Dr. John: How Come My Dogs Don’t Bark (When You Come Around)

21 Nov

Birthday greetings to Dr. John, born Malcolm Rebennack, who celebrates No. 71 today.

Rebennack was a guitar player known by his given name until two events in the 1960s altered his course: a gun accident injured a finger and detoured him to the piano, and he changed his name to the identity that would soon make him famous. His namesake was John Montaigne, a 19th-century doctor, whose treatments apparently were more in line with voodoo than the American Medical Association. The first Dr. John was once arrested, according to Tom Aswell’s Louisiana Rocks: The True Genesis of Rock and Roll, for prostitution, with a woman named Pauline Rebennack. The modern-day Dr. John, according to Aswell, thought the surname too much of a coincidence to overlook.

Most casual music lovers know Dr. John for 1973’s Right Place Wrong Time, but he never lost touch with his roots as Malcolm Rebennack, or as a session player (on Rickie Lee Jones’ debut 1979 album, for example, Rebennack — not Dr. John, who was by then famous — is one of six listed keyboards players).

“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,” Dr. John said in an interview on npr.org. “I’m proud of them names.”

Dr. John once said, in a Rolling Stone interview with Andy Greene, he always liked Johnny Cash because Cash “remembered my real name. Not many people do.”

In the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, he’s enshrined as Dr. John, although his bio pays homage to his given name. His 2011 induction was the right place at the right time.

“See, I don’t know nothing about singing,” he told npr. “I never wanted to be a frontman. Frontmen had big egos and was always crazy and aggravating. I just never thought that was a good idea.”

Ideas, Dr. John had, most of them provided by his native New Orleans, and many of them outlandish. But he attracted attention not just for the show, but for the substance of the music, too.

“. . . many are the coats,” wrote Ashley Kahn, in an essay that originally appeared in the program from the 2011 Rock and Roll Hall of Fame induiction program, “he’s worn: riff-master, R&B guitarist and boogie-woogie piano professor. Psychedelic voodoo rock shaman and stately New Orleans musical ambassador. Bandleader of top-tier talent and A-list sessionman/producer. Player of downhome blues and singer of uptown jazz standards. ‘Ain’t no difference,’ Dr. John said of himself a few years back. ‘It’s all one sucka in there however you want to break it down . . . ‘ ”

Dr. John was music’s Dr. J long before Julius Erving became basketball’s. He’s still going, of course. Asked by Greene about retirement, Dr. John said: “I think it’s only proper that I play until the last note of a set, then fall over and die. The band won’t have to play an encore and they’ll still get paid for a gig.”

sources: npr.org, answers.com, nitetripper.com, rollingstone.com, rockhall.com

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