His family released the following statement:
“Towards the break of day on June 6, 2019, iconic music legend Malcolm John Rebennack Jr., professionally known as Dr. John, passed away of a heart attack. As a Rock & Roll Hall of Fame inductee, six-time Grammy winner, songwriter, composer, producer, and performer, he created a unique blend of music which carried his hometown, New Orleans, at its heart, as it was always in his heart…”
Mac Rebennack, our Dr. John, was revered by anyone who loved New Orleans music. It was not just because his music was fantastic; it was because he was a special person who epitomized the New Orleans music aesthetic. He added his unique talent and interpretation to everything that he performed, arranged and composed—his performances, his look, were legendary and one-of-a-kind. So was his speech. And the icing on the cake was that he was a beloved “cah-rack-tah” who truly loved everything about New Orleans, her musicians, her music, her vibe, her community. This was truly his home, musically and spiritually.
Dr. John hailed from the Third Ward of New Orleans, where his six-decade career in music began. Along with Professor Longhair and James Booker, Dr. John is considered to be one of the city’s most influential piano players (and personalities). In 1968, the album Gris-Gris launched his career after he worked for years as a session musician. In fact, he said he really never wanted to be a frontman; being a great sideman was his ambition. But when he ended up in Los Angeles and teamed up with composer, arranger, and producer Harold Battiste Jr., that ambition went by the wayside. He became a frontman by default—after the singer who the gig was offered to declined. Thus were born the voodoo themes, costumes and theatrical touches that created the full-fledged persona and character of Dr. John, supposedly modeled after a legendary father of New Orleans Voudou.
In 1973, Dr. John scored a top ten hit with “Right Place, Wrong Time.” Dr. John won his first Grammy in 1989, for “Makin’ Whoopee” with Rickie Lee Jones.
In 1989’s OffBeat, Mac said, “I love the music—that’s the one thing I always love. That’s my fix in life. That’s my one healing maneuver that always works… We’ve got seriously spiritual music coming out of New Orleans. That’s one of the things that I think most people do not get out of what we do here. Just even the syncopation of the funk shit that comes out of New Orleans—it ain’t the same as what they get elsewhere. I mean, it connects but it ain’t the same, because we all feel stuff from second line. It makes a huge difference, and that one thing—people don’t get that. They not only don’t get it—they don’t want to get it. It’s too subtle for them, first off. They’re used to everything being in their face. The kids choose the hip-hop thing because they’re programmed groups.”
Throughout his recording career, he applied his inspired touch to New Orleans classics like “Big Chief,” “Iko Iko,” “Tipitina,” and even Leadbelly’s “Goodnight Irene.” He wrote not only for his own performance but for other musicians as well. And goodness knows he brought New Orleans music to more people of the world than almost anyone. (Did you know he wrote the Popeyes jingle?).
Back in 1992, OffBeat interviewed Rebennack who, at the time, was celebrating the release of Goin’ Back to New Orleans, an album that would eventually win the Grammy for Best Traditional Blues Album. In 1999, Dr. John received OffBeat’s Best of the Beat Lifetime Achievement Award in Music and he graced the February 2000 cover of the magazine, as well as many other times throughout the life of the magazine. He was on OffBeat’s Jazz Fest Bible cover in both 2004 (reaching towards heaven to Fess, Booker, and Earl King) and in 2007. In 2011, Dr. John was inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame.
Malcolm John “Mac” Rebennack was 77. He will always be missed.