Gris-gris enigma: can a new posthumous release shed light on the elusive genius of Dr John?

<span>Photograph: Clayton Call/Redferns</span>
Photograph: Clayton Call/Redferns

I’ve been pondering who Dr John was ever since, as a child, I heard his hit, Right Place Wrong Time, on the radio. Enchanted by the sound – that propulsive funk keyboard motif, snapping rhythms and rasping vocal – and pondering the words (“I been running trying to get hung up in my mind … Just need a little brain salad surgery”), I wondered if he was a real doctor? Hey, I was nine …

Five years later I got a glimpse of the man when I went to see The Last Waltz, where he performs a rollicking rendition of Such a Night. I noted how he played piano and appeared older, funkier and less rock-star-looking than most of the musicians on that fabled stage.

A secondhand record shop provided a copy of Gris-Gris, the 1968 debut album by Dr John the Night Tripper (as he’s billed on the cover). Nothing had prepared my young self for this strange sonic odyssey. Beyond the gruff vocal, Gris-Gris didn’t sound anything like Right Place or Such a Night. Instead the album conjured the night, altered states, spirits in flight, places and people I had never engaged with yet felt instinctively, nervously drawn to. The liner notes were weird: “Our group consists of Dr Poo Pah Doo of Destine Tambourine… I will mash my special fais deaux-deaux on all you who buy my chants.” It was akin to Dr Seuss on drugs.

Back then, at the dawn of the 1980s, the music press covered either superstars or rising post-punk bands; few books offered any information on Dr John. I did eventually learn that he hailed from New Orleans, created voodoo rock and was born Malcolm John Rebennack Jr (how could such a normal name make music so beguiling?). Also: everyone called him “Mac” and he’d been making music since the mid-1950s and didn’t become Dr John until the late 60s – playing countless sessions, with musicians including BB King, Van Morrison and Carly Simon. Well, well.

Voodoo rocker … Dr John in his Night Tripper phase circa 1970.
Voodoo rocker … Dr John in his Night Tripper phase circa 1970. Photograph: Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images

As the years passed I turned into a Macspotter, listening to all the Dr John studio and live albums, two excellent compilations of his pre-Dr John recordings (Return of the Mac and Good Times in New Orleans), checking his supergroup efforts, Triumvirate (Mike Bloomfield and John Hammond Jr) and Bluesiana Triangle (Art Blakey and David Newman), tracking down his session work and noting guest appearances. Spiritualized benefited from his appearance on Cop Shoot Cop but when they and other Brit rock royalty appeared on his 1998 John Leckie-produced album, Anutha Zone, the results were very flat.

I managed to see Dr John perform around two dozen times – first in 1990 and finally in 2012 (appropriately in New Orleans). In concert he could be inspired, stretching way out, or merely perfunctory. Ditto his albums. The last effort released while he was alive, 2014’s Ske-Dat-De-Dat: The Spirit of Satch (funk-by-numbers readings of Louis Armstrong hits), is – to put it mildly – dogshit. Here Mac was a hack, taking the money but bringing no inspiration to the project. After his 2019 death it was announced he’d been working on an album of Hank Williams songs. Considering his Armstrong atrocity, I shrugged. Yet, upon learning these posthumous sessions were to be released as Things Happen That Way, well, I had to listen.

I’m pleased I did: Things Happen That Way is often charming in its low-key, undemonstrative manner. Suffering from heart disease, Rebennack retired from performing in 2018 and these final sessions find him in a reflective mood – a public figure seemingly saying goodbye via song. Opening with Willie Nelson’s Funny How Time Slips Away, there are two Hank Williams songs (Rambling Man and I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry), Johnny Cash’s Guess Things Happen That Way and gospel standard Gimme That Old Time Religion, all likely to have been songs he loved growing up (Mac told Charlie Gillett, the late British writer/broadcaster, “I was a real hillbilly music fan, and didn’t get tuned into R&B until my father lost his business”). Three new originals, Holy Water, Give Myself a Good Talking To and Sleeping Dogs Best Left Alone, are droll, knowing songs – classic Mac.

The celebrated Sussex-born, New Orleans-based pianist Jon Cleary plays piano and organ on the record. With Mac’s health in decline, he explains, he played all his parts. “I’d known Mac since the early 80s,” he says. “He was something of a mentor to me I. I knew what he would play without slavishly copying him.”

Cleary sheds a little light on Mac’s final years. “Mac spent his last days in a nursing home and I went to see him quite regularly. I’d take a portable record player with some 45s. By then he’d lost the ability to talk, so we’d sit there and hold hands and listen to Professor Longhair, Huey Smith and Johnny Adams records. He would sing along or laugh with pleasure. He couldn’t talk but he could sing Lawdy, Miss Clawdy and Tipitina. Those 50s New Orleans classics that meant so much to him.

“The pure products of America / go crazy” wrote William Carlos Williams and few better embodied this exuberant lunacy than Rebennack. How did a middle-class white youth develop into a major player in New Orleans’s feverish 1950s R&B scene? Mac wasn’t simply “tolerated” but, by his late teens, was a valued multi-instrumentalist, band leader, producer, songwriter and talent scout. Where Elvis Presley and Jerry Lee Lewis were dynamic interpreters of R&B, both men worked only with white musicians. Not Rebennack. He crossed the tracks, even though this put him at odds with New Orleans’s segregated musicians’ unions and the police. Learning piano from the age of three, he was also a pre-adolescent guitarist and received lessons from Walter “Papoose” Nelson, then Fats Domino’s guitarist.

A quick learner, Rebennack began playing in bars aged 14, then featuring on and producing New Orleans R&B/rock’n’roll records from 1958. His solo career began with 1959’s Storm Warning, a raucous instrumental that sold well locally. On Christmas Eve 1961, when Rebennack tried to stop an irate Florida motel manager from pistol whipping his vocalist, the gun went off severing his left ring finger. No longer the Crescent City’s go-to guitarist, Mac learned organ to complement his piano skills.

Papoose and Roy Montrell – another local guitar mentor (and Domino employee) – were heroin addicts and their teenage disciple followed in their wake, embracing street crime as enthusiastically as he had music and opiates. This would lead to his 1963 imprisonment and, upon release in 1965, a move to Los Angeles. Here Harold Battiste – a Muslim educator, multi-instrumentalist, producer, arranger, mentor and unsung hero of the Dr John story – invited Mac to join Noma (the New Orleans Musicians Association), where those exiled in LA plied their trade. Battiste got Rebennack work playing pop sessions for Phil Spector, Sonny and Cher, Frank Zappa, Iron Butterfly and many others. Always forthright, Mac disparaged the aforementioned as “lames” who couldn’t swing. To escape studio servitude he envisioned a band playing R&B/rock while drawing on New Orleans’s voodoo and Mardi Gras.

After a flop 1966 single on A&M as the Zu Zu Blues Band, Rebennack transitioned into Dr John. The historic Dr John he named himself after was a “freeman of colour” who had successfully traded in voodoo trinkets, potions and spells in 1840s New Orleans. In autumn 1967 Battiste, who encouraged Rebennack not to worry about his lack of vocal prowess by telling him “just talk, you don’t need to sing”, scored free studio time via Sonny Bono at Gold Star Studios. The all-night sessions found Rebennack (keyboards, percussion and vocals) and Battiste (producer/arranger plus bass, clarinet and percussion), accompanied by a host of the Noma musicians and vocalists (Jessie Hill, Shirley Goodman and Tami Lynn had all released great R&B records), as well as exceptional LA jazz musicians (including tenor saxophonist Plas Johnson who played Henry Mancini’s mighty Pink Panther Theme).

Together they created a unique Afro-Caribbean soundscape – Battiste’s exceptional skills saw him use the studio as an instrument, voices flutter in and out, instruments shiver and shriek, over which Rebennack mutters and chants, a shaman of sorts. Having arranged and produced Sonny and Cher’s hits (which saved Atlantic Records from bankuptcy), Battiste called in a favour from the label’s executives, Ahmet Ertegun and Jerry Wexler, who reluctantly released Gris-Gris in January 1968. An underground hit, gaining airplay on nascent FM radio stations, Dr John’s live performances, mixing elements lifted from Mardi Gras parades and carnival shows, appealed to rock audiences who embraced his voodoo mythos as they would Black Sabbath’s equally ersatz satanism.

Today, a white American musician naming themselves after a dead African American while employing voodoo as part of their shtick would face opprobrium. In 1968, no one objected. Masking has long permeated New Orleans – from the society krewes to Mardi Gras Indian troupes – and Rebennack was beloved by many African American musicians and even hailed as “the Blackest white man in America”. Admittedly, Mac benefited from white privilege, as Battiste told Charlie Gillett: “He knew that he got things through being white that he wouldn’t have got if he’d been Black, he’d get offers for jobs, get paid more.” Rebennack resented Battiste for saying so and his 1995 autobiography, Under a Hoodoo Moon, demonstrates that, alongside wanting to portray himself as a badass outlaw, he could carry a grudge.

Gris-Gris turned out to be one of those lightning-in-a-bottle albums never to be replicated: Mac’s next three Night Tripper albums demonstrate voodoo rock’s diminishing returns. Reuniting with Battiste in 1972 to cut Dr John’s Gumbo (an album of 1950s-era New Orleans R&B songs) rejuvenated Rebennack. The following year’s In the Right Place teamed him with the Meters and Allen Toussaint, a perfect pairing. Toussaint and Meters founder Art Neville were contemporaries of Mac’s, their maverick funk helping him make the breakthrough to wider audiences.

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A furious work ethic aligned with a restless creative drive found Dr John crossing genres: trad jazz, soul-jazz, standards, funk-rock, southern rock, Brit rock, nods to disco and rap, even children’s songs. A personal favourite is 1981’s Dr John Plays Mac Rebennack, an album of solo piano instrumentals. Mac was a musician’s musician and the results are exquisite. Indeed, some consider his finest work was as a sideman – organ and piano on Aretha Franklin’s Spanish Harlem, Bobby Charles’s Small Town Talk, the Rolling Stones’s Let It Loose, Willy DeVille’s Junkers Blues, plus guitar on Professor Longhair’s Crawfish Fiesta and percussion on Aretha’s Rock Steady, to name just someof his outstanding contributions to seminal recordings.

After more than 30 years of opiate addiction – Rickie Lee Jones wrote of first taking heroin in Mac’s company and Jerry Wexler publicly raged at Rebennack for supposedly doing the same to his late daughter Anita – he got clean in 1989 and enjoyed an extended victory lap. He was garlanded with Grammys and honours, relocated to New Orleans post-Katrina and campaigned for the city’s wetlands and musicians, sang on The Jungle Book’s soundtrack, voiced fast food advertisements and made cameos on TV shows. He triumphed with the Dan Auerbach-produced Locked Down while constantly touring. The musician once notorious for being a grouchy, grimy addict now appeared an almost cuddly elder statesman. Albeit one bedecked in purple suits and bone necklaces who regularly held forth in a drawling, creolised bebop patois.

I always hoped to interview Mac, but the opportunity never arose. I even once considered writing a book on Dr John, and now I wonder how, if either opportunity had come about, I might have approached a subject determined to remain unknowable. Jon Cleary says Mac was “happy” in his final days, which is a comfort to know. Malcolm Rebennack’s Dr John mask never slipped – at least not in public.

• Things Happen That Way is released on Rounder Records on 23 September