people make work that rigorously embodies the place they come from—in sound, in language, in dance—there is often commercial pressure to deliver that work in a way that’s accessible to a mainstream audience unfamiliar with the places and traditions a musician is tapping into. This urge can sometime push artists to dull the edges of their material and thereby avoid the unique aspects of the places and lineage behind their music. Various New Orleans artists have resisted this push to universalize their sound or lyrics, from jazz artists in New Orleans like Buddy Bolden, to bounce artists like Big Freedia. On his albums and throughout his career, Dr. John didn’t set out to translate New Orleans for the comfort of a wider audience. He could always get work in New Orleans if he wanted it anyway, as a session musician, or simply by playing live shows. He made albums that were hybrids of all the sounds he’d grown up loving: chunky horns and meandering piano notes and guitars, bending and bending until the sound howling out of them seemed almost like another voice.
There is history in all that music, and Dr. John honored that history, not just by playing it, but also by acknowledging where it came from. Late in his career, in 2014, Dr. John released Ske-Dat-De-Dat: The Spirit of Satch, a tribute to Louis Armstrong. On that album, Dr. John sang and played keys, trumpet, and guitar, backed by a luminous cast of supporting musicians: Terence Blanchard, Anthony Hamilton, Bonnie Raitt, Ledisi, and others. It was a tribute album, sure. But it was also a reminder that Louis Armstrong wasn’t just a titan of American culture; before everything else, Armstrong and his music were rooted in New Orleans, and could only be played a certain way by someone who’d grown up there, at the feet of his music.
When I find myself thinking of the many ways it becomes important to situate music within the history that shaped it, I think of Dr. John. When he would sing about Buddy Bolden, it was a reminder that jazz has a history, and that its history started somewhere. Dr. John was a white artist attempting to honor black music, as opposed to being a white artist merely recording black music. He did the latter, of course, as did most of his peers and predecessors. But Dr. John was after something more: He was working to keep the legacy of New Orleans music intact by playing with New Orleans musicians and honoring New Orleans legends. He wasn’t ever distant from the sounds he grew up on, because he continually gigged and played with the kind of people who’d also grown up on those sounds.
In places like New Orleans, where local history teems with artists who moved the music world forward, it is also easy for people to be forgotten. Particularly when a city becomes known less for what it has given, and more from how the world outside has taken from it.
If you’re like me, you might love The Last Waltz, the concert film of the Band’s farewell concert with a host of guests held at the Fillmore West in San Francisco on Thanksgiving Day in 1976. For all the stunning performances (a high and grinning Neil Young dragging through “Helpless,” or a high-kicking, purple-suited Van Morrison jamming through “Caravan”), there is Dr. John as I first came to know him: sitting at a piano, looking both pleased with himself and entirely at ease. He sang “Such a Night” in a way that felt like the Doctor was leading you by the hand for a stroll through a hot night on a reveling street in the city he loved. That is what I will miss most about Dr. John—the way that his voice always felt like it was eager to invite you inside a story, to the interior of a place you’d never seen, but could still sense the walls and streets and levees, just as long as he was the one telling you about it.
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