Dr. John’s Reverent Subversion of New Orleans Cliché

The pianist, singer, and songwriter—who died Thursday, at 77—straddled camp and tradition, authenticity and commercialism.

Jonathan Bachman / Reuters

It’s hard to talk about Dr. John without giving in to New Orleans cliché. The Mephistophelian pianist, singer, and songwriter, who died Thursday, at 77, was happy to tempt that indulgence, just like he tempted listeners with so many other vices. There were the Mardi Gras Indian costumes he wore onstage; the checkered past, including an accidental gunshot wound; the hard living; the wry humor.

Just take the opening moments of his first solo record, which came out in 1968. First, a miasmatic swamp-guitar lick. Then the man himself, half singing, half talking huskily: “They call me”—beat—“Dr. John, the Night Tripper. Got my satchel of gris-gris in my hand.”

If this seems a little too redolent of Bourbon Street play-acting for tipsy tourists—Gris-Gris, the name of the album, comes from a voodoo amulet—let the record keep spinning, or streaming. Fifty-one years since its release, it remains shockingly weird. The mix of funk, blues, psychedelia, and Latin and African music prefigured jam bands (only actually greasy, and less meandering) as well as the cross-cultural borrowing common in today’s music. The album’s hit is the last track, “I Walk on Guilded Splinters.” It’s nearly eight minutes long and built on a repeating bass vamp and marginally intelligible lyrics. Yet it’s also irresistibly catchy: Cher released an excellent version of the song, at one-third the length, the following year.

Dr. John was born Mac Rebennack. He spent his nearly eight decades of life gleefully ignoring barriers: between pop music and outré explorations, black and white culture, authenticity and commerciality, tradition and innovation. That this, too, represents something of a New Orleans trope does not make it less true.

New Orleans is a piano town and a place where musical traditions are handed down from generation to generation through personal connections, and young Mac Rebennack was a product of both those customs. He learned to play at the feet of Professor Longhair, perhaps the greatest of the Crescent City keyboard titans. (Rebennack also played guitar, but the bullet wound to a finger, sustained when he tried to break up a fight, forced him to focus on piano and organ.)

Rebennack headed to Los Angeles in the mid-1960s, following a stint in prison for heroin possession. (He struggled with the addiction for years, making his advanced age seem like a miracle—or perhaps, more fittingly, a testament to the mystical power of voodoo.) In California, he became an accomplished session musician, playing with Phil Spector’s Wrecking Crew and backing artists from Sonny and Cher to Frank Zappa. Even after adopting his nom de piano and launching a solo career, he continued to be an in-demand sideman, including playing on The Rolling Stones’ Exile on Main Street.

But Gris-Gris made him a powerful musical force in his own right. Then, after disagreements with his managers hobbled The Sun, Moon, and Herbs, which was to be a sprawling fourth album, Dr. John was persuaded to make a record of New Orleans classics. The concept isn’t inspiring: It sounds like the sort of thing pushed on an unwilling artist by a greedy executive, and likely to produce a dull, dutiful reading of standards. Instead, Dr. John’s Gumbo includes tip-top renditions of “Iko Iko,” Professor Longhair’s “Tipitina,” and the like. It’s reverent without being fawning or rote.

Dr. John wasn’t afraid of this vein of commercialism, and in fact said he’d made his best money from writing jingles for brands like Oreo and Scott, the tissue company. But he never got less weird. In The Last Waltz, Martin Scorsese’s film of The Band’s 1976 farewell concert, Dr. John is one of the most memorable guests. Wearing oversize sunglasses, a beret, and a narcotized leer, he delivers a performance of “Such a Night” that somehow manages to out-swamp Muddy Waters, out-lech Ronnie Hawkins, and out-mystic Van Morrison, all of whom also appeared at the concert.

Despite his personal struggles, or perhaps because of them, Dr. John continued to record consistently throughout his career. He continued to make tribute records—a 2000 Duke Ellington homage is another idea that sounds dubious in theory yet won plaudits in practice—but also continued to search for new ingredients for his gumbo. His 2012 Locked Down, which is by turns menacing and uplifting, is steeped in Ethiopian jazz and Nigerian Afrobeat. He was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2011.

This decade has not been kind to New Orleans piano players. Dr. John completes a troika of losses, starting with Allen Toussaint in 2015 and continuing through to Fats Domino in 2017, a combined 240-some years of experience. Musicians of this caliber are said to have achieved metaphorical immortality. But with his voodoo trappings and mischievous mien, it’s easy to imagine Dr. John is still out there, tripping through the night.