Though Dr. John (real name was Mac Rebennack) had been around a while, the first time I saw him was on television in 1973. The heavily New Orleans-immersed musician was riding the success of a top 10 single, “Right Place, Wrong Time,” and sang it and other songs on “In Concert,” a late Friday night show similar to “The Midnight Special.”
During Dr. John’s final number, “Mama Don’t Allow,” he stood up from his piano with a bag over his shoulder and proceed to throw as Dick Clark, the producer of the program later said, “15 pounds of glitter” on the stage and audience.
The pianist, singer, songwriter and producer died of a heart attack Thursday. He was 77.
Dr. John was a showman, and I’m not talking the showmanship of say a Liberace. Think voodoo. Beads. Feathers.
Photo: David Warner Ellis/Redferns
Tossing glitter on “The Midnight Special” (Photo by Frank Carroll /NBC via Getty)
Early in his musical life he was tutored by Walter (Papoose) Nelson, who played guitar with Fats Domino.
“In the days when it was very difficult for a black guy and a white guy to socialize, for a black guy to give a white guy guitar lessons, beyond beautiful,” Dr.John once said.
His fortunes would change for the worse, and the better it turns out.
Back in 1961, Dr. John tried to help out when a friend got into a fight.
“I got shot in my finger before a concert. A guy was pistol whipping Ronnie Barron, our vocalist. Ronnie was just a kid and his mother had told me, ‘You better look out for my son.’ Oh god, that was all I was thinking about. I tried to stop the guy, I had my hand over the barrel and he shot.”
Ultimately he lost his left ring finger. So he was forced to switch from the guitar to piano, which he mastered.
Despite his immense fondness for the Crescent City, Dr. John left his beloved New Orleans in 1962 after a new district attorney began cracking down on clubs and nightlife to curb vice. He moved to Los Angeles where he came up with character of “Dr. John the Night Tripper,” a voodoo sorcerer and healer.
Finally in the early 1970’s he hit commercial pay dirt with singles “Right Place Wrong Time” and “Such a Night.”
This track is from the 1975 album “Hollywood Be Thy Name” recorded at Cherokee Recording Studios in Los Angeles with a live audience.
Dr. John took advantage of his gravelly voice that wasn’t always stamped with a New Orleans flavor. Like everyone else, he actually did some standards. And Disney, too.
Dr. John won six Grammy Awards and is a member of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
“There’s kind of a code amongst musicians that if you’re ever really satisfied with what you do, you must be dead — because you ain’t growing.”