The son of a record store owner, Rebennack grew up hanging around Cosimo Matassa's celebrated J&M Studio, where Fats Domino recorded "The Fat Man" and Little Richard cut "Tutti Frutti." As a teenager, he played guitar with local heroes Frankie Ford and Lloyd Price. After taking a gunshot to his finger, he picked up the bass before settling on piano. He also struggled with a heroin addiction, chronicled in excruciating detail in his 1994 memoir, Under a Hoodoo Moon.
In the early 1960s, Rebennack moved to Los Angeles and worked as a session musician for Phil Spector, Sonny & Cher and Frank Zappa. During studio downtime, he gathered Louisiana expats to record music inspired by the mysterious traditions of New Orleans. Rebennack assumed the character of "Dr. John, the Night Tripper," taking the name from an infamous 19th century medicine man. His 1968 debut under the Dr. John moniker was titled Gris-Gris, and while Atlantic founder Ahmet Ertegun's initial reaction to the record was to ask, "How can we market this boogaloo crap?" the album became an underground radio favorite. The closing track, "I Walk on Guilded Splinters," was covered by artists from The Allman Brothers to Paul Weller.
In the '70s, Rebennack brought his distinctive regional style to a broader audience. On Gumbo, he introduced New Orleans standards like "Iko Iko" to rock fans. His 1974 Desitively Bonnaroo album, full of slithery funk, later gave the Tennessee festival its name.
Along the way, he joined The Rolling Stones for Exile on Main Street, took a star turn playing his hit "Such a Night" at The Band's farewell concert, The Last Waltz, and became pop music's go-to guy to bring projects a certain gumbo flavor. He sang Randy Newman's "Down in New Orleans" in the 2009 Disney film The Princess and the Frog, wrote and sang the ad jingle for the chicken chain Popeyes and even served as the inspiration for the frontman of The Muppets' rock band, Dr. Teeth & The Electric Mayhem.
Eventually, Rebennack found his way back to the music of New Orleans, and his final studio album released during his lifetime was 2014's Ske-Dat-De-Dat, a tribute to Louis Armstrong. "It's part of me, it's part of whatever I'm about," he once said about the city's music. "The importance of it is beyond anything I do."