By Brad Dison
It was the 1969 Toronto Pop Festival and Malcolm “Mac” John Rebennack Jr.’s band was scheduled to perform. Mac looked like something from a strange other world. He had strands of beads and other trinkets interwoven into his hair and “powders coming out of his ears.” Strips of colorful rags hung from his clothing. He used a walking stick which looked like its intended use was for casting spells rather than walking. The 18-year-old musician was in perfect health and did not require any type of apparatus for walking. The stick was just part of who Mac was. When Mac walked in a room, everyone instinctually turned their gaze his way.
The concert was held at an outdoor venue, and it had been raining periodically throughout the day. Mac and his band were onstage playing their unique mixture of jazz, blues, rock and roll, and funk which the media nicknamed “voodoo rock,” when the rain began to pour. As if it were a part of the show, Mac raised the unique walking stick toward the sky and held it there for a few moments. His eyes focused on the dark clouds. Some say he mumbled a few words. Suddenly, as if under Mac’s spell, the rain stopped completely.
Mac was born and raised in New Orleans’s middle class Third Ward. His father owned and operated an appliance store. In addition to household appliances such as washers, dryers, and refrigerators, Mac’s father sold sound systems and records in a variety of genres Mac later described as “gospel, bebop, real filthy party records, and hillbilly stuff like Hank Williams.” Mac’s father also repaired appliances and sound systems. Mac was first subjected to the gypsy world of musicians as a child when he accompanied his father on sound system repair jobs at local clubs. Mac was more than a decade away from the required age to enter the clubs, but he was allowed since he was helping with the repairs. Mac was entranced. He recognized at this early age that he wanted to be a performer just like them. Within a short time, Mac learned to play multiple instruments with almost no instruction.
By the time he was a teenager, he was writing songs for other artists and playing guitar for recording sessions. Mac said, “New Orleans produced a lot of good piano players and some good drummers, but for some reason there weren’t a lot of guitar players around, so I kind of filled the need.” Mac was always modest. Aaron Neville recalled that “the ratty dude,” which is how he referred to Mac, “was a bad dude on guitar.” But that changed when Mac was 20 years old.
In 1961, Mac was on tour with his friend, fellow New Orleans native Ronnie Barron. When Mac and Ronnie were not performing, they spent most of their time at a local motel. During their stay, Ronnie and the motel manager’s wife became friends, maybe more than friends. The motel manager confronted Ronnie about the possible infidelity and an argument ensued. In a fit of rage, the motel manager pulled a pistol from his pocket. Mac grabbed the pistol with his left hand just as the motel manager pulled the trigger. POW!!! Because of Mac’s quick action, the bullet missed its intended target. For Ronnie, Mac was in the right place at the right time. For Mac’s left ring finger, Mac was in the right place at the wrong time. The bullet passed through his finger and left it “hanging by a thread.” Surgeons repaired his mangled finger to the best of their abilities, but Mac’s career as a guitar player had ended with that pistol shot. Mac transitioned from guitar to bass and then to piano, his first instrument.
Mac fell into a deep depression and tried to dull it with drugs. He was arrested for possession of narcotics and spent time in a federal prison. Upon his release in 1965, Mac moved to Los Angeles, California where he became a session piano player for artists such as Buffalo Springfield and Sonny and Cher. In 1967, Mac recorded his first album, Gris-Gris, with other transplanted New Orleans musicians. While working on the album, Mac began working on a way to incorporate the Mardi Gras tradition that he was so fond of into his live shows. He created a character for his live shows that he named after a 19th-centuryth century Louisiana voodoo priest. In creating this character, Mac said he was “just tryin’ to hustle album deals, just tryin’ to hustle money.” Rather than being a one-off character as Mac had planned, he became known as the character. Malcolm John Rebennack Jr. may have been known as Mac to his close friends, but the world knows Mac as Dr. John. He is most associated with his biggest hit single released in 1973 called “Right Place, Wrong Time.”
- Browne, David. “Dr. John: The Joy and Mystery of a New Orleans Saint.” Rolling Stone, 24 July 2019, rollingstone.com/music/music-features/dr-john-joy-mystery-new-orleans-saint-861931/amp/. Accessed 18 June 2023.
- “Dr. John – Right Place Wrong Time (Official Audio).” youtube.com, youtube.com/watch?v=W4PjWgiH-LQ. Accessed 7 Feb. 2023.