New Orleans musician Dr. John dead at 77
Gravel-voiced singer had a fascination with occult mysticism and voodoo
Dr. John, the New Orleans musician who blended black and white musical styles with a hoodoo-infused stage persona and gravelly bayou drawl, has died. He was 77.
In a statement released through his publicist, the family of Dr. John said he died "toward the break of day" on Thursday of a heart attack. There were no details about where he died.
Dr. John — who was born Mac Rebennack — had not been seen in public much since late 2017, when he cancelled several gigs. He had been resting at his New Orleans area home, publicist Karen Beninato said last year in an interview.
"The family thanks all whom have shared his unique musical journey and requests privacy at this time," the statement said. Memorial arrangements were being planned.
Rebennack's spooky 1968 debut Gris-Gris combined rhythm and blues with psychedelic rock and startled listeners with its sinister implications of other-worldly magic. He later had a Top 10 hit with Right Place, Wrong Time, collaborated with numerous top-tier rockers, won multiple Grammy awards and was inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame.
A white man who found a home among black New Orleans musicians, he first entered the music scene when he accompanied his father, who ran a record shop and also fixed P.A. systems at New Orleans bars.
As a teenager in the 1950s, he played guitar and keyboards in a string of bands and made the legendary studio of Cosimo Matassa his second home, Rebennack said in his 1994 memoir, Under a Hoodoo Moon.
He got into music full-time after dropping out of high school, became acquainted with drugs and petty crime and lived a fast-paced life. His gigs ranged from strip clubs to auditoriums, roadhouses and chicken shacks. The ring finger of Rebennack's left hand was blown off in a shooting incident in 1961 in Jacksonville, Fla.
Collaborated with numerous artists
He blamed Jim Garrison, the JFK conspiracy theorist and a tough-on-crime New Orleans district attorney, for driving him out of his beloved city in the early 1960s. Garrison went after prostitutes, bars and all-night music venues.
The underworld sweep put Rebennack in prison. At that time, he was a respected session musician who had played on classic recordings by R&B mainstays like Professor Longhair and Irma Thomas, but he was also a heroin addict. After his release from federal prison in Fort Worth, Texas, at 24, Rebennack joined friend and mentor Harold Battiste who had left New Orleans to make music in Los Angeles.
Rebennack, who'd long had a fascination with occult mysticism and voodoo, told Battiste about creating a musical personality out of Dr. John, a male version of Marie Laveau, the voodoo queen.
In his memoir, Rebennack said, he drew inspiration from New Orleans folklore about a root doctor who flourished in the mid-1800s.
In a 2005 interview, Battiste recalled, "It was really done sort of tongue-in-cheek."
But Dr. John was born and Rebennack got his first personal recordings done in what became Gris-Gris, a classic of underground American music.
In the years that followed, he played with The Grateful Dead, appeared with The Band in director Martin Scorsese's The Last Waltz documentary, jammed on The Rolling Stones' Exile on Main Street album and collaborated with countless others — among them Ringo Starr, Carly Simon, Earl King, Van Morrison, Angelique Kidjo and James Booker.
God bless Dr. John peace and love to all his family I love the doctor peace and love 😎✌️🌟❤️🎶🎵☯️☮️ <a href="https://t.co/ljFWmMp9V9">pic.twitter.com/ljFWmMp9V9</a>—@ringostarrmusic
Rest in funky peace <a href="https://twitter.com/hashtag/DrJohn?src=hash&ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw">#DrJohn</a>, you were one of a kind. <a href="https://t.co/7ZT0jMJMbp">pic.twitter.com/7ZT0jMJMbp</a>—@metheridge
Rest in Peace Dr. John. You were such a huge part of New Orleans music and the history of Jazz Fest. We love you and will celebrate all that you gave us.<br><br>Dr. John & the Nite Trippers performing at the 2016 Jazz Fest<br>📷 Douglas Mason <a href="https://t.co/5zLOegASFT">pic.twitter.com/5zLOegASFT</a>—@jazzfest