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Dr. John: From Session Player To New Orleans Funk Legend

This month, five new performers will be inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. It's an eclectic group of selections, ranging from pop diva Darlene Love to shock-rocker Alice Cooper. But in spite of their differences, each of these singers adopted a special identity or image to stand out from the rest of the pack.Morning Edition has been looking behind the personas of this year's inductees.

The recording studio was crammed with musicians — some of the best players in Los Angeles. They had all gathered to provide a wall of sound behind Sonny & Cher.

Behind the tall woman and the little man were multiple guitarists, horns and keyboard players. Among that last group was a 26-year-old pianist from New Orleans named Mac Rebennack, who was not too happy with the assignment.

"To get all these keyboard players — and they were all good players — playing blink-um, blink-um, blink-um arpeggios together, it's not very hip," Rebennack says. "And it's not very funky. And it doesn't make me want to dance."

Rebennack knew funky. He had come from one of the most vibrant rhythm-and-blues scenes in the country, and there, he'd studied the styles of local legends like Professor Longhair.

But he had been busted for drugs one too many times, and the authorities had refused to let him return home after rehab. So he went to L.A., where, in the mid-'60s, there was plenty of mind-numbing session work to be had.

Rebennack started thinking of New Orleans and a story he'd heard about a 19th century medicine man, who was revered by the poor and feared by the well-to-do. His name was said to be John Montaigne or, more commonly, Dr. John.

In 1969, Rebennack released a thematic album called Gris Gris based on the Dr. John character. The record was a mixture of rhythm and blues, jazz and voodoo chants in a Creole dialect. The album was recorded quickly by a group of expatriate New Orleans musicians during leftover studio time between Sonny & Cher sessions. For Rebennack, the hardest part was stepping out front to do the lead vocals.

"See, I don't know nothing about singing. I never wanted to be a frontman," Rebennack says. "Frontmen had big egos and was always crazy and aggravating. I just never thought that was a good idea."

No one else wanted to do it, either, so Rebennack, reluctantly, became Dr. John. When he started touring, friends from the New Orleans Mardi Gras Indians provided him with elaborate costumes, festooned with feathers and intricate beadwork. Rebennack says his goal was to preserve and promote a cultural legacy that was dying off, but the mysterious music of Dr. John connected with psychedelic rockers.

"We got some gigs playing at a love-in or a be-in or some kind of 'in,' " Rebennack says.

Since then, Dr. John's wardrobe has been scaled back to a snake-headed walking stick and some voodoo beads around his neck, and the music is straight-up funky New Orleans. But he's kept the name he took from that ancient medicine man.

"Doc has been my name all my life, and John is my middle name. I'm proud of all my names — Malcolm John Michael Creaux Rebennack," he says. "I'm proud of them names."

And has the formerly reluctant lead vocalist settled into his role as a frontman? "Yes," he says. "That's the tricknology of life."

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David C. Barnett