The music legend, guitarist, piano man, jive talker and psychedelic godfather Malcolm John Rebennack – better known as Dr. John – died “towards the break of day” on Thursday, of a heart attack, a statement has confirmed. He was 77.
That last bit of information was something only discovered, or at least disseminated, late last year, in fact: in his fantastical 1994 autobiography “Under the Hoodoo Moon,” Dr. John had declared his birth date as “just before Thanksgiving 1940.” But in a column for the Times-Picayune published in November 2018, author John Wirt unearthed a birth announcement from the same paper 77 years earlier: Mac, as he was colloquially known, was actually born November 21, 1941. The factual fluidity was, in its way, appropriate to an artist who lived and worked in the shifting, hip space of the trickster, and also to one who was as iconic of New Orleans as Louis Armstrong, to whom his final album, 2014’s Ske-Dat-De-Dat… (The Spirit of Satch) was a tribute. (Armstrong’s real birthday was misreported for decades, too.)
Mac Rebennack started out in New Orleans as a teenage guitar slinger in the ‘50s, hanging around the Dew Drop Inn, a historic black nightclub (where he received hassle more than once from police enforcing the Jim Crow laws that regulated interracial gathering), and doing session work at engineer Cosimo Matassa’s J&M Recording Studios in the French Quarter. The Dr. John character – hoodoo mystery and cool – was originally developed for his bandmate and old Jesuit High School classmate Ronnie Barron, with whom he played in the R&B group Ronnie & The Delinquents. Barron had a record contract that stopped him from taking on the role, so Mac absorbed it; as the story goes, it was during a fight that broke out after a dance he played with Barron that Mac was shot in the finger, prompting his switch from guitar to piano.
It was that altercation, plus a stretch in a Texas prison on drug charges in the mid-‘60s, that prompted Dr. John to join what had become a solid community of New Orleans musicians, including Sonny & Cher musical director Harold Battiste and Wrecking Crew drummer Earl Palmer out in L.A., where he appeared on sessions with artists from the tripped-out girl group The Cake to a young Rickie Lee Jones. Also in the ‘60s, of course, he introduced his cosmically cool Night Tripper persona – draped in robes and feathers and gems – and released a run of enduring albums that combined swamp grooves and psychedelic sparkle for the Atco label in the ‘60s and ‘70s, starting with 1968’s Gris-Gris and running through 1974’s Desitively Bonnaroo, the title of which, a mix of old Creole slang and his own signature tongue-twisted hipster patois, gave the music festival in Manchester, Tenn., its name.
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