Malcolm John Rebennack, November 20, 1941 – June 6, 2019. Christine Ohlman, the “Beehive Queen,” pays tribute to her friend, Dr. John, who transcends the usual accolades and praise and went far beyond hip
Dr. John, The Night Tripper
Gris-Gris Big Daddy
Human Repository of the History of New Orleans Jump & Jive
Walked on Gilded Splinters
Heir to the Tradition of Fess (Professor Longhair) & James Booker
Member of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame (Class of 2011)
Son of the Third Ward
Father Owned a Record Shop (his entree into the voodoo world of NOLA recording)
Hired as a Producer at Age 16 by Johnny Vincent at Ace Records
Rock & Roll Doctor par excellence
NOLA’s Musical Ambassador to the World;
One in A Million
“Iconic” is a word too often used. It means “someone that is considered symbolic of something else, like spirituality, virtue, or talent; widely known and acknowledged, especially for distinctive excellence.” But, however you slice “iconic,” June 6, 2019 marked the end of an era. NPR’s lovely and loving obituary by Alison Fensterstock got it right: “Dr. John spent his creative life making connections between the deep and broad heritage of New Orleans—the fertile crescent of all-American music, arguably—and the electronic progress of rock and funk.” That says it all, and yet, there’s so much more to say.
I am proud to state that I knew the man. Talk to the cats and kittens in NOLA and they’ll all say the same: ”Mac! What a trip!” He was a guitar session ace first. Listen to his first recording, 1959’s blistering “Storm Warning” on the Rex label, with Red Tyler on sax. He sets the fretboard on fire. Before he got part of a finger shot off, cat could PLAY!
Then…on to the piano, and the evolution of a style so gorgeously, fantastically deep, you could drown in it. Fensterstock again nails it: “Songs like ‘Mama Roux’ and ‘Walk on Gilded Splinters’ were slinky trips through a dreamy, goofer-dust glittered bayou.”
Indeed—and the world caught on, quick.
Some personal thoughts. He’d been inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame (Class of 2011) the night before, and we met in his suite at the Waldorf, the great photographer Michael Weintrob (Instrumenthead) circling us, snapping. We were on our way to an “Evening of Duets” at a private home on Long Island to benefit the New Orleans Musicians Clinic, a charity that we both cherished. Right away…the stories! Darlene Love! Brenda Holloway! Lenny Pickett dancing, age 17, in the horn line of Tower of Power! Not one of the sagas was about New Orleans. Mac knew everyone in the business: he’d worked with them all!
In the car on the way to Long Island, we rested and talked about Dave Bartholomew, another badass. Mac told me he’d loved the R&R Hall jam the night before, led by Paul Shaffer.
We devised a short set list for the house concert. Would I sing “There Is Something On Your Mind”? Of course I would—to me, the most soulfully poignant NOLA ballad. A perfect choice! We’d duet on “Iko”, naturally, and he’d play some Fess [Professor Longhair]: ”Tipitina”. We’d wail on “Big Chief” (“Me got fire can’t put it out”!!).
A wonderful gathering of folks prepared to be very generous to the Clinic greeted us and stayed with us, note for note. We repeated this performance again a few months later in Connecticut. And then, over the years, on to other stages, other dressing rooms, other stories…other “Such-A-Night”’s
He was a joy. Music ran in his veins and out his fingers, as they say down South. He remained rooted in a kind of voodoo as long as I knew him (wouldn’t touch a $20 bill, for instance, because of Andrew Jackson’s face on it). “Mellow”—another overused word—described his very self, but “hipster” somehow fell short. Mac went beyond hip. He just….was…The Doctor.
My dear friend Bonnie Bramlett called me at 11 am on the day he passed, inconsolable—as was I, the minute she told me the news. She’d known Mac most of her life—she and Delaney ran with him and his wife Lorraine on the West Coast. As it turns out, she knew his mother, too (of course she did!), whom Bonnie called “a perfect Southern belle.” She’d once told Bonnie, “You know, when Malcolm was younger, I got him elocution lessons.” We roared! Elocution lessons!!!! Because…. to know Mac was to know the patois—that particular NOLA slang that defies description—and his dexterity with it. He spoke it; he lived it. It bubbled out of his mouth like honey. Singing “Iko” with him, or “Gilded Splinters,” he’d spiral into it, and there was raucous happiness, and sweet history, in every word.
History! He embodied it, like nobody else in the NOLA scene, because of the wide, comfortable berth he’d made for himself on a boat that sailed on a river of jazz, funk, rock & roll, and gris-gris, with marvelous side journeys to the tributaries of American popular song. Heir to Fess, James Booker, and—of course—Satchmo, Mac sailed from shore to shore at will, creating a massive discography. Nominated for an Oscar and 15 Grammys (winning 6), he tributed Johnny Mercer, wrote with Doc Pomus, and collaborated musically with everyone under the sun.
Hurricane Katrina energized him politically. Sippiana Hericane, with his great band The Lower 911, raged and rocked against the horrors visited on his beloved hometown. Post-Katrina benefits like the NOLA Musician Clinic’s “Down On The Bayou” concert series during successive JazzFests brought Mac and me together with Widespread Panic’s JoJo Hermann and so many others. The BP oil spill was another source of righteous anger for him. I sang on a stinging track called “All Washed Up.” Appearances on HBO’s Treme brought him an even wider platform.
History! He embodied it, like nobody else in the NOLA scene, because of the wide, comfortable berth he’d made for himself on a boat that sailed on a river of jazz, funk, rock & roll, and gris-gris, with marvelous side journeys to the tributaries of American popular song.
In 2012, he dipped his feet back in the muddy water as he and Dan Auerbach unleashed the very, very swampified Locked Down, winning the blues Grammy, but in the end it was back to jazz, and Bourbon Street, with a tender tribute to Louis Armstrong that was his last full-length CD. How fitting; how right.
Mickey Hart closed his own obituary blog with some wonderful words…Mickey, allow me to quote: “Some Voodoo cultures believe that everyone lives 16 times — eight times we live as men, and eight times as women. The purpose of each of these lives being to gather all kinds of experiences. During these 16 lives, a person moves from body to body, country to country, attaining wisdom until he or she merges with God. I’m in awe of thinking about what his next life has in store for him, while reflecting on his fantastic journey through this one.”
Sail on, Mac. The Doctor IS—forever and always—in.
THE BEEHIVE QUEEN’S HEART TRACKS: VIDEOS AND CUTS
“Storm Warning” – 1959 with Red Tyler on sax, Mac’s fiery guitar tribute to Bo Diddley. The loss of part of a finger in a shooting, while he was defending a friend, will mean the world will gain one of its premier piano gods…
“Walk on Gilded Splinters”- The Doctor in all his early glory, deep in the throes of creating an indelible persona.
And later with the great Tammy Lynn, live in Brooklyn
“Big Chief” – Watch Mac, in full regalia, and deep into the patois, destroy the stage with Fess, Earl Hooker, The Meters and Alfred “Uganda” Roberts.
“There’s No One Like You” – A marvelous, poignant cut with Double Trouble after Stevie Ray’s passing, Willie Nelson on guitar. I dare you not to shed a tear.
“Such A Night” from The Last Waltz – Mac teams with The Band and Martin Scorsese:
(Mac appeared on the 2017 Last Waltz 40th Anniversary tour)
“Frosty the Snowman” – Mac with Leon Redbone, another totally unique artist who would predecease him by only a few weeks:
Finally, take a stroll through Time magazine’s “10 Questions for Dr. John”. Mac at his most wise:
Photo Credits: Michael Weintrob, Michael Weintrob Photography, Nashville, TN www.michaelweintrob.com (Check out Weintrob’s wonderful book, Instrumenthead, at: www.instrumenthead.com