Dr. John, Hall of Fame Singer Who Brought New Orleans to the World, Dead at 77
Dr. John, the New Orleans pianist who fused funk with R&B and boogie woogie, died Thursday at the age of 77. The cause of death was a heart attack, his family revealed in a statement.
“Towards the break of day on June 6, 2019, iconic music legend Malcolm John Rebennack, Jr., professionally known as Dr. John, passed away of a heart attack,” his family said in a statement. “As a Rock N Roll Hall of Fame inductee, six-time Grammy winner, songwriter, composer, producer and performer, he created a unique blend of music which carried his hometown, New Orleans, at its heart, as it was always in his heart. The family thanks all whom have shared his unique musical journey, and requests privacy at this time. Memorial arrangements will be arranged in due course.”
Although best known for his 1970s solo work and radio hits like “Right Place, Wrong Time,” Rebennack was a key part of the “Wrecking Crew” stable of ace Los Angeles session musicians in the 1960s and played on recordings by Cher, Aretha Franklin, Canned Heat, Frank Zappa and countless others. He began putting out his own records in 1968 with the release of Gris-Gris. It was the beginning of his larger-than-life, Dr. John Creaux the Night Tripper character. He incorporated elements of voodoo into his outrageous stage show and quickly grew a large following, introducing much of America to New Orleans music.
Speaking to Rolling Stone in 1973, Rebennack discussed his internal battle over making “commercial” music. “The only thing that makes a record commercial is if people buy it,” he said. “Originally, I felt to go commercial would prostitute myself and bastardize the music. On reflecting, I thought that if without messin’ up the music and keeping the roots and elements of what I want to do musically, I could still make a commercial record I would not feel ashamed from, I’m proud of, and still have a feel for, then it’s not a bad thing but it even serve a good purpose.”
He was popular enough by 1976 to be invited to perform at The Band’s Last Waltz alongside Bob Dylan, Neil Young, Eric Clapton, Muddy Waters and other greats of the era, but his commercial fortunes waned in the Eighties and an addiction to heroin hobbled his career for many years. He kicked the habit hear the end of the decade, around the time that Ringo Starr helped revive his career by bringing him on the road for his inaugural All Starr Band Tour. He was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2011.
Dr. John released dozens of albums over the course of his career as both a solo musician and member of Bluesiana Triangle, a trio he formed with jazz giants Art Blakey and David “Fathead” Newman. In 2012, he released the Dan Auerbach-produced album Locked Down, which landed on Rolling Stone‘s Best Albums of 2012.
“In a piqued growl, he sings about drugs, poverty, ‘old diggers [and] money wasters,’” Rolling Stone wrote at the time. “With production and corrugated guitar by Black Keys mastermind Dan Auerbach, the 72-year-old mixes rock, funk and even Afrobeat to describe a soggy wasteland where honest men have equal fear of the KKK and the CIA.”
He continued to tour heavily until 2017 when health problems took him off the road.
In 1973, he told Rolling Stone that audiences didn’t need to know anything about New Orleans or voodoo to enjoy his music. “If you’re gonna get off on somethin’ you don’t need to know nothin’ about it, music is a universal language,” he said. “If it’s opera in Italian, you ain’t supposed to know nothin’ about Italy. You can just sit there and dig on it.”
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