New Orleans icon and legend Dr. John died Thursday at the age of 77. The singer, piano player and guitarist, who was born Malcolm (Mac)Rebennack, was a Rock and Roll Hall of Famer and a six-time Grammy-winner.
Rebbenack played a behind-the-scenes role and was an ambassador for his hometown's music. He was a session guitarist and keyboardist for over a decade before he emerged in the late '60s as Dr. John, The Night Tripper, mixing a local blend of R-and-B, funk, jazz and blues with psychedelic rock. On stage, he was an outlandish figure in feathered and beaded costumes and even mixed a bit of voodoo ceremony into his act. His first album was titled Gris Gris [pr: GREE-gree] after a voodoo charm.
His brief fling as a charting singles artist lasted from 1972 through '74, when he placed four songs in the Billboard Hot 100, including the Top 10 hit "Right Place, Wrong Time" and its follow-up "Such a Night," which just missed the Top 40.
After that, he became an ambassador for New Orleans music. Between 1989 and 2013 he won Grammys in six different categories, from Jazz Vocalto Rock Instrumental, winning the latter with another late Southern roots icon, Stevie Ray Vaughan. In 2011, he was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame with a speech by John Legend, who said Dr. John had "never stopped flying the flag of funk."
The list of great musicians he recorded with includes Mick Jagger, Eric Clapton, The Band, Gregg Allman, Van Morrison, Harry Connick Junior, Allen Toussaint, Rickie Lee Jones, Ringo Starr and B.B. King. His final albums were a rock collaboration with Dan Auerbach of The Black Keys and a tribute album to jazz great Louis Armstrong.
A statement from his family on social media today explained that Rebbenack died of a heart attack "towards the break of day on June 6th." They thanked those "who shared his unique musical journey," asked for privacy and said memorial arrangements will be announced in due course.
Following his induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, Dr. John commented on being an ambassador for New Orleans music:
"Hey, I'm always proud to represent my home. As long as the city be there, there will be music. It's a city of music, it's a city of spirits."
Dr. John talked about how the lyrics for his biggest hit, "Right Place, Wrong Time," got finished just minutes before he recorded the song. OC:...that way. :30
"When I finally got in the studio to do the album, I only had the 'I was in the right place but the wrong time' line. Fortunately, Doug Sahm was doing this album with Bob Dylan and several other artists who I had to run to to get some additional lines for the song. Thankfully, Bob gave me the line about 'I was in the right trip but the wrong car' and Doug Sahm gave me the line about 'I was in the right vein, but the wrong arm,' and a lot of people helped me in that way."
Dr. John shared a bit of his philosophy of life:
"Nobody knows where nobody else is coming from and when you think you do, you're in for a surprise, and that's what makes life interestin'."