Dr. John: From Session Player To New Orleans Funk Legend

  • Dr. John, born Malcolm "Mac" John Rebennack Jr. in 1940 in New Orleans, began his music career in the 1950s as a guitar player. After playing with local bands, he moved to Los Angeles in 1963 and provided background music as a session artist for major acts. Here, Dr. John performs in New Orleans in 1958.
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    Dr. John, born Malcolm "Mac" John Rebennack Jr. in 1940 in New Orleans, began his music career in the 1950s as a guitar player. After playing with local bands, he moved to Los Angeles in 1963 and provided background music as a session artist for major acts. Here, Dr. John performs in New Orleans in 1958.
    Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images
  • A gunshot injury to his left ring finger hindered his career, causing him to switch to the organ and piano. Throughout the 1960s, pursuing a solo career, he gained fame as "Dr. John The Night Tripper."
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    A gunshot injury to his left ring finger hindered his career, causing him to switch to the organ and piano. Throughout the 1960s, pursuing a solo career, he gained fame as "Dr. John The Night Tripper."
    Photo courtesy of 429 Records
  • With over-the-top stage shows centered on voodoo and the supernatural, Dr. John became a cult favorite. Recording The Sun, Moon, and Herbs in the late '60s with Eric Clapton and Mick Jagger, Dr. John transitioned to a more traditional New Orleans R&B sound.
    Hide caption
    With over-the-top stage shows centered on voodoo and the supernatural, Dr. John became a cult favorite. Recording The Sun, Moon, and Herbs in the late '60s with Eric Clapton and Mick Jagger, Dr. John transitioned to a more traditional New Orleans R&B sound.
    James Demaria Productions
  • Recorded in 1972, Dr. John's Gumbo remains a cornerstone of New Orleans music. He performs during the Nice Jazz Festival in 2010.
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    Recorded in 1972, Dr. John's Gumbo remains a cornerstone of New Orleans music. He performs during the Nice Jazz Festival in 2010.
    Valery Hache/Getty Images
  • After Hurricane Katrina, Dr. John stepped up his relief effort by hosting fundraising concerts and recording benefit albums. His album City That Care Forgot earned him his fifth Grammy. Here, he performs during a concert in 2004.
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    After Hurricane Katrina, Dr. John stepped up his relief effort by hosting fundraising concerts and recording benefit albums. His album City That Care Forgot earned him his fifth Grammy. Here, he performs during a concert in 2004.
    Jose Jordan/Getty Images
  • More than a half-century after his first recordings, Dr. John continues to write and produce music, mixing the sounds of New Orleans with the flavors of R&B and rock.
    Hide caption
    More than a half-century after his first recordings, Dr. John continues to write and produce music, mixing the sounds of New Orleans with the flavors of R&B and rock.
    Bruce Weber/Courtesy of Shore Fire Media

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This month, five new performers will be inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. It's an eclectic group of selections, ranging from pop diva Darlene Love to shock-rocker Alice Cooper. But in spite of their differences, each of these singers adopted a special identity or image to stand out from the rest of the pack. Morning Edition has been looking behind the personas of this year's inductees.

The recording studio was crammed with musicians — some of the best players in Los Angeles. They had all gathered to provide a wall of sound behind Sonny & Cher.

Behind the tall woman and the little man were multiple guitarists, horns and keyboard players. Among that last group was a 26-year-old pianist from New Orleans named Mac Rebennack, who was not too happy with the assignment.

"To get all these keyboard players — and they were all good players — playing blink-um, blink-um, blink-um arpeggios together, it's not very hip," Rebennack says. "And it's not very funky. And it doesn't make me want to dance."

Rebennack knew funky. He had come from one of the most vibrant rhythm-and-blues scenes in the country, and there, he'd studied the styles of local legends like Professor Longhair.

But he had been busted for drugs one too many times, and the authorities had refused to let him return home after rehab. So he went to L.A., where, in the mid-'60s, there was plenty of mind-numbing session work to be had.

Rebennack started thinking of New Orleans and a story he'd heard about a 19th century medicine man, who was revered by the poor and feared by the well-to-do. His name was said to be John Montaigne or, more commonly, Dr. John.

In 1969, Rebennack released a thematic album called Gris Gris based on the Dr. John character. The record was a mixture of rhythm and blues, jazz and voodoo chants in a Creole dialect. The album was recorded quickly by a group of expatriate New Orleans musicians during leftover studio time between Sonny & Cher sessions. For Rebennack, the hardest part was stepping out front to do the lead vocals.

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Dr. John performs "Right Place, Wrong Time" on PBS' Soundstage.

"See, I don't know nothing about singing. I never wanted to be a frontman," Rebennack says. "Frontmen had big egos and was always crazy and aggravating. I just never thought that was a good idea."

No one else wanted to do it, either, so Rebennack, reluctantly, became Dr. John. When he started touring, friends from the New Orleans Mardi Gras Indians provided him with elaborate costumes, festooned with feathers and intricate beadwork. Rebennack says his goal was to preserve and promote a cultural legacy that was dying off, but the mysterious music of Dr. John connected with psychedelic rockers.

"We got some gigs playing at a love-in or a be-in or some kind of 'in,' " Rebennack says.

Since then, Dr. John's wardrobe has been scaled back to a snake-headed walking stick and some voodoo beads around his neck, and the music is straight-up funky New Orleans. But he's kept the name he took from that ancient medicine man.

"Doc has been my name all my life, and John is my middle name. I'm proud of all my names — Malcolm John Michael Creaux Rebennack," he says. "I'm proud of them names."

And has the formerly reluctant lead vocalist settled into his role as a frontman? "Yes," he says. "That's the tricknology of life."

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