Longreads

Remembering Dr. John

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The first Dr. John died in August 1885. He was known by many names, as New Orleans chronicler Lafcadio Hearn noted in his obituary.

“Jean Montanet, or Jean La Ficelle, or Jean Latanié, or Jean Racine, or Jean Grisgris, or Jean Macaque, or Jean Bayou, or ‘Voudoo John,’ or ‘Bayou John,’ or ‘Doctor John’ might well have been termed ‘The Last of the Voudoos,’” Hearn wrote for Harper’s Weekly that November, “not that the strange association with which he was affiliated has ceased to exist with his death, but that he was the last really important figure of a long line of wizards or witches whose African titles were recognized, and who exercised an influence over the colored population.”

The second Dr. John just died on June 6, 2019. In a way he, too, was a wizard — at least in the sense that anything done wonderfully well cannot be told from magic. This latter Dr. John was also associated with New Orleans and exercised his own influence as a singer, songwriter, and musician.

Born as Malcolm John Rebennack Jr., Dr. John was part of the third wave of influence — first jazz, then rock, and then funk — to emerge from the Crescent City, a place more responsible for American popular music than any other. His career took off while he was in exile, trying to preserve the music he grew up with. It ended with the world acknowledging his efforts to broaden our vocabulary, musically and otherwise.

“I been in the right trip,” he once sang — a line written for him by Bob Dylan, “but I must have used the wrong car.”

Born on November 20, 1941, “Mac” Rebennack grew up attending gigs and recording sessions with his music aficionado father, who turned him on to New Orleans jazz greats King Oliver and Louis Armstrong.

“Well, my father’s records were what they called ‘race records,’ which was blues, rhythm and blues, traditional jazz, and gospel,” Rebennack told Smithsonian Magazine in 2009. “He owned a record shop and had a large black clientele. They would come by and play a record to decide if they liked it. I got the idea as a little kid that I wanted to be a piano player, because I remember hearing [boogie-woogie pianist] Pete Johnson. I thought why not just be Pete Johnson?”

Fats Domino’s guitarists taught the young Rebennack some stuff. Meeting the great New Orleans pianist Professor Longhair inspired him to become a professional musician. Rebennack was present when Little Richard cut “Tutti Frutti” at Cosimo Matassa’s J&M Music Shop and Studio on North Rampart street. By the early 1960s, he was playing professionally, doing session work for such local luminaries as Art Neville and Allen Toussaint. Ace Records made him an A&R man at the age of 16.

By this time, Rebennack was also hooked on heroin and subsequently busted for possession. After his release from prison in 1965, he returned to a different world. It was already more difficult to play in mixed groups. “When the civil rights movement heated up, it became more dangerous to travel as part of these package shows,” he remembered. “Before then, we used to travel all over the South with no problem — me, Earl King, Guitar Slim, Chuck Berry, people like that — but then suddenly, we started getting hassled.”

Moreover, New Orleans was trying to clean up its seedy image, and many of its music venues, according to Rebennack, were “buckets of blood joints. It was not a wholesome atmosphere where you could bring your family along. There were gang fights. The security and the police would fire guns into the crowd. … Later [New Orleans District Attorney] Jim Garrison padlocked and shut down the whole music scene.” It was time to go.

Rebennack moved to Los Angeles, where he was soon playing sessions with Aretha Franklin, Bob Dylan, and Frank Zappa. “They recruited about half of New Orleans one time to go out and do The Sonny and Cher Show,” remembered Rebennack’s friend Coco Robicheaux. “They were all out there doin’ that, and Sonny was always after [Rebennack], ‘Man, I got a state-of-the-art studio, it’s there for you any time you want it. Y’all just lay around here, why don’tcha go do somethin’?”

Rebennack had an idea about a character someone could play, based on Jean Montanet. But he didn’t want to be Dr. John. He wanted his singer friend Ronnie Barron to do it. “I was never fond of front men,” Rebennack told the Smithsonian. “I didn’t want to be one.”

Barron was the reason Rebennack switched from guitar to piano. Years before, at a gig in Jacksonville, Florida, Barron was being pistol-whipped. “Ronnie was just a kid and his mother had told me, ‘You better look out for my son,’” Rebennack remembered. “Oh god, that was all I was thinking about. I tried to stop the guy, I had my hand over the barrel and he shot.”

“It just went right through my finger,” Rebennack said. “And my finger was hanging by a piece of skin. … They put it back on in the hospital and they sewed it back on very poorly and it never did work right.” When asked how he was able to play piano with a crooked finger, Rebennack quipped, “I try to avoid that finger when I play the piano.”

Barron was also responsible for creating a stage persona early on that inspired Rebennack.

“”I met Mac Rebennack when I was 15.” Barron once said.

I’d been aware of him since I was 12, and he had a good working band that played on the west side where I lived, in Algiers. New Orleans was a real fly-by-night town, where there was a big tourist crowd and people wanted to drink. They didn’t care about the music that much, just wanted to be entertained. So I created my “Reverend Ether” character, almost by accident. I made up this mythology about the voodoo and the gumbo. I’d shake the tambourine and say, “I’m gonna drop the truth on you!” I made up all this shit. This was before I worked with Mac, when I was working in a club on Bourbon Street. He’d come in and kind of watch what I was doing. … Mac realized the value in it, and after he hired me he wanted me to be the original Dr. John, because I already had a handle on the thing.

When Barron was hired by Sonny and Cher and moved west, he gave the Reverend Ether character to Rebennack.

Back in Los Angeles, Barron wasn’t interested in adopting Rebennack’s Dr. John persona. “Ronnie was like this good-lookin’ guy, liked to wear suits, he didn’t want to be no swamp thing,” Robicheaux said. “So they talked Mac into doin’ it. ‘You be Dr. John.’ And everybody loved it.”

Rebennack’s conga player told him, “Look, if Bob Dylan and Sonny and Cher can do it, you can do it.” And so Dr. John was returned to earth and put on a mission.

“I did my first record,” Rebennack said, “to keep New Orleans gris-gris alive.”

The first Dr. John was also a gris-gris man. According to Lafcadio Hearn, Jean Montanet claimed to be a prince’s son from Senegal, of the free-born Bambara tribe. As a youth, he was kidnapped by Spanish slavers. Given back his freedom, he traveled the world as a ship’s cook, finally settling in New Orleans. He became wealthy through fortune-telling and the folk magic practices that we now know as rootwork and hoodoo.

“By-and-by his reputation became so great that he was able to demand and obtain immense fees,” Hearn wrote. “People of both races and both sexes thronged to see him — many coming even from far-away creole towns in the parishes, and well-dressed women, closely veiled, often knocked at his door.” Before long, Montanet was worth $50,000 — enormous wealth for the mid-19th century.

The gris-gris originated in West Africa, and Montanet brought the practice with him. It takes the form of a fetish, carried by the user, for protection or benefit. They are often composed of an uneven number of bones, colored objects and stones, graveyard soil, salt, and other exotic ingredients such as bird nests. Gris-gris culture was already a part of Louisiana voodoo, brought to the state by enslaved West Africans, where it syncretized with elements of Catholicism. Hearn, a white man, described Montanet’s religion as “primitive in the extreme.”

If during his years of servitude in a Catholic colony he had imbibed some notions of Romish Christianity, it is certain at least that the Christian ideas were always subordinated to the African — just as the image of the Virgin Mary was used by him merely as an auxiliary fetich in his witchcraft, and was considered as possessing much less power than the “elephant’s toof.” He was in many respects a humbug; but he may have sincerely believed in the efficacy of certain superstitious rites of his own.

Rebennack had his own “notions of Romish Christianity”: He attended New Orleans’s Jesuit High School until kicked out for his musical preoccupations. Other forces connected him to Jean Montanet. “There was a guy the name of Dr. John, a hoodoo guy in New Orleans,” Rebennack once said. “He was competition to Marie Laveau. He was like her opposite. I actually got a clipping from the Times-Picayune newspaper about how my great-great-great-grandpa Wayne was busted with this guy for running a voodoo operation in a whorehouse in 1860. I decided I would produce the record with this as a concept.”

That record was 1968’s atmospheric, ominous, and thoroughly funky Gris-Gris. “One thing I always did was believe,” Rebennack told Mojo magazine. “I used to play for gigs for the Gris-Gris church. I dug the music, and that’s what I was trying to capture.”

“They call me Dr. John, known as the Night Tripper,” he sings on “Gris-Gris Gumbo Ya Ya,” in a raspy voice predictive of Tom Waits. (Rebennack once told a New Orleans paper, “I’m tripping through the shortcuts of existment to feel it and that’s good.”)

Got my satchel of gris gris in my hand

Day trippin’ up, back down the bayou

I’m the last of the best

They call me the gris gris man

“I always thought [voodoo] was a beautiful part of New Orleans culture,” Rebennack once said. “It’s such a blend of stuff; African, Choctaw, Christianity, Spanish.” He told the Smithsonian that he’d approached “some of the reverend mothers” and asked if he could perform the sacred songs. “But I couldn’t do them because it was not for a ceremony,” he said. “So I wrote something similar. One we used went ‘corn boule killy caw caw, walk on gilded splinters.’ It actually translates to ‘cornbread, coffee, and molasses’ in old Creole dialect.”

“It’s supposed to be ‘spendors’ but I turned it into ‘splinters,’” Rebennack remembered. “I just thought splinters sounded better and I always pictured splinters when I sung it.”

Coco Robicheaux had a more complex take. “Dr. John, he was very much interested in metaphysics. We had this little place on St. Philip Street. In voodoo they call the gilded splinters the points of a planet. Mystically they appear like little gilded splinters, like little gold, like fire that holds still. They’re different strengths at different times. I guess it ties in with astrology, and influence the energy. That’s what that’s about.”

Gris-Gris didn’t do that well commercially. “What is this record you gave me?” asked Rebennack’s label boss. “Why didn’t you give me a record that we could sell?” Still, the new Dr. John created a cult following by doubling down on the hoodoo visuals. He would appear onstage in a puff of smoke, decked in feathers (or merely body paint), robes, and headdresses. For a while, one of his opening acts was someone named Prince Kiyama, who would bite the heads off live chickens and drink the blood. Sometimes his backup dancers were nude.

It should go without saying that the new Dr. John’s act had as much to do with voodoo as David Seville’s 1958 hit “Witch Doctor” did to African shamanism, which is to say, not at all. When questioned about his Dr. John stage show later in life, Rebennack insisted that “it was very authentic,” and compared the abandonment of his dancers to “things that might happen in voodoo, where they’re taken by a spirit.” It seems more like the act was designed to appeal to his young, libertine audience rather than be an avenue of understanding a different, complex belief system. At any rate, he retired all that by 1976, when Rebennack appeared at The Band’s farewell concert (later immortalized in Martin Scorcese’s documentary The Last Waltz) to sing the charming, if not entirely wholesome, “Such a Night.“

America has always had two prominent cultures: the colonial and the communal. The colonial culture mimics or appropriates the voice of the underclass, manifesting itself in minstrelsy and coon songs, and even affecting civil rights–era folk music.

The communal strain of American cultural expression has been just as strong, but more fruitful. Think of Congo Square, the place in New Orleans where the first Dr. John and Marie Laveaux plied their trades. It was here that slaves were allowed to “gather, roughly by tribe, to play music, sing, and dance” in the 18th and 19th centuries. These rhythms, when combined with blues and European modalities and military marching band instruments, became jazz. Nothing like that had existed before. In the same sense, it’s how Louisiana voodoo was created out of a gumbo of multicultural spiritual and religious expressions to become something unique. Through the centuries, we have all gathered roughly by tribe. Sometimes it’s produced magic.

Mac “Dr. John” Rebennack embodied both of these cultures. His hoodoo schtick had a little of the “bone through your nose” stereotypes typified by artists like Screamin’ Jay Hawkins; it didn’t contribute much to cultural understanding beyond a new vocabulary of exotic words and phrases, which he had appropriated largely for effect.

But Rebennack was a musician — and more than that, a New Orleanian — through and through. He learned from black and white people, was shocked when a New Orleans auditorium wouldn’t let his white band back Bo Diddley, and dedicated himself to preserving that rolling, loose-limbed music he believed was dying. Later on, he often recorded with the Meters, the one band that epitomized New Orleans funk. Rebennack also revered his musical ancestors, recording tributes to Professor Longhair, Duke Ellington, and Louis Armstrong, New Orleans’s great ambassador of jazz. “I’m trying to give props to Pops,” Rebennack once said about his Armstrong dedication. “I think we’re all supposed to give props to our elders.”  

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Tom Maxwell is a writer and musician. He likes how one informs the other.

Editor: Aaron Gilbreath; Fact-checker: Jason Stavers

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