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Encore: New Orleans Music Legend Dr. John Dies At 77


Malcolm John Rebennack, better known as Dr. John, is being remembered as an American original. He died Thursday at the age of 77. A second line in his native New Orleans danced him home yesterday. Dr. John captured the rhythms and language of his hometown and made them uniquely his own. As NPR's John Burnett reports, the pianist, composer and singer became an ambassador of the New Orleans vibe, carrying it to fans around the world.


JOHN BURNETT, BYLINE: Mac Rebennack was in the right place at the right time. He grew up hearing Mardi Gras Indians chanting in the back streets of New Orleans. He listened to blues records sold in his father's appliance store. He skipped Mass at Sacred Heart School to sneak into the jazz clubs on Canal Street. He learned his craft from the progenitors of New Orleans rhythm and blues - Professor Longhair, Earl King, Dave Bartholomew, Roy Brown and Huey Piano Smith. And it all found an outlet in Rebennack's bountiful, musical mind.


MALCOM JOHN REBENNACK: (Singing) I been in the right place, but it must've been the wrong time. I'd have said the right thing, but I must've used the wrong line. I been in the right trip, but I must have used the wrong car. My head was in a bad place and I'm wondering what it's good for. I been in the right place...

BURNETT: Mac Rebennack was also one of the great raconteurs of American music. Here he is from a 2000 NPR interview remembering the characters on the streets of New Orleans.


REBENNACK: Guys like Marblehead (ph), Pinhead (ph), Mad Duck the Geek (ph). There was just a lot of characters, a lot of weed dealers, a lot of narcotic dealers, a lot of pimps, a lot of hos. And the one I used to love - they called him Good Lord the Lifter - a pickpocket. You got to love guys that that was their names, you know (laughter)?

BURNETT: Rebennack was a character, too, walking on the dark side as a heroin addict, a drug dealer and a pimp. He spent two years in federal prison on a narcotics conviction. When he got out in 1965, he joined his New Orleans compatriots who'd migrated to Los Angeles. There, in 1967, he created the stage persona of Dr. John the Night Tripper.


REBENNACK: (Singing) Some people think they jive me, but I know they must be crazy. Don't see they misfortune, else they just too lazy. Je suis the grand zombie my yellow belt of choison (ph). Ain't afraid of no tomcat, fill my brains with poison, walk through the fire, fly through the smoke, see my enemy at the end of they rope.

BURNETT: He walked on stage dressed like a swamp shaman, combining Mardi Gras Indian costumery with psychedelic rock. As he told WHYY'S Fresh Air in 1987...


REBENNACK: The Dr. John thing was to take all of the tricknology (ph) that I knew of show business from over the years, like throwing glitter to make the effect of magic, snake dancers and all the regular voodoo shows of New Orleans. And it was a little too authentic for the labels. They weren't quite ready for a guy biting a chicken's head off and stuff.

BURNETT: That word, tricknology - it belongs in Dr. John's extensive personal glossary. His eccentric speech was as original as his music, and it personified the raffish, funky charm of the Crescent City. Ben Sandmel is a musician, author and folklorist who was a great admirer of Dr. John and his language.

BEN SANDMEL: Somebody’s always trying to get over on you, and it’s the tricknology. And it’s the tricknology in politics, the tricknology in the music business. It’s a world of tricknology. I would say if there’s one thing I learned from Mac, it’s to be vigilant about the tricknology.


BURNETT: Mac Rebennack won six Grammys. He was inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame in 2011. The list of collaborators includes Eric Clapton, Mick Jagger, Ringo Starr, Van Morrison, Etta James and a who's who of New Orleans music. Rebennack never intended to be a singer or a piano player. He started out as a guitarist until he took a bullet in the ring finger of his left hand when he tried to break up a fight. But he went on to embody the rhythmic brilliance of the city's storied piano professors.


REBENNACK: A lot of music - the baseline would be playing, like, half-time, like (playing piano). And the right hand would double the time then (playing piano).

MARCIA BALL: Mac didn't have big hands.

BURNETT: Blues woman Marcia Ball, who's steeped in the Louisiana sound.

BALL: But he has the most incredibly dense, beautiful voicings, and his arpeggios, his trills are so thoughtful.


BURNETT: Rebennack demonstrated the Latin, Caribbean and boogie-woogie influences that converged in the city of New Orleans for NPR in 1988.


REBENNACK: (Playing piano) So you hear that the one hand is playing half the time of the other. And the other thing is that two rhythm patterns going on is what most Latin or Afro Caribbean music consists of. And this is what makes it what we call funky or danceable music.

BURNETT: Throughout his long musical life, Dr. John remained a believer in the folk wisdom and healing powers of gris-gris, the New Orleans version of voodoo. He summed up his personal theology this way. There is the spirit world and the meat world, and you got to stay in constant understanding of the two. John Burnett, NPR News.


REBENNACK: (Singing) Such a night, it's such a night, sweet confusion... Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

As NPR's Southwest correspondent based in Austin, Texas, John Burnett covers immigration, border affairs, Texas news and other national assignments. In 2018, 2019 and again in 2020, he won national Edward R. Murrow Awards from the Radio-Television News Directors Association for continuing coverage of the immigration beat. In 2020, Burnett along with other NPR journalists, were finalists for a duPont-Columbia Award for their coverage of the Trump Administration's Remain in Mexico program. In December 2018, Burnett was invited to participate in a workshop on Refugees, Immigration and Border Security in Western Europe, sponsored by the RIAS Berlin Commission.