Nobody knows the name Malcolm John Rebennack Jr., but if you know music (and have good taste in music), you surely know the name Dr. John. He was more than just the hit “Right Place, Wrong Time.”
The first time I ever saw him was in the early ‘90s as part of Ringo Starr’s All-Star Band. He was relegated to just a few of his songs, but it was great. Since that time, I had seen him live three times. He always put on an amazing show, but always looked so sick. Two times I met him before the shows and had him sign an album. One of those times, I had two records. He was with a gorgeous woman, and walking with a cane and wearing a flashy purple suit. He said, “I hope you don’t mind, but...I’m not going to sign that one album, because it’s a bootleg.’
A buddy of mine has seen Dr. John about 25 times, and has even flown multiple times to New Orleans to see him in his hometown.
The “Night Tripper” got some fame in the late ‘60s, but mostly backing people up. The piano player from New Orleans that will always be more famous is Fats Domino, but this fat dude with the gravelly growl won many of us over.
Apparently, the last few years he’s laid low, and was in failing health. He was 77 when the fatal heart attack hit.
He had talked about his heroin addiction. And, in a terrific documentary on songwriter Doc Pomus (Save the Last Dance For Me, Surrender), you see clips of him producing a record for Dr. John, and he talks about him going to the bathroom to shoot up.
This guy was so talented, he ended up on Disney soundtracks (his contributions to “The Princess and the Frog” were the only thing good about that movie), and a Muppet was created in his likeness (Dr. Teeth).
Most people don’t know that he started out as a guitarist, but during a barroom brawl, he was shot in the hand, damaging a finger. He then switched to piano. It turned out to be the best loss of a finger in music history (no offense to Jerry Garcia or Django Reinhardt).
He started as a back-up musician, claiming he wasn’t a singer. Someone told him Bob Dylan was making it, and...if Sonny and Cher can make hits and can’t sing (who he backed up). So he decided to give it a go.
Rolling Stone named his debut album “Gris-Gris” one of the 500 best albums of all time (the song “I Walk on Guilded Splinters” was always a treat to hear live).
Dr. John finally made it into the Rock ‘n’ Roll Hall of Fame in 2011 (with one of the least talented to make it in -- Neil Diamond). But it’s cool that he went in with Leon Russell.
The Black Keys singer and producing whiz Dan Auerbach produced his “Locked Down” record after that, which scored him his 6th Grammy.
He’s performed at a Super Bowl, and at the White House. It’s a shame he didn’t perform at the White House with Donald Trump in office, because Dr. John is the only person with weirder stuff on his head than Trump (oh come on, I kid). But his headdresses and outfits were something.
He’ll be missed, but his music lives on (in our record collections) forever.