The Beginner’s Guide To Dr. John
The New Orleans pianist/vocalist Dr. John was a true giant in the world of music. His piano playing stands at the intersection of blues, jazz, Latin, rock, funk, and much more, all flavored with the pungent spices of a delicious New Orleans gumbo.
Dr. John was born Malcolm John Rebennack Jr in 1941, which places his teen years right at the formation of early Rock and Roll. At the same time, he eagerly absorbed the vibrant musical environment of his native New Orleans. He heard marching bands, traditional jazz, down-home blues, hymns, spirituals, native music, popular songs, rhythm and blues, the “second line” of New Orlean’s funeral processions, and fused all of them together in a very personal way.
He began his performing career primarily as a guitarist, and switched to piano after a finger accident. His piano playing was influenced by Professor Longhair and is marked by a high degree of rhythmic independence between the hands.
Dr. John’s debut album as a leader was 1968’s Gris-Gris. While not a hit, it features a unique sound that’s related to psychedelic rock, which was reinforced by Dr. John’s nickname “The Night Tripper.” I think of it as “swamp music” because of its murky sound and New Orleans overtones. Here’s a sample of this strange, compelling music.
Gris-Gris Gumbo Ya Ya
A few years later, in 1973, Dr. John scored a genuine hit with the song “Right Place, Wrong Time,” which brings his New Orleans persona to a more mainstream rock/funk sound. This is the recording that many people most associate with the “good doctor.”
Right Place, Wrong Time
My personal favorite Dr. John piece is his interpretation of Professor Longhair’s “Tipitina.” For me, this is the embodiment of New Orleans piano playing!
Throughout Dr. John’s long career, he always remained firmly rooted to the traditional roots of New Orleans music and culture. Here he is, performing the traditional church spiritual “Down By The Riverside,” complete with a New Orleans rhythmic groove and spirit.
Down By The Riverside
In 1989, Dr. John won a Grammy Award for his album In A Sentimental Mood, in which he revisited many of the songs of The Great American Songbook which he had heard in his youth. His easy-going vocal deliver is well-suited to this style, and the musical arrangements remind us of his connection to the world of jazz. Here he is, singing a duet with Rickie Lee Jones.
The soundtrack to Disney’s 2009 movie The Princess and the Frog prominently featured Dr. John singing the Randy Newman song “Down In New Orleans.” The music, lyric, and film scene combine to paint a touching portrait of the New Orleans life that Dr. John lived so fully.
Down In New Orleans
I invite you to immerse yourself in the music of this wonderful musician. By doing so, you’ll be establishing a connection to the roots of rock, jazz, and blues via the New Orleans tradition in a way that will enhance all the music you enjoy playing. And, if, you’re a pianist yourself, dive in and learn some of Dr. John’s techniques for yourself. It’s a musical trip well worth taking!
Enjoy the journey, and “let the music flow!”
To learn more:
Dr. John: Wikipedia
Dr. John Teaches New Orleans Piano