Dr. John, who died June 6 at age 77, has been called “America’s premier roots musician,” but that’s not all he was. For 60 years, he was the leading global ambassador for the musical traditions of New Orleans. Though he worked with rock musicians, including Van Morrison and The Rolling Stones, he represented a direct connection to the city’s unique history of Dixieland, brass bands and swamp rhythms — which he learned directly from such masters as Fats Domino and Professor Longhair. In both his own work and numerous collaborations, he passed along the spirit of Mardi Gras to the likes of Aretha Franklin and Eric Clapton.
Born Mac Rebennack, the shamanistic pianist hit the top 10 in 1973 with “Right Place Wrong Time” and won six Grammy Awards — tellingly, across jazz, pop, rock and blues categories — most recently for 2012’s Locked Down album, produced by Dan Auerbach of The Black Keys. In 2011, he was inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame.
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.”