The essential Dr. John: 10 songs you need to know

Dr. John was that incredibly cool uncle you couldn’t wait to see at Christmas. You wanted to sit beside him and hear him talk. You knew he had done and seen things beyond your wildest imagination, but didn’t talk about it.

I’ve gone through my share of musical phases — a period of time when I obsess over an artist. This usually comes to an end once I figure out what they are up to. They’re great until you figure out their rhythm, then the mystery is over. The truly great artists are the ones you never fully figure out. They never let you catch onto them, and that keeps you coming back. George Carlin, Miles Davis, Pablo Picasso, Tom Waits, Aretha Franklin, Dr. John — they are or were all like this.

Dr. John could put himself into any musical situation and be the best in the room. He could fill a jazz club with music intellectuals, pen and paper in hand, taking notes on his choice of chord voicings. He could play a filthy blues bar in New Orleans, accompany a gospel choir on a Hammond organ, play second line with a brass band, and hang with Mardi Gras Indians. He embodied all the strands of New Orleans music. I thought I had heard it all until I came across his 1984 single Jet Set. Dr. John rapping? Inventing words like “confusementalism”? …Why not?

I could talk forever about the impact Mac Rebennack had on me. The simple fact is that after countless hours dedicating my radio show to the music of New Orleans, after all the research into new artists and all the rabbit holes I went down to seek out its forefathers, I’ve played Dr. John more than any other artist. And that is a space that will never be filled.

The doctor is of course best known for Right Place, Wrong Time and Such a Night, but his list of classics is endless. Here are 10 of my favourite tunes by the New Orleans legend.

Litanie des Saints (1992)

In this classic, Dr. John reaches back into the past to mix up classical, folk and jazz elements in a way that only someone from New Orleans could do. Inspired by composer Louis Moreau Gottschalk, it’s a song that celebrates the voodoo tradition of New Orleans.

Mama Roux (1968)

From Dr. John’s debut album Gris-Gris, this tune is deeply and funkily New Orleans.

Big Chief (1972)

On his fifth album Dr. John’s Gumbo you’ll find this funky take on the classic Professor Longhair number. The good doctor playing the signature piano line on a Hammond organ is worth the price of admission alone.

Iko Iko (1972)

A lost language, entirely mysterious: “Jock-a-mo fee-no ai na-né, jock-a-mo fee na-né.” This New Orleans classic tells of a parade collision between two “tribes” of Mardi Gras Indians, yet it’s as happy a song as you could ever hear. It’s impossible not to sing along with this classic New Orleans anthem by James “Sugar Boy” Crawford, covered by Dr. John on Dr. John’s Gumbo.

Some fun facts: Dr. John performed the song on a 1981 episode of SCTV, and during halftime of the NBA All-Star Game in New Orleans in 2008 and again in 2014.

Tipitina (1972)

This cover of another Professor Longhair hit shows Dr. John’s mastery of and reverence for traditional New Orleans-style piano playing.

Qualified (1973)

Dr. John’s sixth album In the Right Place yielded the big hit Right Place, Wrong Time and the classic Such a Night. But the record was a lot more than those two songs, and Qualified is a prime example of why it was Dr. John’s top-selling album.

“Your steak ain’t no hipper than my pork chop. Your Cadillac ain’t no hipper than my bus stop. Your champagne ain’t no hipper than my soda pop.” What else is there to say?

Jet Set (1984)

Dr. John like you’ve never heard him before. This 1984 release sounds like classic funky hip-hop from the Bronx, with Dr. John rapping — and doing it well! Was there anything he couldn’t do?

I Walk on Guilded Splinters (1968)

This is the type of Southern psychedelic voodoo for which Dr. John is best known. Atlantic records president Ahmet Ertegun was reluctant to release Gris-Gris at first, and is alleged to have exclaimed, “How can we market this boogaloo crap?” But I Walk on Guilded Splinters ended up being the song that launched Dr. John’s whole onstage persona of the Night Tripper.

How Come My Dog Don’t Bark (When You Come Around) [1992]

One of the things I love most about Dr. John and a lot of the music that comes from New Orleans is the humour. The character in this song is suspicious of his best friend. He wonders why his dog will bite anyone, including his own mother, yet when his so-called friend comes over he wants to jump up and play. It’s classic blues paranoia with a good dose of playfulness.

Revolution (2012)

This one’s a newer tune from Locked Down, his second-last studio album, produced by the Black Keys’ Dan Auerbach. The doctor showed he could still groove even in his later years.