The world is a lot less funky today. Malcolm John Rebennack, a legend on the New Orleans music scene, better known as Dr. John, has died. The guitarist, jive master, pianist, singer, and songwriter suffered a fatal heart attack “towards the break of day” on Thursday, a statement posted to his social media accounts confirmed. A loyal representative of the Big Easy, the 77-year-old brought the blended grooves and mystical lore of his hometown to the world in the six-plus decades of his career, which earned six Grammys as well as an induction to the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame in 2011.
Born in New Orleans on November 20, 1941 (a date that was discovered just last year; Dr. John had long assumed he arrived into the world a year earlier), his father owned an appliance store and frequently worked in repair for local clubs and music venues—which introduced him to local incumbents like Walter “Papoose” Nelson, guitarist Roy Montrell, keyboardist James Booker, and Cosimo Matassa, who he worked and studied under. “The old-timers schooled me good,” Dr. John said in a 2011 interview with the Rock Hall. “They brainwashed me to respect music, whether we were playing rockabilly or blues or rock and roll.”
He was one of the first white session musicians in Crescent City and in 1968, Dr. John debuted with the totally out-there Gris-Gris. Anchored by “I Walk On Guilded Splinters,” an eight-minute voodoo-funk opus, filled with eerie horns, swirling voices, murmured incantations, and a chugging groove, the then-28-year-old toured the set cloaked in feathers and dressed in the fashion of a bayou healer, a persona he referred to as the Night Tripper. The song has since been covered by the likes of Widespread Panic, Cher, Paul Weller, the Allman Brothers Band, and many, many more.
Dr. John would go on to release 20 albums. His most commercially successful LP came in 1973 with In The Right Place. (He had already achieved a loyal following by then: both Eric Clapton and Mick Jagger guested on 1971’s The Sun, Moon & Herbs.) Allen Toussaint produced and Big Easy favorites The Meters served as his backing band on In The Right Place, which eventually reached No.24 on the Billboard all-genre albums chart. The set included his best-known hit, “Right Place, Wrong Time,” a Top Ten U.S. single, which has since been featured on soundtracks to movies like Dazed and Confused and Sahara, and “Such a Night,” which he performed at The Band’s 1976 farewell concert, The Last Waltz, filmed by Martin Scorcese.
His final LP arrived in 2014. Ske-Dat-De-Dat… (The Spirit of Satch) was a tribute to another New Orleans icon, Louis Armstrong.
Dr. John was largely absent from the public eye for the final 18 months of his career, but he remains one of his city’s greatest ambassadors. One of the last grandfathers of the American sound to pass, his influence stretches into the fabrics of jam, funk, rock, blues, boogie-woogie, and rockabilly. Bonnaroo Music & Arts Festival, in Manchester, TN, which revolutionized the North American festival scene, copped its name from Dr. John’s 1974 album, Desitively Bonnaroo. (That the event takes place next week is just the sort of mystically-appropriate timing Dr. John so loved.)
Muppets puppeteer Jim Henson used the Night Tripper as the model for his keyboardist character Dr. Teeth of Dr. Teeth and The Electric Mayhem on the show. His recording of Randy Newman’s composition “Down In New Orleans,” from Disney’s 2009 film The Princess and the Frog was nominated for an Academy Award. And In 2013, he received an honorary doctorate from Tulane University in New Orleans.
One of the most delightful performers to ever do it, he is survived by his wife, Lorraine Sherman, their daughters, Tara and Jennifer, as well as his daughter from his marriage to Lydia Crow, Karla, and his sister, Barbara.