Cult singer and songwriter influenced by voodoo

Born: November 20, 1941;

Died: June 6, 2019

MALCOLM John ‘Mac’ Rebennack, known by his stage name Dr John, who has died aged 77, was an American singer, songwriter and record producer whose style was immersed in the Creole musical heritage of his home city of New Orleans, yet whose broad range of influences drew in blues, rock ‘n’ roll and the jazz style of Louis Armstrong, a fellow son of New Orleans.

In late 20th century rock music, Dr John was the go-to musician for any artist who wanted to sprinkle the sound of his home city upon their recordings – the Rolling Stones, Van Morrison, Ringo Starr, Eric Clapton and Neil Diamond were among those who called upon his services – from upbeat boogie-woogie piano to the murky, psychedelic blues which made a big impression on music heads through his debut album, 1968’s Gris-Gris.

Featuring Rebennack framed in a Satanic red glow on its sleeve, and credited to ‘Dr John Creaux, the Night Tripper’, Gris-Gris played upon the myths and fearsome dramatic potential of Louisiana voodoo and the bayou landscape. It remains sonically unique and electrifyingly forward-thinking to this day, yet also stands as a touchstone record of classic rock enthusiasts of the time; as seen in 1995, when a new generation of British music fans were introduced to Dr John through Paul Weller’s cover of the Gris-Gris track I Walk on Guilded Splinters on his Stanley Road album.

While Gris-Gris itself was originally intended as a concept album of sorts, with Rebennack playing the title character, it proved to be such a success that he retained the name for future recordings and performances, as well as the persona of the smartly-dressed, bejewelled, fedora-wearing ringmaster, a kind of gangster-shaman of the Deep South. Three more similarly-styled records followed in three years, consolidating his cult success, while a move into New Orleans R&B standards with 1972’s Dr John’s Gumbo shifted his career on to the next level.

Although Rebennack’s fame was based more upon the breadth of his influence and the range of collaborative work he enjoyed, than on any widespread pop success, his sixth record was the closest he came to a commercial breakthrough. Recorded with famed New Orleans producer Allen Toussaint and backing group the Meters, 1973’s In the Right Place was a modest hit.

Over a period of 46 years, Rebennack released 31 albums, his most recent being 2014’s Louis Armstrong tribute Ske-Dat-De-Dat: The Spirit of Satch. His own recording career ran alongside side-gigs as a much-in-demand session musician and record producer, while his unique profile brought appearances as himself in Martin Scorsese’s 1978 concert film The Last Waltz and Blues Brothers 2000 in 1998.

Born in New Orleans in 1941, Malcolm John Rebennack first discovered record players and musical instruments in his father's appliance store. From his mid-teens to mid-20s he was a session player, producer and A&R man in New Orleans, particularly with the local Ace Records.

Although he initially played both piano and guitar, a gunfire accident at a gig in 1960 injured Rebennack’s hand, and he concentrated on piano from that point instead. In his youth he was also a user and dealer of drugs, and after being imprisoned for two years, he moved to Los Angeles and became one of the Wrecking Crew of session musicians, playing for artists like Sonny & Cher and Frank Zappa.

Rebennack was reportedly married twice, and had a number of children.