NEW ORLEANS (AP) — Dr. John, the New Orleans singer and piano player who blended black and white musical styles with a hoodoo-infused stage persona and gravelly bayou drawl, died Thursday, his family said. He was 77.
Dr. John, born Mac Rebennack, died of a heart attack. No other additional information was given. He had not been seen in public much since late 2017, when he canceled several gigs. He had been resting at his New Orleans area home, publicist Karen Beninato said last year in an interview.
The family is currently planning memorial arrangements. “The family thanks all whom have shared his unique musical journey, and requests privacy at this time,” a statement said.
“Dr. John was a true Louisiana legend,” Louisiana Gov. John Bel Edwards said in a statement. “He showed the world Louisiana’s rich musical heritage, and his passion for music has left a mark on the industry unlike any other.”
Drummer Ringo Starr was among the first musicians to weigh in on Twitter. “God bless Dr. John peace and love to all his family I love the doctor peace and love,” the Beatles legend tweeted.
His spooky 1968 debut “Gris-Gris” combined rhythm ‘n blues with psychedelic rock and startled listeners with its sinister implications of other-worldly magic, employing a piano style both rollicking and haunting. He later had a Top 10 hit with “Right Place, Wrong Time,” collaborated with numerous top-tier rockers, won multiple Grammy awards and was inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame.
As a teenager in the 1950s, Dr. John played guitar and keyboards in a string of bands and made the legendary studio of Cosimo Matassa his second home, Rebennack said in his 1994 memoir, “Under a Hoodoo Moon.” After dropping out of high school he got into music full-time and became acquainted with drugs and petty crime and lived a fast-paced life. His music gigs ranged from strip clubs to auditoriums, roadhouses and chicken shacks. Rebennack’s ring finger on his left hand was blown off in a shooting incident in 1961 in Jacksonville, Florida.
The underworld sweep landed Rebennack in prison at which time he was a respected session musician who had played on classic recordings by R&B mainstays like Professor Longhair and Irma Thomas, but he was also a heroin addict. At 24 years old, after his release from federal prison in Fort Worth, Texas, Rebennack joined friend and mentor Harold Battiste who had left New Orleans to make music in Los Angeles, CA.
Rebennack, who had a fascination with occult mysticism and voodoo, told Battiste about creating a musical personality out of Dr. John, a male version of Marie Laveau, the voodoo queen.
Rebennack said in his memoir that he drew inspiration from New Orleans folklore about a root doctor who flourished in the mid-1800s.
In a 2005 interview Battiste said, “It was really done sort of tongue-in-cheek.”
But Dr. John was born and Rebennack got his first personal recordings done in what became “Gris-Gris,” a 1968 classic of underground American music.
Over the years that followed, Rebennack played with The Grateful Dead, appeared with The Band in director Martin Scorsese’s “The Last Waltz” documentary, jammed on The Rolling Stones’ “Exile on Main Street” album and collaborated with countless others, among them Earl King, Van Morrison and James Booker.