Pianist, singer and songwriter steeped in the musical forms and voodoo culture of his native New Orleans
Wherever musicians gathered, Dr John, who has died aged 77, was revered as songwriter, singer, arranger and pianist. He became closely identified with the rich musical roots of his native New Orleans and as well as his mastery of the Crescent Citys various musical forms (which included blues, jazz, funk, boogie-woogie and rocknroll) he was steeped in its mysterious voodoo culture and folklore.
He began to develop a cult following with the release of his first major-label album, Gris-Gris (1968), a startling brew of voodoo funk and strange incantations, epitomised by the eerie eight-minute mantra I Walk on Guilded Splinters. Nobody had heard anything like it, including his label boss, Ahmet Ertegun. Ahmet asked me: What is this record you gave me Why didnt you give me a record that we could sell? Dr John recalled. He took the album on tour with a show resembling a bayou magic act, decking himself out in outlandish feathers, witch-doctor robes and headdresses. For a time the act also featured a man calling himself Prince Kiyama, who would bite the heads off live chickens onstage.
Two follow-up albums to Gris-Gris Babylon (1969) and Remedies (1970) began to make him influential friends, including Eric Clapton and Mick Jagger, who both appeared on The Sun, Moon & Herbs (1971), and in 1973 he released the biggest selling album of his career, In the Right Place. Produced by Allen Toussaint and with the Meters as backing band, it reached No 24 on the Billboard album chart and gave him a US Top 10 hit single with Right Place, Wrong Time. It also included Such a Night, which Dr John would perform at the Bands 1976 farewell concert, filmed by Martin Scorsese as The Last Waltz. He failed to reach such sales heights again, but was widely acclaimed across the rest of his career, and won six Grammys for various albums and singles.
Dr Johns real name was Malcolm John Rebennack, the same as his father. Rebennack Sr ran an appliance shop in the East End of New Orleans, fixing radios and televisions and selling records. Mac grew up listening to his fathers hoard of 78s by blues artists such as Big Bill Broonzy and Memphis Minnie, jazz by Louis Armstrong, Miles Davis and King Oliver, and country music from Hank Williams and Roy Rogers. His mother, Dorothy (nee Cronin), who had been a fashion model and made her own clothes and hats, arranged for her baby son to feature in advertisements for Ivory soap in the 1940s.
His family was intensely musical, with numerous aunts, uncles and cousins who were amateur musicians. From a young age Mac attended local gigs and, with his fathers assistance, visited recording sessions at the fabled J&M Studio. It was a meeting with the piano player Professor Longhair when he was 14 that persuaded him to pursue a musical career, and he began performing at local clubs. When Jesuit high school told him he must choose between schooling and music, he picked the latter. Proficient on piano and guitar, at 15 he began playing on recording sessions and accompanied artists such as Art Neville, Toussaint and Joe Tex. By 16 he had started producing tracks and was hired as an artists and repertoire man by Johnny Vincent at Ace Records.
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