Born: November 21, 1940 in New Orleans LA
Mac Rebennack a/k/a Dr. John is, perhaps, the best-known and beloved musician to come out of New Orleans. From his early work as a session player and producer during the 1950s, to his solo recordings of the 1960s and '70s, Dr. John's fingerprints can be found on much of the best music to come out of New Orleans over the past six decades. While his tireless efforts on behalf of the victims of Hurricane Katrina have made him the city's musical ambassador to the world, his musical legacy has cemented his status as an elder statesman of a great city and musical tradition.
Mac Rebennack, Studio Wizard
Born Malcolm John Rebennack in New Orleans, Louisiana the young "Mac," as he was then known, grew up in an environment rich with music. His father owned a record store that sold mostly black music, and Rebennack immersed himself in the sounds of blues, jazz, and early R&B music. He often accompanied his father to local clubs to repair their ailing sound systems, and was thus exposed to musicians and a performing environment. By the age of 14, he could play guitar and piano, and formed his first band, Mac Rebennack and the Skyliners.
At the age of 15, Rebennack began playing recording sessions at Cosimo Matassa's studio, working with such local legends as Allen Toussaint and Professor Longhair. The teenager became an in-demand session guitarist, recording with artists like Art Neville, Frankie Ford, and Joe Tex, and he enjoyed his first success as an artist with the 1959 instrumental "Storm Warning," a regional hit for Rex Records. Mac was an essential part of the Crescent City's music scene, employed as a staff songwriter for Ace Records, and working as a producer and A&R man for labels like Ron and Specialty.
Dr. John the Night Tripper
Rebennack lived a rough musician's life at an early age, and a gunshot wound received during a bar fight while defending a bandmate shot off part of a finger, changing the way he played guitar. After trying his hand at bass playing, Mac switched permanently to piano, which became his signature instrument. By the mid-1960s, with looming legal problems and job opportunities disappearing, Rebennack relocated to Los Angeles where he picked up his career as a session player, performing on hits by artists like Sonny & Cher, Van Morrison, and others as well as working with producer Phil Spector.
Rebennack launched his solo career in 1968, creating the "Dr. John Creaux the Night Tripper" voodoo character to sell his unlikely hybrid of psychedelic rock, blues, and New Orleans-flavored R&B. Later shorted to "Dr. John," he released Gris-Gris, his debut album, in 1968, followed closely by Babylon in 1969. Rebennack slowly built a cult following with his flamboyant stage shows, where he often wore Mardi Gras costumes and headdresses. He released the Remedies album in 1970, and the similar-sounding The Sun, Moon & Herbs a year later, the latter of which included guest performances by Eric Clapton and Mick Jagger.
In The Right Place
While each of his early albums included moments of brilliance, all were uneven and none matched up to the fresh sound of his debut. He got his career back on track with the 1972 album Dr. John's Gumbo, an inspired collection of New Orleans standards like "Iko Iko" and "Tipitina." Backed by Crescent City musicians the Meters, Dr. John scored the biggest hit of his career with the Toussaint-produced 1973 album In The Right Place. Featuring the Top Ten single "Right Place, Wrong Time," a classic rock radio staple, the album would become Dr. John's best-known and best-selling effort.
He quickly followed up on his success with 1974's Desitively Bonnaroo, which featured more Cajun-flavored rock 'n' roll but failed to yield a hit single, the song "(Everybody Wanna Get Rich) Rite Away" barely scraping its way onto the charts. By this time the artist was experiencing a severe case of creative fatigue, Dr. John releasing seven studio albums and a live disc in eight years. In 1974, he would be enlisted into the short-lived "supergroup" Triumvirate with guitarists Mike Bloomfield and John Hammond, which resulted in a single unremarkable album.
Doc Pomus, Tin Pan Alley & Beyond
During the mid-1970s, Dr. John began working with songwriter Doc Pomus, the collaboration resulting in material for two albums: 1978's City Lights and the following year's Tango Palace, as well as songs recorded by B.B. King and others. Dr. John became commercially irrelevant in the 1980s as he followed his muse, his music reflecting a mix of New Orleans pop, Tin Pan Alley standards, blues, rock, and R&B music. He recorded two albums of piano instrumentals in 1981 and 1983, as well as collaborations with British jazz musician Chris Barber and blues singer Jimmy Weatherspoon.
During the decade, Dr. John supported himself with his talents as a studio musician, recording with artists like Carly Simon, Rickie Lee Jones, and Willy DeVille. In 1989, Dr. John revitalized his career with In A Sentimental Mood, his first studio album in ten years. Featuring a duet with Rickie Lee Jones on "Makin' Whoopee," the song became a minor hit and earned the artist his first Grammy™ Award. Through the 1990s, Dr. John continued his eclectic ways, releasing moderately-commercial collections like 1992's Goin' Back To New Orleans alongside efforts like 1994's Television, a set of spry New Orleans funk.
New Orleans Music Ambassador
Dr. John's influence on a generation of British rock musicians became apparent when he was asked to contribute to Spiritualized's acclaimed 1997 album Ladies and Gentlemen We Are Floating in Space. Dr. John's British fans reciprocated, artists like Spiritualized's Jason Pierce and the Jam's Paul Waller appearing on his 1998 album Anutha Zone along with members of the bands Supergrass, Portishead, and Primal Scream.
Dr. John released the all-star conglomeration N'Awlinz: Dis Dat or d'Udda in 2004, the album featuring guest vocalist Mavis Staples and such New Orleans musical talents as Walter "Wolfman" Washington, Snooks Eaglin, and the Dirty Dozen Brass Band. In the wake of Hurricane Karina, Dr. John became his hometown's musical ambassador, releasing the four-song benefit EP Sippiana Hericane a couple of months after the storm, and tirelessly organizing fund-raising concerts. In 2008, Dr. John released the angry protest album City That Care Forgot to raise awareness of post-Katrina New Orleans, earning the artist another Grammy™ Award.
Recommended Albums: The obvious highlights of Dr. John's erratic career are his 1968 debut Gris-Gris and the hit album In The Right Place. The solid 1978 album City Lights is often overlooked, while 2008's City That Care Forgot is the artist's best work since the early 1970s.
Dr. John Select Discography
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- Gris-Gris (Atco Records, 1968)
- Babylon (Atco Records, 1969)
- Remedies (Atco Records, 1970)
- The Sun, Moon & Herbs (Atco Records, 1971)
- Dr. John's Gumbo (Atco Records, 1972)
- In The Right Place (Atco Records, 1973)
- Destivively Bonnaroo (Atco Records, 1974)
- City Lights (Horizon Records, 1978)
- In A Sentimental Mood (Warner Brothers, 1989)
- Goin' Back To New Orleans (Warner Brothers, 1992)
- Television (GRP Records, 1994)
- Anutha Zone (Virgin Records, 1998)
- N'Awlinz: Dis Dat or d'Udda (Blue Note Records, 2004)
- Sippiana Hericane (Blue Note Records, 2005)
- City That Care Forgot (429 Records, 2008)
- Tribal (429 Records, 2010)