By William McCray Sutherlin
Malcolm John Rebennack, Jr., better known as Dr. John, was born in The Big Easy, and has been playing music professionally since his days as a studio musician in the late 1950s.
During this time he established himself as a well-known Crescent City musician by writing and playing guitar for established artists, including recordings by Professor Longhair, Art Neville, Joe Tex, and Frankie Ford.
In the ’60s, Dr. John accumulated a cult following after the release of Gris-Gris. The album showcased his unique blend of voodoo mysticism, funk, rhythm & blues, psychedelic rock, and Creole roots.
During those years he moved out West and was in high demand as a studio musician, recording with Sonny and Cher, Van Morrison, Aretha Franklin, and the Rolling Stones for “Exile on Main St.”
In the early ’70s his popularity became rampant due to his wildly theatrical performance. These shows were inspired by medicine shows of the Old West era, and included Mardi Gras costumes and Voodoo ceremonies.
The Nite Tripper has always been fascinated with New Orleans culture, especially the art of Voodoo. In fact, his name originated from the original Doctor John.
“Well, there was a guy with the name of Dr. John, a hoodoo guy in New Orleans,” he recalls. “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 runnin’ a voodoo operation in a whorehouse in 1860. I decided I would produce the record with this as a concept.”
Originally he focused most of his time practicing the guitar. However, his career as a guitarist came to screeching halt when his left ring finger was injured by a gunshot while he was defending singer/keyboardist Ronnie Barron, his bandmate, Jesuit High School classmate, and longtime friend.
After the injury, Dr. John concentrated on the bass guitar before making the piano his main instrument. His piano playing was largely influenced by Professor Longhair, and it didn’t take him long to learn the art.
In addition to his six Grammys spanning from 1989 to 2013, Dr. John has also received six other Grammy nominations over the years.
Already a Rock’n’Roll Hall of Fame inductee, in 2007 he was inducted into the Louisiana Hall of Fame and the Blues Hall of Fame.
In 2013, the doctor was awarded an honorary doctorate from Tulane University alongside His Holiness the Dalai Lama, making him now Dr. Dr. John.
Currently Dr. John is working on an album in tribute to Louis Armstrong, which is scheduled to be released in July of this year.
This year, Dr. John turned 73, and to celebrate he is touring all over the world.
After he stops in Baton Rouge for the Baton Rouge Blues Festival, Dr. John will head out to Australia for the Byron Bay Blues Fest, and then back to New Orleans for a very special evening at the Saenger Theatre on May 3.
Not surprisingly, this tour date was sold out months ago. It will be Mr. Rebennack’s “last waltz,” as they say; a sweet Big Easy tribute to a true American icon.
Guest appearances will include Gregg Allman, Tad Benoit, Anders Osborne, George Porter Jr., Lucinda Williams, jam legends Widespread Panic and many more.
This doesn’t even include the un-announced special guest list, which could undoubtedly include some of the biggest rock’n’roll names around.
His New Orleans All-Star Line-up concert won’t be his last. The doctor is set to travel the world from there, starting in Norway, cutting over to France, and then travelling to Spain. After flying back to the United States for a show in Chicago, he will be back at it, performing at venues in Vienna, Italy, Spain, Germany, and Curacao in August to complete his world-wide and seemingly farewell tour.
Simply put, Dr. John is a legend. Not just a New Orleans hero, but a world-renowned musician that has left his mark on countless other musicians and fans alike for many decades.
This will be the biggest headliner in Baton Rouge Blues Festival history. Be sure that you don’t miss out.