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Remembering Dr. John, A New Orleans Rhythm And Blues Giant


Now a remembrance of a master of New Orleans piano.


DR JOHN: (Singing) Down the road come a junko partner.

SHAPIRO: He called himself Dr. John, but the only medicine he dispensed was music.


DR JOHN: (Singing) Knocked down loaded. You know, he wobbled...

SHAPIRO: Dr. John died of a heart attack yesterday at age 77. He was born Malcolm John Rebennack. But as he told NPR in 2000, he had a lot of nicknames growing up in the Crescent City.


DR JOHN: Snake Shannon (ph), Doc Profisari (ph). People still call me Bishop. It's very confusing, but that's just a New Orleans thing.

SHAPIRO: Dr. John brought that New Orleans thing to the world through his own band and his many collaborations. To talk with us about the man and his music, Alison Fensterstock joins us now. She wrote an appreciation of Dr. John for NPR Music. Welcome to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED.

ALISON FENSTERSTOCK, BYLINE: Thanks for inviting me.

SHAPIRO: How did he soak up this New Orleans flavor that he exuded in all of the music that he made?

FENSTERSTOCK: Well, I mean, he was out there playing music and listening to music while he was still in high school. But he was also writing songs. He was hanging out at the Dew Drop Inn, Uptown, the famous black nightclub where everybody from Allen Toussaint to Duke Ellington would play. He was a big fan of the spiritualist churches down in the Ninth Ward which combined a lot of music with syncretic voodoo and Catholic traditions, very uniquely New Orleans. And he just soaked all of that in.

SHAPIRO: He embodied so much of that New Orleans spirit. Is that spirit getting harder to find as people like him age and die?

FENSTERSTOCK: Yeah. I think, you know, he's one of that generation - Allen Toussaint, Fats Domino, James Booker - that all kind of came up at the same time as rock 'n' roll did. They really shaped it. They put their own sound on it. And they kind of launched it. But yeah, I think it is, as that generation falls away, you know, we lose a tremendous amount of memory.

SHAPIRO: Tell us about the music that you think he'll be most remembered for.

FENSTERSTOCK: Oh, gosh. You know, he did so much. His biggest hit, I think everyone knows, was "Right Place Wrong Time." That was his only Top 10.


DR JOHN: (Singing) I been in the right place, but it must have been the wrong time. I'd have said the right thing, but I must have used the wrong line.

FENSTERSTOCK: There were also the albums that preceded that, you know, "Gris-Gris," which was the introduction of that fantastical, mystical Dr. John persona with the feathers and the John the Conqueror root, the beads and the robes.


DR JOHN: (Singing) Gris-gris religion, sign of the dragon.

FENSTERSTOCK: But, you know, he also was such a lover of the Great American Songbook and the craft of jazz. And he made some really beautiful albums that were tributes to Johnny Mercer and Duke Ellington and Louis Armstrong. And he actually won his first Grammy in 1989 for a version of "Makin' Whoopee."


DR JOHN: (Singing) Another bride, another groom, another sunny honeymoon, another season. And that's the reason for making whoopee.

SHAPIRO: One of my favorite Dr. John fun facts, which I read on the Internet today - so it must be true - is the Jim Henson based the bandleader for the Muppets' band, Dr. Teeth, at least in part on Dr. John.

FENSTERSTOCK: That's - yeah, I feel like that is what fans of Muppetology (ph) have always agreed. You know, and Dr. John has never denied it. He certainly looks familiar, you know, with the teeth and the robes and the hat.

SHAPIRO: Alison Fensterstock, thanks so much for remembering Dr. John with us today.

FENSTERSTOCK: Thank you so much for having me.

SHAPIRO: She is a deejay at New Orleans radio station WWOZ and a freelance arts and culture writer. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.