Mac “Dr. John” Rebennack, a lifelong rambler, was the subject of a celebratory memorial ramble through the 7th Ward on Friday.

Only four days after New Orleanians took to the streets to honor culinary legend Leah Chase, who died June 1 at age 96, another throng gathered outside Kermit Ruffins’ Treme Mother-in-Law Lounge on a steamy Friday afternoon to salute a music icon.

Rebennack, 77, died early Thursday of a heart attack. He’d spent the past 18 months living quietly on the north shore, battling a number of ailments.

During his 60-year career, Rebennack wrote and recorded essential chapters in the New Orleans music canon. Over the years, he became one of the city's most enduring, respected and iconoclastic musicians and cultural figures.

He was a prominent member of the pantheon of New Orleans piano legends, part of a direct lineage that included Fats Domino, Professor Longhair, Huey “Piano” Smith, Allen Toussaint and Art Neville. His body of work earned him induction into the Rock ’n’ Roll Hall of Fame’s class of 2011.

As news of his death spread, tributes poured in from across the music and media worlds. The New York Times, Washington Post, Rolling Stone, NPR and CNN, among many other national media outlets, chronicled his life and career. Sirius XM satellite radio’s channel 106 devoted 25 minutes of its Friday morning “Feedback” show to eulogizing Dr. John.

The Beatles’ Ringo Starr, Creedence Clearwater Revival’s John Fogerty, the Eagles’ Joe Walsh, Blondie’s Deborah Harry and R.E.M.’s Mike Mills, among many other musicians, tweeted their condolences, often with a picture of themselves alongside Rebennack.

On Friday, Kermit Ruffins tweeted notice of a second-line for Rebennack. Word spread on social media.


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Police blocked traffic on North Claiborne Avenue for two blocks between Esplanade Avenue and Columbus Street, where a crowd that swelled to over 1,000 gathered under the elevated expressway.

At 4:30 p.m., trumpeter James Andrews — whose grandfather, Jessie Hill, wrote songs with Rebennack decades ago — set out from Columbus Street with a gaggle of musicians drawn from the Young Fellaz, TBC and New Birth brass bands.

Surrounded by countless upraised arms recording the moment on cell phones, they headed west on Claiborne. The procession paused at Kerlerec Street near a mural of Toussaint, a friend of Rebennack’s and fellow Rock ’n’ Roll Hall of Fame inductee.

The parade turned riverbound at Esplanade, passing a cement post depicting Domino, another Rebennack friend and Hall of Famer.

A "baby doll" marcher wore a similar shade of green as the suit Rebennack donned for his final New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival performance, in 2017.

The march surged along North Robertson Street, setting off a car alarm near the Candlelight Lounge, one of the last places to offer live music in the Treme neighborhood.

Nancy Ochsenschlager, a retired Jazz Fest associate producer, first met Rebennack 40 years ago through their mutual friend, the late Bo Dollis, Big Chief of the Wild Magnolias Mardi Gras Indians.

There was no question that Ochsenschlager, 79, would come out for Rebennack’s parade despite a sprained ankle.

“Oh, no, no question,” she said, even though her bum ankle made it “a little harder to second-line.”

In the homestretch, as the parade turned back on Claiborne toward the Mother-in-Law Lounge, the musicians broke into the Soul Rebels’ “Let Your Mind Be Free.” Exactly an hour after it started, the parade concluded with “I’ll Fly Away.”

Police quickly cleared a path so backed-up rush hour traffic could flow along Claiborne once again.

Outside the lounge, Saints superfan Leroy “Whistle Monsta” Mitchell took it all in. Rebennack’s late drummer, Herman “Roscoe” Ernest, was a groomsman at Mitchell’s wedding. Mitchell became close to Rebennack, too. Rebennack referred to Mitchell’s wife as "Mademoiselle Whistlette."

The morning of the Saints’ Super Bowl victory in 2010, Mitchell received a stream-of-consciousness text from Rebennack about how the Saints “won’t bow down” — a phrase borrowed from Mardi Gras Indian culture.

On Friday morning, Mitchell donned his full Whistle Monsta regalia — uniform with shoulder pads, black-and-gold face paint, massive whistle helmet — to shoot a commercial.

He knew he would be attending his pal Rebennack’s memorial second-line Friday evening. Generally, he doesn’t wear the Whistle Monsta costume to such events, so as not to overshadow the honoree.

“These (second-lines) are about the person,” Mitchell said. “But I know Mac would have loved this. He was a character. And he loved characters.”



Follow Keith Spera on Twitter, @KeithSpera.

Keith Spera writes about music, culture and his kids.