b. Malcolm John Rebennack, 21 November 1940, New Orleans, Louisiana, USA. Dr. John has built a career since the 60s as a consummate New Orleans musician, incorporating funk, rock ‘n’ roll, jazz and R&B into his sound. Rebennack’s distinctive vocal growl and virtuoso piano playing brought him acclaim among critics and fellow artists, although his commercial successes have not equalled that recognition.
Rebennack’s musical education began in the 40s when he accompanied his father to blues clubs. At the age of 14 he began frequenting recording studios, and wrote his first songs at that time. By 1957 he was working as a session musician, playing guitar, keyboards and other instruments on recordings issued on such labels as Ace Records, Ric, Rex and Ebb. A gunshot injury to his left ring finger resulted in a switch to the piano as his main instrument. Rebennack made his first recording under his own name, “Storm Warning”, for Rex during that same year, and others followed on Ace and AFO Records with little success. In 1958 he co-wrote “Lights Out”, recorded by Jerry Byrne, and toured with Byrne and Frankie Ford. He had his first taste of success in 1960 when “Lady Luck” became a big hit for Lloyd Price.
By 1962 Rebennack had already played on countless sessions for such renowned producers as Phil Spector, Harold Battiste, H.B. Barnum and Sonny Bono (later of Sonny And Cher). He formed his own bands during the early 60s but they did not take off. By the mid-60s he had moved to Los Angeles, where he fused his New Orleans roots with the emerging west coast psychedelic sound, and he developed the persona Dr. John Creaux, The Night Tripper. The character was based on one established by singer Prince La La, but Rebennack made it his own through the intoxicating brew of voodoo incantations and New Orleans heritage. In 1968, Dr. John was signed to Atco Records and released Gris-Gris, which received critical acclaim but did not chart. This exceptional collection included the classic “I Walk On Guilded Splinters” (also written “I Walk On Gilded Splinters”) and inspired several similarly styled successors, winning respect from fellow musicians including Eric Clapton and Mick Jagger. The same musical formula and exotic image were pursued on follow-up albums, Babylon (1969) and Remedies (1970). Meanwhile, he toured on the rock festival and ballroom circuit and continued to do session work.
In 1971, Dr. John charted for the first time with The Sun, Moon & Herbs, an album that marked the start of his transition towards a more traditional R&B sound. The following year’s Dr. John’s Gumbo, a collection of New Orleans R&B classics produced by Jerry Wexler, charted, as did the single “Iko Iko”. His biggest US hit came in 1973 with the single “Right Place, Wrong Time”, which reached number 9; the accompanying album, In The Right Place, was also his bestselling, reaching number 24. These crafted, colourful albums featured the instrumental muscle of the Meters, but despite a new-found popularity, the artist parted from his record label and subsequent work failed to achieve a similar status. In the mid-70s he toured with the Meters, and recorded Triumvirate with Mike Bloomfield and John Hammond. He continued to record throughout the 70s and 80s for numerous labels, among them United Artists Records, Horizon and Clean Tracks, the latter releasing Dr. John Plays Mac Rebennack, a solo piano album, in 1981. In the meantime, he continued to draw sizeable audiences as a concert act across the USA, and added radio jingle work to his live and recorded work (he continued to play on many sessions). He the late 80s he recorded Bluesiana Triangle with jazz musicians Art Blakey and David “Fathead” Newman and released In A Sentimental Mood, a collection of interpretations of standards including a moody duet with Rickie Lee Jones, on Warner Brothers Records.
Despite employing a low-key approach to recording, Dr. John has remained a respected figure. His live appearances are now less frequent, but this irrepressible artist continues his role as a tireless champion of Crescent City music. In 1997, he signed to Parlophone Records, and recorded tracks with a host of younger English artists including Spiritualized, Supergrass, Paul Weller and Primal Scream for the following year’s Anutha Zone, which broke into the UK Top 40. A relaxed tribute to Duke Ellington followed in 1999. In between two fine collections of laid back New Orleans R&B (2001’s Creole Moon and 2004’s New Awlinz: Dis Dat Or D’Udda), Dr. John launched his own Skinji Brim imprint. The first of several archive live recordings, All By Hisself: Live At The Lonestar, was released in autumn 2003. In the mid-00s he was notably active in promoting the relief fund for victims of Hurricane Katrina (which had devastated his home town in August 2005), including recording the four-song EP Sippiana Hericane. In 2006, he released a collection of Johnny Mercer standards.
Available to buy
180g Single LP.
6th February 2012