Dr. John became a New Orleans musical icon not as a pop star of the present, but as a conduit of those who came before. “I come from the city of spirits,” he told The Quietus in 2010. “We respect our ancestors. In day-by-day livin’ and survivin’, it’s not your first thought.” But for those purposes, he had his own form of hoodoo: “Music keeps things alive in its own way.”
He didn’t just pay homage to his influences; he seemed to sinisterly conjure them from a cauldron. In a career spanning over 50 years, Dr. John threw his rhythm-and-blues heroes, like Jelly Roll Morton, Fats Domino and Dave Bartholomew, in the same funky gumbo. “In New Orleans [music], you can’t separate nothing from nothing,” he wrote in his 1994 autobiography Under a Hoodoo Moon. “Everything mingles each into the other.”
Today, we mourn the master amalgamator of Mardi Gras vibes. On Thursday (June 6), the artist born Mac Rebennack died of a heart attack, according to his family and confirmed by his publicist and social media manager Karen Beninato. He was 77.
He was an archetypal New Orleans wild man, grinding it out seven days a week in Bourbon Street strip joints while engaging in petty crime. After a stint in a Fort Worth, Texas federal prison for drug possession, he fled to Los Angeles as a studio rat, before cutting his 1968 debut record, Gris Gris. Instead of going under his own name, he named himself partly after a Senegalese prince who ran a voodoo operation out of a whorehouse: Dr. John, the Night Tripper.
Overseas, a bunch of rock ‘n roll boys were listening. Eric Clapton and Mick Jagger were taken by his primordial, necromantic sound — and enthusiastically guest-starred on his 1971 album The Sun, Moon & Herbs. His next moves would play more to his strengths, working with veteran R&B producers Jerry Wexler and Allen Toussaint on rootsier material. On 1970s classics like Dr. John’s Gumbo, In the Right Place and Desitively Bonnaroo, he growled gut-level wisdom over swampy stride piano. If I don’t do it, someone else will. Quitters never win. A winner don’t never quit.
He refused to quit right to the end, laying his leisurely-yet-edgy approach on later gems like 2012’s Locked Down. “I might go tomorrow; I might go in 20 years,” he told The Quietus. “The spirit kingdom is more powerful than the meat world we live in.”
Now, he belongs in the Big Easy’s pantheon. In honor of the Good Doctor leaving the building this week, here are his 10 essential cuts.
“Gris-Gris Gumbo Ya Ya” (Gris-Gris, 1968)
Dr. John’s debut song is full of sinister prescriptions: “Try a little black cat if your woman got another man/ So easy does it as you put it in the palm of your hand.” The music is a peculiar stew, with moaning backing singers evoking a creepy congregation. It’s New Orleans music boiled down to its incantatory essence. The label head, Ahmet Ertegun, reacted in horror: “How can we market this boogaloo crap?” But as always, Dr. John had his remedies to this problem.
“I Walk on Guilded Splinters” (Gris-Gris, 1968)
This droning gospel cut from Gris-Gris was based on an old voodoo church song. “It’s supposed to be ‘splendor’ but I turned into ‘splinters,’” Dr. John explained. “I always pictured splinters when I sang it.” The hostile, plodding music is appropriate. Just when you think it’s wrapping up, there’s a gulping sound effect or Middle Eastern trill to pull you back in; Dr. John would never record a psychedelic death march like this again.
“Wash, Mama, Wash” (Remedies, 1970)
Dr. John foreshadowed his ultimate form on Remedies, a dirt-between-the-toes album in which he largely ditched his shaman affect for down-home R&B. The lyrics aren’t much, just about a harried housewife washing laundry on her hands and knees. It’s the vibe that counts. From its stuttering groove to its sassy trumpet part, “Wash, Mama, Wash” combines so many New Orleans idioms into simple joy.
“Where Ya At Mule” (The Sun, Moon & Herbs, 1971)
Dr. John made the transitional The Sun, Moon & Herbs with a little help from his famous fans in London; it was also the first to touch the Billboard charts, reaching No. 184 on the Top 200. It’s a bold step into the sound we all know him for. On its highlight, “Where Ya At Mule,” Dr. John’s spooky and rootsy impulses merged into an idiosyncratic whole. Perhaps the presences of Jagger and Clapton were a vote of confidence.
“Right Place, Wrong Time” (In the Right Place, 1973)
By the time of In the Right Place, Dr. John had merged blues, soul and early rock with ease — all he needed was an injection of funk. This came courtesy of the Meters, a legendary ensemble that gave his sound some needed blood. The fresh approach worked: “Right Place, Wrong Time” remains Dr. John’s biggest hit, peaking at No. 9 on the Billboard Hot 100. Forget the title: “Wrong Time” was a polished breakthrough at a critical moment.
“Such a Night” (In the Right Place, 1973)
This gem would reach most people’s ears via Dr. John’s performance at 1978’s The Last Waltz, the classic concert film capturing the Band’s guest-filled farewell at the Winterland. The studio version just as much a delight, with Dr. John paring back the arrangement so he can slur sweet nothings right in your ear. Is he describing real romancing, or just “sweet confusion under the moonlight?” Every sarcastic swoop of trumpet is a flick of your nose.
“Quitters Never Win” (Desitively Bonnaroo, 1974)
The opener to the great Desitively Bonnaroo captures the ultimate Dr. John equation: a sneered idiom over a funky, relentless groove. He never sounded tighter before or since: the soothsayer who moaned “Gris-Gris Gumbo Ya-Ya” signing up for the hit factory. Bonnaroo captures the Doctor at his brash best, and the uninitiated could do worse than to cue up “Quitters Never Win.”
“(Everybody Wanna Get Rich) Rite Away” (Desitively Bonnaroo, 1974)
In his early days, Dr. John was a low-level criminal. He tried pimping and forging prescriptions. He lost his left ring finger in a shooting incident, forcing him to largely switch from guitar to piano. By 1974, he had traded committing misdemeanors for a music career, but by the sound of “(Everybody Wanna Get Rich) Rite Away,” he hadn’t forgotten his run-and-gun past. The rollicking, streetwise rhythm sounds like a heist pulled off without a hitch.
“City Lights” (City Lights, 1978)
Like many of his peers, Dr. John hit a fallow period in the late 1970s and early ‘80s, recording slightly less-inspired material for the defunct label Horizon Records. City Lights, featuring period studio cats like Hugh McCracken and David Sanborn, can feel trapped in amber with its dated production. But its title track, combining stride piano, strings and an evocative lyric, displays a subtlety Dr. John wouldn’t fully commit to again.
“Getaway” (Locked Down, 2012)
Dr. John was rejuvenated for the alternative rock crowd with 2012’s Locked Down, a back-to-basics set produced by the Black Keys’ Dan Auerbach. It would be his last album of originals — and his best in decades. “I think Dan wanted me to tell my story,” Dr. John told NPR’s David Greene. “It kind of started in one place and just kept going through chunks of stuff that I experienced in my life.”
The anxious, blustery “Getaway” seems to contain his entire story in miniature. The triumphs, the trials and the humor. An American original who never lost sight of who came before. A winner that never quit.