The Doctor is Out-There
The man born Malcolm John ”Mac” Rebennack Jr. in 1940 in New Orleans began his show-business career as the baby on the Ivory soap packaging. But it was a different art form that spoke to him; by his teen years, he had become fully immersed in the local music scene. After spending the early ’60s as a session player (with a sideline stint in federal prison on drug-related charges), he rechristened himself Dr. John the Night Tripper and melded his roots influences with psychedelic rock. Though he never seemed to pursue mainstream success, it came to him in the most unusual ways, whether via collaborations with industry superstars — fans include everyone from the Rolling Stones to the Black Keys — or memorable placements in movies and on TV (yes, Blossom). Over the years, the good Doctor has performed at both a Super Bowl and a presidential inauguration and has been inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. But his most lasting legacy may be as a Rosetta stone for the homebred music of New Orleans, the city that holds his heart and soul.
Top 10 Albums
A humid, humming debut that slathers his jazz and blues sensibilities with psychedelic ooze.
More downbeat than its predecessor, Babylon adds social commentary to swampy hedonism.
Dr. John’s Gumbo (1972)
Leaving behind nearly all acid-rock flourishes, Gumbo is tightly wound funk and soul.
In the Right Place (1973)
Backed by the Meters, Dr. John scored his first big hit with ”Right Place Wrong Time.”
City Lights (1978)
The early stuff is mostly covers, but Lights established Dr. John as a skilled songwriter.
In a Sentimental Mood (1989)
The ’80s were rough; this dive into the American songbook began his comeback.
Goin’ Back to New Orleans (1992)
A literal, spiritual, and definitive return to the funk and blues bayou.
Anutha Zone (1998)
A spacey team-up with admirers from Primal Scream, Spiritualized, and Portishead.
N’Awlinz: Dis Dat or D’Udda (2004)
Another batch of all-stars, including Randy Newman and Mavis Staples.
Locked Down (2012)
Producer Dan Auerbach helped Dr. John find his way back to early hoodoo heaters.
By The Numbers
16 Age at which he began working as a session musician at Mississippi’s Ace Records
1 Finger shot off in 1960 when Dr. John tried to break up a fight. It was later sewn back on but forced his switch from guitar to piano.
17 Number of days it took to record 2012’s Grammy-winning Locked Down
6 Grammys Won:
BEST JAZZ VOCAL PERFORMANCE, ”Makin’ Whoopee” (1989)
BEST TRADITIONAL BLUES ALBUM, Goin’ Back to New Orleans (1992)
BEST ROCK INSTRUMENTAL PERFORMANCE, ”SRV Shuffle” (1996)
BEST POP COLLABORATION WITH VOCALS, ”Is You Is, Or Is You Ain’t (My Baby)” (2000)
BEST CONTEMPORARY BLUES ALBUM, City That Care Forgot (2008)
BEST BLUES ALBUM, Locked Down (2012)
80,000 Estimated number of attendees at the 13th annual Bonnaroo festival in Manchester, Tenn., in 2014. The festival took its name from Dr. John’s 1974 album, Desitively Bonnaroo.
2 Years Time spent in federal prison in Texas for heroin possession (1963-65). He’s been sober since 1989.
1975 Year the Dr. John-inspired Muppet, Dr. Teeth, first appeared on The Muppet Show
Sonny & Cher
His debut, Gris-Gris, might never have existed without the generosity of the famed duo, who allowed the young sideman to borrow their unused hours in an L.A. studio for his own recordings.
Dr. John’s early encounter with the weird-rock maestro and his Mothers of Invention wasn’t exactly a meeting of the minds — he walked out of a session for 1966’s Freak Out! and never came back.
Eric Clapton and Mick Jagger
What’s a quick guitar lick and background-vocal cameo among friends? Both stars get credit on 1971’s The Sun Moon & Herbs, though it was hardly the only time they jammed together.
Toussaint, along with Professor Longhair, played a vital role in Dr. John’s artistic evolution — and helped him find his signature sound with 1973’s In the Right Place.
The pair are perhaps better remembered for their scene in The Last Waltz than for their work together on Morrison’s minor-key 1977 release, A Period of Transition.
The Black Keys frontman brought his own production flavor to 2012’s Locked Down; the much-acclaimed result garnered them both Grammys.
Best Onscreen Moments
From scorching performances to ’90s sitcom dance-athons
Dr. John’s New Orleans Swamp (1974)
Oh, just a completely bonkers hour-long televised concert you can find on YouTube, featuring Professor Longhair, the Meters, and about 18 gallons of sweat, confetti, and feathers.
National Lampoon’s European Vacation (1985)
Every ’80s movie got the makeover-montage music it deserved — the synth-riddled ”New Looks” is as awesomely dated as the Griswolds’ couture.
Legend has it that Mayim Bialik’s adorkable dance moves were first set to Bobby Brown’s ”My Prerogative” before producers (wisely) swapped in Dr. John’s ”My Opinionation.”
Vh1 Duets with Eric Clapton (1996)
The two old friends don’t go big on stage patter; they just double down on hits including ”Layla” and ”Right Place Wrong Time” at New York’s Roseland Ballroom. (It’s on YouTube.)
Piano Blues (2003)
In the Clint Eastwood-helmed segment of Martin Scorsese Presents the Blues, Dr. John talks about his influences and performs while wearing some pretty amazing yellow velvet slippers. (Also on YouTube.)
You can’t have a show about music and New Orleans without the man who’s pretty much a living embodiment of both. He appeared as himself in five episodes over the series’ four seasons.