On a cool fall evening in Kansas City, I took a group of folks from my church, in town for a conference, on an adventure. We ate at a Cajun restaurant then drove three blocks to an outdoor venue to see Dr. John. Our group was made up of a woman in her 80s, one in her 60s, a 30-something couple, a Millennial clergywoman, and two GenX clergymen — every single one of us sat mesmerized by the energy and good feeling of seeing this funky piano player with the gravelly voice and outlandish outfit. Our group was young and old, black and white and every one of us couldn’t help but pay attention — and have the time of our lives. When Dr. John, who died on June 6, took the stage, he created an atmosphere as thick as étouffée, salty as fried oysters, diverse as gumbo, and intoxicating as New Orleans itself.
The legend of Dr. John, Malcolm John Rebennack, began in New Orleans in 1941. His dad was the owner of an appliance store and a record store, giving the young Malcolm access to all kinds of musical influences, particularly local and national rock, blues and jazz acts. Malcolm was also deeply influenced by the overall flair and flamboyance of The Crescent City that emerged from medicine shows, voodoo and Mardi Gras.
His musical career began as a guitar player at age 13 with the legendary Professor Longhair. But his guitar playing was cut short when a finger on his left hand was injured by a gunshot. When he began playing piano, he adopted personas and playing styles of his New Orleans heritage and heroes, particularly Professor Longhair. His early days also involved a run-in with legal problems. He spent two years in prison on drug-related charges (and something about running a brothel). The experience apparently inspired a change in him. When he was released from prison, he moved to Los Angeles where he began playing as a session musician, eventually playing for acts as diverse as Sonny & Cher, Frank Zappa, Canned Heat, Van Morrison, Aretha Franklin, and the Rolling Stones.
During that time, he hatched an idea of producing a creole-inspired show that would feature a New Orleans voodoo medicine man of Haitian descent named Dr. John in full voodoo costume, and Rebennack leading the backing band. But the medicine man backed out and Rebennack assumed the headlining role. In essence, the rest is history.
For more than 50 years, Dr. John gave the world his unique blend of funk, boogie woogie, blues, rockabilly, jazz, and psychedelic rock. From his first solo release, “Gris Gris,” in 1968 when he was known as “Dr. John, the Night Tripper,” through a career that included more than 25 records, a boat load of compilations with everyone from Eric Clapton to Dan Auerbach, more work as a session musician than could be documented, six Grammy awards, and a Jim Henson Muppet character modeled after him, Dr. John was as mesmerizing in the studio as he was on stage. His hits, which include “Right Place Wrong Time,” “Such a Night,” “Makin’Whoopie,” Iko Iko,” and several others, didn’t do justice to the experiences that he created flavored with the essence of New Orleans’ music culture. Throughout his career, few people, if any, represented New Orleans to the world like he did.
My introduction to Dr. John was in the middle of a crazy hot summer when I lived with a cousin who had a penchant for introducing me to movies and music I’d never heard of. That summer, my cousin came home with a VHS of a movie called The Last Waltz, that included Dr. John playing “Such a Night” with The Band on stage. He came on with a huge pink bow tie, a pink and black coat, cool dude shades, a beret, his bearded grin, voodoo necklace, and the Joe Cool strut that made him seem to have an other worldly swagger — untouchable.
Over the years, I went looking for him. Sometimes he would show up on late night music variety shows wearing outlandish hats full of feathers, brightly colored jackets, silk shirts, and rhinestoned boots. Other times he looked like a peacock, sometimes a mismatched hobo, sometimes he would float on stage as a full New Orleans Big Chief, and other times a concert pianist in a simple black tuxedo. One time I saw a video of him with a skull on his piano decorated with beads and a boa. Whether hosting his own shows or acting as master of ceremonies for a variety show, he never tamed his wild New Orleans accent even a bit. Rough and gritty, no one spoke like him, no one else sang like him. His music captured all the rhythms and syncopations of New Orleans jazz and blues so that even when he sang the “truth” about life, as he called it, even the most tragic conditions almost became celebrations.
One time I took a church youth group to New Orleans to work with Habitat for Humanity a few years after Hurricane Katrina. The city was still (is still) far from being back to normal. While my group worked, we listened to a local radio station that, right at lunch time one day, featured a live studio performance from Dr. John, including a live interview. He pulled no punches. He was angry, hurt and frustrated that his city, the city of his heart, had largely been ignored by those who could have helped make the situation better. He thanked all of the folks who had gone to New Orleans to help rebuild, but he noted that the whole city was still in danger due to, what he called, the stupidity and greed of bureaucrats and politicians who hold onto their power and wealth instead of using them to improve conditions.
When I took my group of church leaders to Kansas City in 2014 and we got to see Dr. John live, I had won new converts. When I hear from the octogenarian of that trip, she always asks if I’ve been listening to Dr. John. After a heart attack took his life, the whole city of New Orleans dusted off their brass, their pianos, their saxophones and clarinets, and percussion and took to the streets as if they wanted to say to everyone who didn’t know, “Have you been listening to Dr. John?” The truth is that you owe it to your musical soul to spend an evening just sitting listening to Dr. John, the Captain, the Creaux, the Night Tripper, Mac, the heart of New Orleans.
News Herald Correspondent Jonathan Henley is a United Methodist pastor, former host of Road Signs radio show, and a music fan. He writes a weekly column for The News Herald. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.