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10 Things You Should Know About Dr. John

Dr. John
A mural depicting Dr. John, titled "I'm here for you" in St. Claude. (Photo: Justen Williams)

November 20 marks the 78th birthday of Dr. John, born Malcom John Rebennack, the New Orleans music legend who gave new meaning to “weird.” The celebrated artist passed away in June at 77 years old.

Six time Grammy award-winner, Dr. John left his indelible mark on music as a singer, songwriter, pianist, and guitarist. His unique musical style combined blues, jazz, pop, and rock ‘n’ roll. He was known for wearing lavish Mardi Gras costumes on stage, and accessorizing with Voodoo charms. His signature, oversized black shades and black berets became synonymous with his name, although his artistry long outlasted his look. As The Atlantic’s Dave Graham put it: “He spent his nearly eight decades of life gleefully ignoring barriers: between pop music and outré explorations, black and white culture, authenticity and commerciality, tradition and innovation.” 

In honor of his upcoming birthday, we put together some fun facts about Dr. John that any real New Orleans music lover should know. Happy birthday Dr. John. Here’s to keeping it weird.

  1. Gris Gris, the 1968 album that made Dr. John famous included hits like “Gris-Gris Gumbo Ya Ya” and “I Walk on Guilded Splinters.”
  2. Dr. John was inducted into the hall of fame by John Legend in March 2011.
  3. He didn’t have any early formal musical training, save for a brief time in choir, before being kicked out.
  4. He met music great Professor Longhair when he was 13 years old, and soon began learning from him and performing with him.
  5. Dr. John did a brief stint in prison for heroin possession before heading to Los Angeles in the mid-1960s, and struggled for years with addiction.
  6. He formed his first band called The Dominoes while he was a student at Jesuit high school, where he was later expelled in the 11th grade after being given an ultimatum to either stop playing music or leave school. 
  7. Dr. John’s identity is based on Dr. John, a Senegalese prince, conjure man, herb doctor, and spiritual healer who came to New Orleans from Haiti. He originally came up with the idea for his bandmate, who turned it down.
  8. The song that led to Dr. John’s fame was “Right Place, Wrong Time”, but younger locals likely know him as the man behind songs like “Iko Iko”, “Big Chief”, and ‘Let the Good Times Roll”.
  9. Dr. John was originally a guitarist, but he sustained a thumb injury after attempting to break up a fight in a Florida club. He later switched to bass guitar, and then finally to piano.
  10. He received an honorary doctorate of Fine Arts from Tulane University in May 2013. 

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