Last week, Spin published a syndication of an Associated Press story regarding the legendary New Orleans musician Dr. John. The pianist and singer had just celebrated his 78th birthday, according to the AP, but a local journalist found solid historical documentation showing that John was in fact turning 77. Also, his actual birthday was apparently not November 20, as he’d celebrated, but the following day, November 21. We got a good headline out of it, the AP writer made a “Right Place, Wrong Time” joke, and we all moved on with our lives.
Then, Karen Beninato, Dr. John’s publicist, contacted us with a somewhat confusing correction to the story: according to her, John hadn’t just found out he’d been misrepresenting his age all these years, as our headline alleged—he’d been propagating the myth intentionally. “He’s always been secretly right about his birthday – everyone else had the wrong time,” Beninato wrote in part. She also took issue with Spin’s claim that John had been informed of the mixup at a party, which, to be fair to us, is not a claim that actually appears anywhere in our coverage. The crux of the issue, according to the publicist’s statement, seems to be that Dr. John did not actually celebrate his 78th birthday this year, but simply took a year off from birthday parties, because he’d already celebrated his 77th in 2017.
As our initial AP syndication noted, John apparently began lying about his age as a teenager, to gain entry as a performer into 18-plus nightclubs a year early. The false number stuck with him for decades, appearing in several online biographies and his own memoir. The musician born Malcolm John Rebennack has always been a bit cagey about identity, so the confusion is appropriate. On some level, “Dr. John” himself is a constructed persona, based on a 19th-century voodoo practitioner who claimed to be a Senegalese prince, which Rebennack adopted for his classic 1968 debut album Gris-Gris. Maybe he’s 77, maybe 78, maybe 104—or maybe he’s the ageless spirit of New Orleans itself, walking the earth in boogie-woogie piano-playing form. You decide.