Dr. John, Hall of Fame master of New Orleans voodoo rock, dies at 77

Dr. John, born Malcolm John Rebennack Jr., fused rock, funk, jazz and voodoo mysticism into time-tested albums and hits like "Right Place, Wrong Time."
Dr. John, Malcolm John "Mac" Rebennack
Dr. John performs at the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival in New Orleans in April 2017.Amy Harris / Invision/AP file

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By Alex Johnson

Dr. John, who brewed up a gumbo of rock, blues, jazz, funk and New Orleans voodoo mysticism that took him to the Rock 'n' Roll Hall of Fame, died Thursday morning after he suffered a heart attack, his family said.

Dr. John was the stage name of Malcolm John Rebennack Jr., who was born 77 or 78 years ago (depending on whom you believe) in New Orleans' 3rd Ward, also the birthplace of Louis Armstrong and many other notable musicians. It wasn't immediately known where he died.

To his friends and family, Rebennack was known as Mac, the name he used for his 1994 autobiography, "Under a Hoodoo Moon: The Life of the Night Tripper." He performed as Professor Bizarre early in his career before he hit upon the persona of Dr. John, the Night Tripper (sometimes rendered as Nite Tripper) during the late 1960s, when he set out on a solo career.

A virtuoso pianist — thanks to a gunshot wound that effectively ended his career as a virtuoso guitarist in 1960 — Rebennack was a prominent member of the loose collective of studio musicians known as The Wrecking Crew, which served as the default studio band for any number of West Coast pop acts throughout the 1960s and '70s.

Rebennack arrived in Los Angeles in 1965 after completing a two-year federal prison sentence on drug charges in 1965 and quickly established himself as an in-demand session player. Alongside top-class musicians like Glen Campbell, Hal Blaine, Carol Kaye, Leon Russell, Tommy Tedesco, Mike Melvoin and scores of others — often under the production genius of Phil Spector — he appeared on recordings by acts as diverse as Sonny and Cher, Canned Heat and Frank Zappa's Mothers of Inventions.

Around 1968, he went solo, adopting the Dr. John persona at the center of an intense stage show that grafted San Francisco psychedelia on to New Orleans swamp rock. Voodoo symbology and ritual were prominent parts of the act, which spawned an immensely influential debut album called "Gris-Gris" — a name for a kind of voodoo amulet and the name he gave his singular style of music.

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Rebennack further burnished his reputation in 1969, appearing on three tracks of "Music From Free Creek," a collaboration of some of the biggest acts of the day, among them Eric Clapton, Jeff Beck, Keith Emerson and Linda Ronstadt.

Mind-bending albums kept coming: "Dr. John's Gumbo," a 1972 record that charted for 11 weeks and is listed on Rolling Stone's ranking of the 500 greatest albums of all time; "In the Right Place," a 1973 exercise in dare-you-not-to-dance R&B funk that yielded the Top 10 single "Right Place Wrong Time."

The words "brain salad surgery" in a lyric from "Right Place Wrong Time" — it refers to a sexual act unsuitable for a family website to describe — inspired the title of the album of the same name by Emerson, Lake and Palmer later that year, the band told Rockline magazine in 1992.

A follow-up album, "Desitively Bonnaroo," wasn't as successful, but it inspired yet another musical landmark, as Richard Goldstone, a co-founder of the Bonnaroo Music Festival, told Inc. magazine: "When we were brainstorming names, we started flipping through old records and came across 'Desitively Bonnaroo,' by Dr. John. We looked up 'bonnaroo' and found out it was Creole slang for 'good stuff.'"

As his solo career waxed and waned into the current century, Rebennack remained one of the first musicians whom other musicians called to appear on their albums. You can hear him on the Rolling Stones' monumental "Exile on Main Street," Van Morrison's "A Period of Transition" and recordings by Carly Simon, James Taylor, Rickie Lee Jones, Mink DeVille, Maria Muldaur, Levon Helm and Harry Connick Jr.

In 1976, he backed The Band in Martin Scorsese's documentary chronicle of its farewell concert at the Winterland Ballroom in San Francisco, "The Last Waltz." Just last year, he headlined a tour celebrating the 40th anniversary of "The Last Waltz."

But younger listeners are more likely to recognize him from the theme songs for the TV shows "Blossom" and "K-Ville"; numbers in the movies "101 Dalmatians," "Blues Brothers 2000" and "Dazed and Confused"; and the Popeyes Chicken jingle ("Love That Chicken From Popeyes").

Rebennack was deeply involved in efforts to raise money and awareness for New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina in 2005, headlining the "Shelter From the Storm" telethon and then backing Aretha Franklin in her overpowering performance of the national anthem before the 2006 Super Bowl in the city.

As Dr. John, Rebennack was inducted into the Rock 'n' Roll Hall of Fame in 2011, presented by John Legend.

"His name has become synonymous with the city in which he was born," the hall said. "Dr. John's music is stamped with the rhythms and traditions of the Crescent City."

In his autobiography, Rebennack wrote that he was heavily influenced by a grandfather who ran the numbers and other games at the turn of the 20th century — the height of the minstrel and vaudeville era.

"There was scores of minstrel acts, black and white, crisscrossing the country back then; unfortunately, the race stuff came down thick and heavy in lyrics on both sides of the color fence," he wrote.

"But each song usually came with at least half a dozen different, alternate lyrics, too — some risqué, some sad, some funny, some crazy, however you might want to go, and if you didn't like none of them you could make up your own."

CORRECTION (June 7, 2019, 11:15 a.m. ET): A previous version of this article misspelled in a headline the name of a hit song by Dr. John. It is "Right Place, Wrong Time," not "Right Place Wrong Times." The article also misspelled the last name of an artist Dr. John recorded with. He is Levon Helm, not Holm.