Malcolm John “Mac” Rebennack, (Dr. John) a decades-long New Orleans cultural torchbearer and accomplished pianist and songwriter, passed away on June 6, 2019, at the age of 77. Dr. John was a pioneering icon of the New Orleans style of R&B, rock and funk. His music has become synonymous with New Orleans as he spent more than half a century championing the sounds of the Crescent City to people all across the world.
Born November 21, 1941 at Charity Hospital in New Orleans, Dr. John’s career began when he learned piano and guitar as a child. His father, the owner of an appliance store and record shop, provided him with exposure to prominent jazz musicians King Oliver and Louis Armstrong. Growing up in the 3rd Ward had a lasting effect on his music and life as he received additional musical education from Cosimo Matassa, James Booker, Roy Montrell, Walter “Papoose” Nelson, and many other legendary musicians. Most notably, he was highly influenced and fascinated by the late Professor Longhair. In the 1950s, Dr. John became one of the first white sessionmen in New Orleans and gigged on Bourbon Street nightly.
Some of Dr. John’s best-known work includes Gris-Gris, his breakthrough 1968 album with heavy voodoo influence; and Gumbo, an overview of New Orleans music that came out in 1972. He was an incredibly prolific musician who released more than 30 albums throughout his career and performed live for sold-out audiences around the globe for decades.
He continued to remake himself as an artist throughout his career. He worked with producer Dan Auerbach of the Black Keys for his 2012 album Locked Down and released Ske-Dat-De-Dat: The Spirit of Satch, an album paying heartfelt tribute to another larger-than-life New Orleans legend, Louis Armstrong, in 2014. Both were met with critical acclaim. Dr. John has been a perennial favorite at the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival since 1980. His final appearance there was April 30, 2017.
In addition to his own lengthy discography, Dr. John performed on releases for countless other legendary musicians including Buddy Guy, the Rolling Stones, Aretha Franklin, The Band, Van Morrison, Johnny Winter, Maria Muldaur, and Junior Wells. He was inducted into the Louisiana Music Hall of Fame and Blues Hall of Fame in 2007 and the Rock’n’Roll Hall of Fame in 2011. Dr. John won six Grammys in multiple categories with his first win coming in 1989 and most recent in 2013. In 2013, Dr. John was also awarded an honorary doctorate from Tulane University alongside His Holiness the Dalai Lama and another New Orleans piano legend, Allen Toussaint.
The entire WWOZ family sends its best wishes to his family and friends, and our appreciation for the many years of music he gave us. We will provide additional details as they become available.
If you have thoughts or memories you’d like to share, please leave a comment below.
We’d also like to share some of the many photos of Dr. John that we’ve collected over the years: