"I got my left ring finger shot off. So that was the end of my guitar career pretty much": The incomparable tales of Dr John

Dr John studio portrait
(Image credit: Rick Diamond/DJBB14/Getty Images for Blackbird Production)

In 2010 Classic Rock travelled to New Orleans to talk to Dr John about his latest album, Tribal, but we got so much more: stories of violence and addiction, tales of drink and death, and extraordinary anecdotes about Eric Clapton, Frankie Miller, Keith Richards and more. Holding nothing back, the good Dr also bemoaned the ecological damage to his beloved South Louisiana. "There’s sharks baskin’ where they got no right to live," he told us, "and the damage to the wildlife will make grown men weep." 

"The Doctor will see you now.” 

And what a sight for sore eyes he is! Dr. John, alias Mac Rebennack, hovers into view and couldn’t be mistaken for anyone else. Looking healthier and walking with a sprightlier gait than he did in his darker days, Rebennack is a picture of New Orleans style – a crisp linen shirt, an embroidered waistcoat, the ever-present hat, and hands full of jewellery – as he settles down on a sofa in the bar of a smart West London hotel and hands over his stick for inspection. It’s a hefty example, like a crutch crossed with a cudgel. This stick and others much like it have beaten a voodoo rhythm on many a concert platform. 

“What I got on there,” he drawls in the unmistakable accent of his native ward, “is an alligator tooth from a 17-foot ’gator. These are bones from goats and other critters. Them’s rabbit vertebrae and some feathers. And obviously I got me my dice. I got tons on this stick. A friend in Angola penitentiary made it for me. It’s better made than even my African sticks, but that’s cos the guys in Angola have got time on their hands. Years of time and nothing much to fill it with. He made this out the wood he found in jail. And here in mah waistcoat pocket I got my cigars and my cigarillos. Macanudos from San Domenico." 

"Smokes is one of my very few vices, apart from sex,” he chuckles. “Which is the first one I call on? Jesus Christ! What else am I gonna do?” 

Dr. John is currently undergoing one of his periodic revivals of interest, thanks to his excellent new album Tribal – a return to the style of his Louisiana heyday – and a regular slot on the US TV series Treme. He also has an unofficial and reluctant status as a spokesman for New Orleans following the Hurricane Katrina disaster of 2005, and more recently the Gulf Of Mexico disaster wrought by the BP Deepwater Horizon explosion at Macondo Prospect which killed 11 people. 

“Put this in your magazine,” says Rebennack. “South Louisiana is the most disappearing landmass on planet Earth. We lose football fields every hour, thousands of acres lost to erosion. Why? Because the oil companies keep cutting saltwater canals into the natural wetlands. They been doin’ it for maybe 60 years. 

"And now we reap the rewards. It’s double trouble for us because so many people made a living out of the oil industry and these guys are trapped too now they’re shuttin’ the wells down. Louisiana is also the poorest state in the union and the only one that doesn’t collect any revenue from oil itself, thanks to the corruption of past governors.”

Even those who like to think that politics and music don’t mix have to agree that this latest piece of eco-cide affects the globe. “I wrote about it before on mah song Black Gold. But it’s so bad. I went out on a boat fishin’ with my granddaughter, and they have signs up in the water, real heavy warnings. There’s sharks baskin’ where they got no right to live, and the damage to the wildlife will make grown men weep."

According to Rebennack, the BP ‘spill’ is but one of hundreds to have happened in recent memory. “The ones you don’t hear about on an everyday basis. I met these TransOcean employees before I came to England and they told me they were warned in February this was a likely event. And then Sarah Palin says, ‘Drill, baby, drill!’ Everyone knows she’s an arsehole. But the corruption of BP is incredible. I mean, the English CEO… He should be in an American court of law. If I’d been partly responsible for the death of 11 people they’d be takin’ me to the chair.”


As a recording artist who started out playing the most dangerous bars and brothels in New Orleans, Dr. John is aware of the concept of borrowed time. He made albums with R&B legends like Professor Longhair and Doc Pomus hours before they hit their death beds. On Tribal he teamed up with a fellow Louisianan stalwart Bobby Charles, the ethnic Cajun who passed away last January. 

“I was producing his last album and he was writing with me,” he says of Charles. “His dying wish was to finish off the title track, Tribal, and another song called Potnah. I had to finish ’em without him. I also found an old demo we’d done called Change Of Heart and worked that up. The record’s dedicated to Bobby. When I was at his funeral, I realised that his spirit entered me. And that’s the only blessing we can have. Whatever happens on the other side, we have what we did together.” 

A lot of people thought Rebennack, 70 in November, wouldn’t survive anything like this long. Mac began a flirtation with heroin that started in the 60s and didn’t let him go until the early 90s. Everything seemed okay when he was a superstar of sorts – hanging out with the Rolling Stones and Eric Clapton, and earning a living both as an artist and as a session man with a track record that included leading roles playing alongside Canned Heat, Van Morrison, Paul Simon, Carly Simon and Harry Nilsson. He was one of the first-call keyboard players in Los Angeles, having emigrated there in the early 60s to become part of the famed Wrecking Crew studio ensemble.

The drugs and the drink were par for the course, and he didn’t have a problem. “That’s what junkies think. I did drink, but LSD wasn’t my thing. The weed wasn’t my thing. Heroin was my thing. I wasn’t faithful to none of my wives but I was faithful to heroin, to that and nuthin’ else. Eventually I had help. I did rehab. I did meetings and I made friends. I did rehab in N’Awlins cos we hang together better there. It’s better to hang like that than to hang sep-a-rated. It ain’t a good feelin’ to be lynched by yourself. Nobody knows what the protocol is for that junk. Somebody might cut you down – if you’re lucky. I been off narcotics now for 20 years.” 

Wake-up time arrived when the Doc was admitted to hospital ravaged with hepatitis C, cirrhosis of the liver and the kind of gout that sends a man insane. “My liver was a degenerated organ, so if I’m living my life backwards I’m blessed again. My liver was so ruined and small the doctor told me I had but weeks to live. Holy shit, Batman! Life don’t make any sense, but when you hear that news it suddenly becomes a sight more important, dig? Plus they showed me the pictures, and the dialysis scans. My liver was like multi-coloured, Technicolor jello. Shit, it didn’t even look like a hunk of meat! Truth to tell, I wasn’t even so sorta scared. But my manager was,” he laughs. “And my old lady wasn’t too happy either.” 

Granted a stay of execution, Dr. John eased himself out of the limelight but carried on playing club tours even though, under the influence of his Interferon jabs, he was as sick as a dog, living within a flu-like fog. “I knew what my biopsy was gonna be like, but that drug was powerful. Praise be to whoever that I ain’t with that. I mean, I wasn’t just frail, I was dying on a daily basis.”

Despite the acute self-diagnosis, Rebennack is not a real doctor. But that didn’t stop Eric Clapton from seeking his advice when the two met backstage at the Lyceum in London. 

“When I ran into him I told him I wanted to consult him as a doctor,” Clapton recalled. “He asked me what my problem was, and I told him that I needed a remedy. ‘What kind of remedy?’ I told him: ‘A love potion.’ I was calling his bluff, but he asked me to tell him more about the situation. So I told him I was deeply in love with the wife of another man [Patti Harrison, Beatle George’s missus], and that she was no longer happy with him but wouldn’t leave him. He gave me a little box made out of woven straw, and told me to keep it in my pocket, gave me various, long-forgotten instructions. I did exactly as I was told.” 

A few weeks later Eric told George the truth, started his affair with Patti, and told the whole world about it on the Derek And The Dominos’ album featuring Layla and his other love songs. 

Dr. John was in demand with the British rock elite. Clapton and Mick Jagger appeared on his 1971 album The Sun, Moon & Herbs, and Rebennack was asked to support the Stones on the road. He also played on the track Let It Loose on the Stones’ Exile On Main St. “Funniest crap was, they wuz mixin’ the album in New York, and I went to some shoot party and Keith Richards was real old-school, the coolest cat. They all loved the N’Awlins sound, so I got my man Didymus the gig on percussion and brought along the singer Tammi Lynn – Keith was all over the lady.

“I’d met ’em before that, in London, when that kid who died [Brian Jones] used to sit in the dressing room and talk for hours about southern music. I guess I influenced Jagger some, cuz people said he changed his vocal style after he met me, but so what? If it rolled with me, that’s cool with my ass. Who the hell knows where influence comes from? I don’t live in his brain. I know he heard something he could use.” 

In fact Dr. John’s was the name to drop in the Afghan coat-wearing year of ’68. First his Gris-Gris album (the title means a satin bag full of voodoo) became the underground classic of the year, then Babylon confirmed his status as the heppest cat on the prowl. Was this guy for real, with his black-cat moan and his sazzle and his Night Tripper persona? In the days when the British didn’t travel much to America, he seemed to be the real deal. 

And he kept on picking up converts: Van Morrison copped licks off him, ELP stole the title Brain Salad Surgery from his song Right Place Wrong Time, Humble Pie constructed their live set around a mammoth version of Dr. John’s hypnotic cut I Walk On Guilded Splinters, which was about a Grand Zombie strolling across fire.

The Doc became a Zelig-like character. He played at Duane Allman’s funeral in 1971, opened the Bottom Line club in NYC in January 1974 with Stevie Wonder (Jagger, Johnny Winter and Paul Simon among the crowd) and, famously, stole the show at The Band’s farewell. Martin Scorsese filmed that concert, held on Thanksgiving Day 1976. 

“That was a blast,” he recalls. “The Winterland in San Francisco: Neil Young, Bob Dylan, Allen Toussaint, Ronnie Wood, Ringo Starr, Van’s Tura Lura Lura… man, some cast. But the highlight was Muddy Waters doin’ Nine Below Zero, which they never used. They didn’t get it! Blew me away, cos there’s all these bad guitar players standing on the stage with their jaws hanging open. Real good players, but they couldn’t catch Muddy. 

"And me and ol’ Bobby Charles sang Down South In New Orleans and they didn’t use that! I don’t know where Scorsese was! ’Nuther thing springs to mind is that Sweet William Bonney from the Oakland chapter of the Hells Angels stole mah hat. Had to borrow a beret off a lady to do the gig.” 

Dr. John is seldom seen in public without a trademark hat. “I got a coupla dozen. Jessie Hill’s sister told me once: ‘Don’t be doin’ anything without a hat on.’ She told me on her deathbed. She came from the spiritual church side of voodoo, and that was like my tradition, got me my knowledge. Fact my earliest photo memory is of me as a child taken by my father and I’m in front of a park full of ducks, wearin’ a smart sailor suit, carrying a wooden Thompson sub-machine-gun and I got on a straw hat. Years later, a French lady told me Rebennack was a Basque name and the Basques always wear hats. Thing is, I don’t speak no French. I don’t even speak English properly.”

Mac gets his unmistakable lingo from a childhood spent avoiding school, working as a pimp, hauling bodies from morgues to the fancy cemeteries of the Garden District, and hanging out by night with musician friends of his father and Louisianan merchant seamen who returned home from trips armed with cockney rhyming slang, “which they polluted further. The accent comes from the sixth and ninth wards. We have our own speaking manner, fucked- up language. I was around cats like Danny Barker, who’d be singing songs like Doncha Feel Mah Leg, Feel Mah Thigh, Go Up High And Stick It Where You Stuck It Last Night. They had risqué versions for some clubs and real filthy ones for the cog- no-centi. I met so many bad players: Earl Palmer, Pete Johnson, Wu Wooh. They didn’t have great criminal records, and so they taught me plenty.”

Reb’s biggest friend was his fellow teenage hoodlum and band amigo Ronnie Barron, who he met at the Jesuit High School. “His mother kinda hired me to protect him – ‘Don’t you be letting nuthin happen to my boy, Mac, or I’ll kill you.’” Barron and Rebennack played in the 50s R&B group Ronnie & The Delinquents, and cut the self-explanatory Bad Neighbourhood. “I was playin’ guitar back then, and I had to protect Ronnie in a bar fight. This guy pulled out a pistol and fired it off and I put my hand in front of Ronnie’s face. I got my left ring finger shot off. So that was the end of my guitar career pretty much.”

Even so, Barron and Mac remained friends, and went to Los Angeles to look for work when the New Orleans police started closing clubs. “I didn’t want to be no frontman until I went to California. Ronnie was going to be Dr. John Creaux, but he went home and I didn’t.”

In LA, Rebennack was hired by Phil Spector to play on some of his earliest Wall Of Sound classics, alongside the other session musicians collectively nicknamed the Wrecking Crew. It was at one of those sessions that he met his friend, the late Harry Nilsson.

“Harry was the greatest cat. The last time I saw him I bumped into him when he was leaving a rehab meeting. He was living like a fucking vampire, he lived by night and he didn’t come out in the day. I sees him and he’s wearing glasses. I said: ‘Gee, Harry, I didn’t know you wore no glasses.’ And he said: ‘I don’t, but I bought these off the shelf in the pharmacy over the road for two bucks. They’re not even prescription.’ I said: ‘They look okay, considering.’ And he just gave them to me. He wasn’t in great shape by then. Without Harry I’d never have met Peter Sellers and gone to a party for Ringo’s kids.

“You could trick old Harry, too. One time I’d been given a stick by some guy out the Ku Klux Klan with four ‘K’s written on it. I left it in Harry’s car and his car got towed. He was panicking. He thought they’ll search the car at the pound and find that stick and think he’s a member of the Klan. Heh heh. He ran down to that pound and paid the fine in seconds.”

It’s getting late and the Night Tripper has to catch a flight to Edinburgh. Mention of Scotland prompts one last tale of derring-do. “I played Glasgow one time with my friend Frankie Miller and there was a gang fight after the gig. I was laughin’ my ass off watching them kick each other’s asses, which was a mistake. As they came towards us, Frankie stepped in and said something they could understand. They couldn’t understand anything I said. They ran off. 

"I like Frankie. He took me to his place in Maida Vale one time and drank a case of Blue Nun then puked all over his wife’s flowers. They had this lovely floral arrangement, and last thing I remember is Frankie on his knees spraying the puke off the blossoms with water while his wife hit him over the head. I haven’t thought of that crap in years.”

Chuckling, the Doctor picks up his stick and vanishes into the evening.

This feature originally appeared in Classic Rock 150, published in October 2010. Dr John died in 2019.

Max Bell

Max Bell worked for the NME during the golden 70s era before running up and down London’s Fleet Street for The Times and all the other hot-metal dailies. A long stint at the Standard and mags like The Face and GQ kept him honest. Later, Record Collector and Classic Rock called.