In 1968, veteran New Orleans-born session musician Mac Rebennack transformed himself professionally into a new musical persona, Dr. John, the Night Tripper, for his debut solo recording on Atlantic, Gris-Gris. An ambassador for NOLA's myriad musical styles, a crack studio pianist who has appeared on many noteworthy LPs (especially during the 1960s and 70s), and a lively personality on stage and television, Dr. John has maintained a formidably long career in American popular music, despite enjoying only limited mass commercial success.
Rebennack was born in New Orleans in 1940, and by his late teens performed on piano and guitar with local legends of the city's rhythm and blues scene like Professor Longhair and Joe Tex. After a gunshot wound injured one of hands in the early 1960s, Rebennack gave up the guitar and turned exclusively to piano, influenced most recognizably by Longhair's rumbling, bluesy style. The Dr. John character emerged after Rebennack had a successful 1960s run as a Los Angeles session musician, recording with the likes of Sonny and Cher, Aretha Franklin, and Van Morrison. The new moniker came from that of a mid-nineteenth-century Louisiana root doctor who had been arrested for practicing voodoo. Appropriately, Dr. John's early musical output is heavy on swampy ambiance, sounding at times like a cross between spoken-word poetry on a supernatural theme and the most oblique of late-60s free jazz. In public performance, Rebennack complemented this feel with a rich theatrical sense, appearing in costumes indebted to the flamboyance of New Orleans's famous Mardi Gras Indians. His showmanship and unique eclecticism began to attract notice, and while he hadn't yet cracked the higher reaches of the Billboard Hot 100, he began to keep loftier pop music company, as shown by the guest appearances by Mick Jagger and Eric Clapton on the fourth Dr. John release, The Sun, Moon, & Herbs.
With the 1972 album Dr. John's Gumbo
, Rebennack's music became decidedly less oblique, as he paid tribute to his New Orleans ancestors in a raucous set of old rhythm and blues. Many of the songs from this LP were to become staples of Dr. John's live sets ever after, including "Iko Iko
" and Professor Longhair's "Tipitina." A much more accessible disc than its predecessors, Gumbo
effectively set the stage for one of the major threads of Dr. John's career - namely, his proprietary interest in representing and explaining New Orleans musical history to a national audience. His offstage interviews reveal Rebennack's self-appointed role as an oral historian about the various blues and jazz styles borne from the Crescent City.
While he Dr. John continued his high-profile session work throughout the 1970s, appearing, for instance, on Carly Simon and James Taylor's hit, "Mockingbird," and lending keyboards to Rickie Lee Jones's Grammy-winning debut, his largest commercial success as a solo artist came with Gumbo's follow-up: In the Right Place
in 1973. The LP joined Rebennack in a New Orleans funk summit with famed producer-arranger Allen Toussaint and NOLA-funksters The Meters. This combination sped the album's lead single, "Right Place, Wrong Time
" up the Top 100, where it peaked at #9. The album's second-biggest single, "Such a Night," never ascended beyond #42, but has remained a recognizable part of the Dr. John repertoire. In all, In the Right Place was to be the biggest-selling LP of Dr. John's career, rising as high as #24 on the Billboard album charts. No Dr. John single or album release has come close to the Top 40 since.
While Rebennack has never again approached the level of mainstream attention that Right Place offered briefly, he has maintained an active and fairly visible career, touring widely and appearing often as a guest artist. (Notable examples of his ability to steal the show temporarily from bigger stars are his appearances in The Band's 1976 documentary, The Last Waltz, or on his 1996 VH-1 Duets television special with Eric Clapton.) Rebennack's later career has intensified the repertory influence he began with Gumbo, as with his various album-long sets of classic New Orleans rhythm and blues, or his 2000 centenary tribute to Duke Ellington, Duke Elegant. While this later phase has spurred some fans to lament the passing of Dr. John's early adventurous spirit, these more accessible, nostalgic records have earned him considerable accolades, including five Grammy awards between 1989 and 2008.
Rebennack was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame as Dr. John in 2011, more than forty years after the birth of his colorful alter ego.
The Muppet Dr. Teeth, a keyboard player with adorned in colorful outfits and plumage, was partly based on Dr. John.
In 1960, Dr. John was shot in the finger during a scuffle. The digit was repaired, but he found it difficult to play guitar, which initiated his shift to piano.
He wrote the theme song for the TV show Blossom, which ran from 1990-1995. In the open, the show's star Mayim Bialik dances exuberantly to the song. Bialik would later join the cast of the show The Big Bang Theory.