Dr. John, an ambassador of New Orleans music and heritage as iconic as Mardis Gras Indians and brass bands, has died at age 77. Since emerging in the late 1960s as the mystical Night Tripper bedecked in feathers, jewels and bones, the pianist, songwriter and session musician born as Malcom John Rebennack, Jr. led a long parade of joy, propelled by swampy funk, primal R&B and an instantly recognizable voice.
Rebennack, whose accurate birth date was only recently pinned down as Nov. 20 1941, had musicians in his extended family but he didn't get started on guitar or piano until his teens. His record store-owning father exposed him as a boy to Louis Armstrong and King Oliver, influences that would stay close to the surface his whole life; his final recording, 2014's Ske-Dat-De-Dat, was a tribute to and remix of Armstrong material.
After landing a few gigs, he met and was tutored by the seminal pianist Professor Longhair. And by his mid teens, he found work as a session player on records by the likes of Earl King. He availed himself of the city’s vices as well. Defending a band-mate from an assault at a gig he got a finger shot off, directing his focus from guitar to piano. He battled a long, tenacious heroin addiction and spent time in prison in the mid 1960s.
That proved part of the impetus for a move to Los Angeles, where he became associated with the famous "Wrecking Crew" of studio players, contributing to some surprising careers including Sonny & Cher and Frank Zappa. Then in 1968, he took his place as a leader and artist, releasing Gris-Gris, his spectral, voodoo-heavy debut album where he emerged as his stylish alter ego, Dr. John, The Night Tripper.
Gumbo, his 1972 album of classic New Orleans songs, brought some of America’s greatest roots music, including “Iko Iko” to wider audiences. Soon after, he worked with Allen Toussaint and The Meters to make the funky classic In The Right Place, which produced his biggest charting radio hit.
Dr. John would go on to show his range with solo piano work, songbook standards and film music. And he took on a strong social voice on behalf of his city, releasing the self-described "aggravated" album City That Care Forgot in 2008, commenting on the dismal response to Hurricane Katrina. In 2012 he released Locked Down, an album made in Nashville produced by Dan Auerbach. In his later years, Dr. John’s long shadow was acknowledged with induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and the name of the Bonnaroo Music & Arts Festival, which was inspired by one of his early album titles. He received an Americana Lifetime Achievement Award for Performance in 2013.