Malcolm John Rebennack Jr., known around the world as Dr. John, initially aspired to be a professional songwriter, producer and sideman, like the utilitarian New Orleans musicians who forged his creative worldview in the 1950s. He wanted to work behind the scenes, not out front.
But after assuming the persona of Dr. John the Night Tripper in the late 1960s, Rebennack was behind the scenes no more. His idiosyncratic style and sound – the gravelly growl, the sly, deceptively leisurely phrasing, the original hipster patois, the hybrid Big Easy piano – embodied New Orleans and its music.
Rebennack, an icon of the city who remained an active creative force until he abruptly disappeared from public view 18 months ago, died Thursday of a heart attack after years of declining health, a family member confirmed. He was 77.
Quite the colorful character, to say the least, you have to like the way he exited his last Jazz Fest concert.
During the 2017 Jazz Fest, he performed on the main Acura Stage on the fest’s first Sunday. The day’s earlier acts were washed out by thunderstorms, but Rebennack, resplendent in a green suit, was unruffled by the turbulent weather.
He fronted his revamped Nite Trippers, a band consisting of New Orleans drummer Herlin Riley, bassist Roland Guerin, guitarist Eric Struthers, organist Joe Ashlar, trumpeter Leon “Kid Chocolate” Brown and guest saxophonist Charles Neville. They closed their set with an epic “Big Chief” and a salacious “Such a Night.” Rebennack then strutted offstage, grinning, surround by a trio of scantily clad young ladies.
Here are two cuts in his honor. The first is from The Last Waltz and it’s one of his classics.
And the second? Well, I’m sure you’ll hear a lot of “Right Place, Wrong Time” over the next few days, so at least I’ll bring you a version that’s a duet with Eric Clapton.
Rest easy, big mon. You earned it.