Dr. John as Krewe du Vieux King, 2010.
New Orleans takes its local heroes seriously, especially the musicians among them. We’ve lost one of the greats, Malcolm John Rebennack who was better known by his stage name, Dr. John. His friends called him Mac, I referred to him as Our Mac because he was such an important part of the extended New Orleans family. Dr. John died of a heart attack yesterday at the age of 77.
There’s usually only one degree of separation between your humble blogger and even the best known New Orleanian. I had the pleasure of some brief encounters with Our Mac but did not know him personally. I have friends who knew him well and one of the advantages of social media is hearing their stories. Like most New Orleanians, Mac was an unpretentious and friendly man. It’s why we feel so close to our local heroes. But their realness is a quality that seems to be receding like the Louisiana coastline.
Our Mac spoke his own language. It’s often described as “hipster patois” but I’m not fond of the term. It made him sound like a a man-bun wearing Bywater dweller who was always looking for the next trend to hop on. Mac was a trend-setter, not a trend-hopper. My favorite Dr. John-ism was on the subject of Katrina and the Federal Flood, he said that we were “traumaticalized.” Yeah, you right, Mac.
The music is what mattered most to Mac. He had wide-ranging musical tastes and was open to new players and styles even in his Seventies. Be it funk, blues, jazz, rock, R&B, or standards, Mac translated the music and Dr. John-ized it. His gruff, husky, and heavily New Orleans accented voice was instantly recognizable even in jingles or Disney tunes. Eclectic thy name was Dr. John.
This is the second major blow to New Orleans culture this week. Chef Leah Chase died at the age of 96. I’ll have more to say about her tomorrow. It’s a sad but fitting coincidence that these two greats died this week: they both contributed mightily to who and what we are as a city. The grief for both is genuine as are the fears that what they represented is slipping away.
New Orleans is blessed with some fine music writers who have already chimed in about Our Mac’s passing:
What’s a tribute to Dr. John without some music? I decided to focus on his love of music from the Great American Songbook, which he, of course, Dr. John-ized.
We begin with a happy song to mark this sad occasion:
Mac loved Johnny Mercer:
Since Mac was New Orleans royalty (including his reign as Krewe du Vieux King in 2010) he had a natural affinity with Duke Ellington:
Finally, I’ve had Mac’s take on this Leadbelly classic in my head ever since hearing the news:
Goodnight, Mac. I’ll see you in my dreams.