And yet barely a day after Dr. John’s death Thursday at 77, his loss still summons the kind of widespread grief, desolation and ardor that seem out of proportion to those whose memories of his work begin and end with that catchy tune. Admit it: If you are over 50 just seeing the words “Right Place, Wrong Time” appear in front of you is making you bounce to the memory of that infectious rolling beat.
That beat, as much as anything could, tells you why Dr. John was so much more than a one-hit wonder. It was the sound of late 20th century New Orleans popular music; a heady mélange of rhythm-and-blues, classic jazz and swamp hollers seasoned with Tin Pan Alley vaudeville, Mardi Gras bonhomie and what one of the city’s musical pillars, Jelly Roll Morton, characterized as “Latin tinge.”
Dr. John embodied that spicy tradition as writer, singer and, most of all, pianist. Along with such keyboard titans as Professor Longhair, James Booker, Huey (Piano) Smith, Fats Domino and Allen Toussaint, the doctor was a touchstone, a resource and a musical landmark for the city he called home. Those others are gone, and now so is he.
Oddly enough, he started out as a budding guitar wizard whose earliest recordings as a teenager in the 1950s suggest an eccentric, thickly layered approach that within a decade or so could have placed him in roughly the same company as Eric Clapton and Jimi Hendrix. But in 1961, Rebennack — who’d been hanging out with rough company while developing a cult reputation in Crescent City recording studios, nightclubs and strip joints — took a bullet wound in one of his fingers while interceding in a bar fight. He was forced to change his primary instrument to piano and organ.
After a stretch in prison related to a heroin habit, Rebennack relocated to Los Angeles where, throughout the mid-1960s, his freewheeling boogie-woogie piano style and formidable musical resources made him an asset in recording sessions with the likes of Frank Zappa, Canned Heat and Sonny and Cher, for whom he served for a time as musical director. (“Sonny” was Sonny Bono, Cher’s first husband — and you know who Cher is.)
It was in 1968 that Rebennack first set loose his alter ego, “Dr. John, the Night Tripper.” (The name came from a 19th century voodoo priest from New Orleans named John Creaux.) The doctor’s first album, “Gris Gris,” released that same year, was steeped in a sultry, goofy blend of psychedelia, mysticism and funk. Few besides a coterie of listeners knew quite what to make of the album when it was released. But towards the century’s end, its reputation was such that it made Rolling Stone’s list of the 500 greatest albums of all time at No. 143.
As decades passed, Rebennack continued to get studio gigs of all kinds, whether it was backup for Maria Muldaur’s first solo album to jingles for Popeye’s Fried Chicken. And while “Right Place, Wrong Time” nor its follow-up, “Such a Night” (which peaked at number 42 on the Billboard chart), made Dr. John a major rock star, they both became sturdy ornaments of his legend as a New Orleans piano hero.
Rebennack brought the music to us while Dr. John brought along the party. It’s hard to imagine a world without either of them.