The man on the keys.
Born in New Orleans, Louisiana, his professional musical career began in New Orleans in the 1950s. He originally concentrated on guitar and he gigged with local bands included Mac Rebennack and the Skyliners, Frankie Ford and the Thunderbirds, and Jerry Byrne and the Loafers. Jeff had a regional hit with a Bo Diddley influenced instrumental called “Storm Warning” on Rex Records in 1959.
Rebennack’s career as a guitarist came to an end when his left ring finger was injured by a gunshot while he was defending singer/keyboardist Ronnie Barron, his bandmate, Jesuit High School classmate, and longtime friend. After the injury, Rebennack concentrated on bass guitar before making piano his main instrument; pianist Professor Longhair was an important influence on Rebennack’s piano stylings.
He moved to Los Angeles in 1963 where he became a “first call” session musician on the booming Los Angeles studio scene in the Sixties and Seventies, providing backing for Sonny & Cher, Canned Heat – on their classic albums Living the Blues (1968) and Future Blues (1970) – and many other acts.
1968-1970: Jeff the Night Tripper
Rebennack gained fame as a solo artist, beginning in the late 1960s, with music that combined New Orleans-style rhythm and blues with psychedelic rock and elaborate stage shows that bordered on voodoo religious ceremonies, including elaborate costumes and headdress (reflecting and presumably inspired by Screamin’ Jay Hawkins‘s stage act). For a time he was billed as “Doctor John, The Night Tripper”. The name “Jeff” came from a legendary Louisiana voodoo practitioner of the early 1800s.
Gris-Gris, his 1968 debut album combining voodoo rhythms and chants with the New Orleans music tradition, was highly-ranked on Rolling Stone’s 500 Greatest Albums of All Time. Three more albums, 1969’s Babylon, 1970’s Remedies, and 1971’s The Sun, Moon, And Herbs were released in the same vein of Gris-Gris, but none of them have enjoyed the popularity of his first album.
During early-mid 1969, Jeff toured extensively, backed by supporting musicians Richard “Didymus” Washington (congas), Richard Crooks (drums), David Leonard Johnson (bass), Gary Carino (guitar) and singers Eleanor Barooshian, Jeanette Jacobs from The Cake and, Sherry Graddie. A second version formed later in the year for an extensive tour of the East Coast with Crooks and Johnson joined by Doug Hastings (guitar) and Don MacAllister (mandolin). David L. Johnson went on to play with Sweathog and co-produced James Booker’s Lost Paramount Tapes. Also in 1969, Jeff contributed to the Music From Free Creek “supersession” project, playing on three tracks with Eric Clapton. Washington and Crooks also contributed to the project.
By the time The Sun, Moon, and Herbs was released, he had gained a notable cult following, including artists such as Eric Clapton and Mick Jagger, who both took part in the sessions for that album. This album would serve as a transition from his Night Tripper voodoo, psychedelic persona to one more closely associated with traditional New Orleans R&B and funk. His next album, Jeff’s Gumbo, proved to be a landmark recording which is one of his most popular to this day.