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Dr. John: A Brief Tribute

The affectionate tributes have been pouring in, after the news of the death of Mac Rebbenack a few days ago. He occupies a fairly unique position in rock music, having transitioned from what many saw as a ‘psychedelic novelty act’ in his ‘Doctor John’ avatar, then through to a trio of timeless albums with the likes of the Crescent City’s Allen Toussaint and The Meters. Just the mention of the last two ‘acts’ will bring a frisson of muscle memory for those of us around in the early/mid seventies, and the sheer amount of great, danceable funk coming out at the time (including, and especially, for me, Toussaint’s Southern Nights, and Cabbage Alley and Rejuvenation from Leo Neocentelli, Joseph Modeliste, Arthur Neville, George Porter Jr, and associated crew).

I will leave the properly informed tributes to those like Richard Williams, who can give an appropriately comprehensive overview, including the latter part of his life, where he became essentially a ‘national treasure’ and embodiment of the New Orleans musical tradition. My involvement’s with Rebbenack’s recordings remain fairly superficial, concentrated on his two early periods, i.e. the first four ‘space gumbo’ albums, starting with the immortal Gris-Gris from 1968, and then, probably in order of diminishing quality, the ‘don’t fuck with the formula’ Babylon, Remedies and Sun, Moon & Herbs. But he clearly got fed up with these particular potions, and moved to the ‘straighter’ (to use the terminology of the time), more traditionally-faithful music of the classic trilogy of 1972-4, Dr, John’s Gumbo, In the Right Place, and Desitively Bonnaroo (sic), the middle one of which gave him the Top-10 hit, ‘Right Place, Wrong Time’.

These critics can better describe his life and his 32 studio and 6 live recordings. It would be a great shame, however, if Mac is best remembered for his very first album, Gris-Gris, where he introduced (having been a studio musician for many years previously, and from an early age) the Dr, John persona; but there is, in the end, something profoundly sui generis about this album, something that many people around my age will attest to, The death of a musician who was, ultimately, so completely and utterly dedicated to his art (see his biography, Under A Hoodoo Moon for confirmation of this), and coming shortly after that of his contemporary, Scott Walker (a very different musician, to be sure!), leaves many of us regretting the loss of an important part of our own musical story.

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