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Mac Rebennack, better known by his stage name, Dr. John, is an acclaimed New Orleans R&B pianist, guitarist, singer, songwriter, and producer. He is equally renowned as a flamboyant cultural icon who speaks in a self-invented quasi-beatnik/New Orleans language, based on the concept of “trickonology,” and summed up in the statement “Life is always gonna be off the chain, and you can’t never hang no jacket on it.”
Born in 1940, Rebennack was exposed to R&B and blues at an early age in his father’s record and musical-equipment repair shop. At age seven, Rebennack took up the guitar and started taking lessons from the great R&B blues guitarist Walter “Papoose” Nelson, followed by instruction from another famed New Orleans R&B guitarist, Roy Montrell; both men, at various times, were members of Fats Domino’s band. Rebennack made his first public appearances with Montrell’s aunt, a gospel singer named Sister Elizabeth Eustace.
Several years later, Rebennack started working in his own band, the Skylighters, playing cover versions of R&B hits of the day. He began performing with secular African-American R&B artists, even though such public collaboration was banned during segregation and brought the risk of police harassment. Thanks to Papoose Nelson and Roy Montrell, Rebennack got in the door as a session player at Cosimo Matassa’s J&M Studio, then the epicenter of New Orleans R&B recording. At J&M, Rebennack played on songs by such luminaries as singers Frankie Ford and Joe Tex, and pianist Professor Longhair (Roy Byrd.) He produced hits for artists including the brilliant singer Johnny Adams, wrote hits for R&B artists such as Jerry Byrne, and recorded instrumentals such as “Storm Warning” under his own name.
In 1960, Rebennack suffered a gunshot injury to his left hand that forced him to switch to the piano as his primary instrument. Fortunately, he had learned a lot about this instrument as a protégé of Professor Longhair, New Orleans’ great, idiosyncratic, Afro-Caribbean piano stylist. As the ’60s progressed, the once-burgeoning New Orleans R&B scene began to slump, due in part to the success of “British Invasion” bands such as the Beatles. Many New Orleans musicians relocated to Los Angeles and Rebennack joined them in 1965, quickly becoming an in-demand session musician in a variety of genres. There, working with the multi-talented New Orleans expatriate Harold Battiste as his producer, Rebennack and Battiste created his alter ego: Dr. John the Night Tripper. This character was based on a nineteenth-century voodoo priest. As Dr. John, Rebennack played a unique blend of New Orleans R&B and voodoo-infused psychedelic rock. The song, “I Walk On Gilded Splinters” on his debut album “Gris-Gris,” which epitomizes this style, got considerable airplay in the then-new realm of FM rock radio, and Dr. John ascended to the global-level status that he enjoys today. Rebennack began to take this voodoo persona seriously, reflected both in music and his stage attire.
In 1972, Rebennack cut back his stage name to Dr. John and recorded a classic album of New Orleans R&B gems entitled Gumbo, featuring songs by Huey “Piano” Smith, Earl King, Sugarboy Crawford, Paul Gayten, and Professor Longhair. In 1973, he scaled the national top charts with the single “Right Place, Wrong Time,” produced by Allen Toussaint and accompanied by the Meters. Its flip side, “Such A Night,” remains a perennial favorite in New Orleans. And in 1974, again working with Allen Toussaint and Meters, Rebennack recorded the artistically brilliant album Desitively Bonnaroo which, quite curiously, made little commercial impact. The title phrase lives on, however, in the wildly successful Bonnaroo music festival, held in Tennessee, but established by…