One of the most important and flamboyant musical ambassadors from the cultural crucible of New Orleans, Dr. John, the Night Tripper (Malcolm John Rebennack, Jr.) died of a heart attack on June 6 at the age of 77. A pianist, guitarist, and vocalist of gritty soulfulness, Dr. John wrote and arranged songs that could plumb the turbulent depths of demonic possession or capture the carefree strut and rut of the most hedonistic revelry. In the studio and onstage, he was a dominating presence, an alpha male radiating burly virility and esoteric wisdom. His vast catalog embraced R&B, rock, funk, blues, jazz, gospel, and boogie woogie—and it was all shot through with the man's extravagantly warm and distinctively sinister vibe. His persona—inspired by (per Wikipedia) "a Senegalese prince, a medicinal and spiritual healer who came to New Orleans from Haiti"—sure enough was a spicy paradox.
If you only know Dr. John through his fantastic 1973 funk smash, "Right Place, Wrong Time" (recorded with fellow NOLA legends the Meters), you have an incomplete picture of his adventurous diversity, which made him a coveted collaborator with musicians such as Bob Dylan, Aretha Franklin, Frank Zappa, Roberta Flack, BB King, Spiritualized (see especially "Cop Shoot Cop"), and several acts associated with super-producer Phil Spector. For a time in the 1960s, Rebennack was a member of the incomparable LA group of session musicians known as the Wrecking Crew.
While Dr. John peaked in the late '60s and early '70s, he continued to release interesting records at an age when most musicians' quality control has diminished. Albums such as Anutha Zone (1998) and Locked Down (2012, produced by the Black Keys' Dan Auerbach and featuring Whitefield Brothers drummer Max Weissenfeldt) recapitulated Rebennack's nocturnal, swampy atmospheres and slinky grooves while proving his voice had gained greater dimensions of feeling and sagacity.
Last year, Discogs asked several critics to write about their favorite records of 1968, to commemorate these albums' 50th anniversary. I chose Dr. John's debut full-length, Gris-Gris, which many consider to be his magnum opus—although Babylon, Remedies, and The Sun, Moon & Herbs give it a run for its money. He recorded Gris-Gris on his off hours from working with Sonny & Cher (the latter did an outstanding version of Rebennack's eerie epic "I Walk on Gilded Splinters"), and it became Dr. John's Astral Weeks—an unparalleled achievement that influenced many others while creeping below the radar of the mainstream. Here's my Discogs blurb on it.
My first listen to Dr. John's Gris-Gris occurred in New Orleans… while tripping on LSD. Ideal scenario! But one doesn’t need that set and setting to fall madly in love with the preternaturally soulful keyboardist/vocalist’s masterpiece. From the first seconds of "Gris-Gris Gumbo Ya Ya" to the fade-out of "I Walk On Gilded Splinters," the album conjures a hellishly heavenly hoodoo that makes you feel as if your brain’s swimming in a bouillabaisse of seven-horned lamb heads and mescaline. Whether it’s oozing darkness and mystery or evoking NOLA-tastic festiveness, Gris-Gris summons its own special sauce universe that neither The Night Tripper nor anyone else in the last 50 years has surpassed.
In 1994, Rebennack published, Under a Hoodoo Moon: The Life of The Night Tripper, an autobiography co-written with Jack Rummel, which The Guardian's Adam Sweeting describes as "a lurid memoir of his musical life in New Orleans that did not shy away from details about drugs, violence, prostitution and the dark side of the music industry." I regrettably haven't read it yet, but it's on my to-do list.
Dr. John was a veritable New Orleans music-history lesson, filtering his expansive knowledge into fervid, humid compositions that also served as monuments to his audacious personality. It's doubtful we shall see and hear his like again.
Dan Auerbach summarized Rebennack's uniqueness in this Rolling Stone tribute:
He came from a time before social media and everything became one big thing. He could truly be unique, isolated in a way — that special gumbo. We lost one of the greatest musicians who ever lived and also one of the greatest reflections of this country, musically, in one man. He was a human melting pot, a human embodiment of what makes American music great. He grew up with different races and experiences, and it made him the most incredible mutt ever. We lost something that will never be duplicated.