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Did Dr. John Actually Finish His Final Album Before He Died? Depends Who You Ask

FIVE MONTHS BEFORE Dr. John’s death in June 2019, the singer’s son Max Rebennack sent an email to producer and musician Shane Theriot. 

Rebennack began corresponding with Theriot about the album Dr. John had made over the previous year. The collection, recorded over a series of sessions in and around New Orleans, was a profound, beautiful document of a singer, weakened by age, reflecting on his life over a collection of mostly old country standards from his youth. Over email, Theriot and Rebennack discussed the special guests, tracklisting, and eventual mastering of the album. After Theriot enlisted the producer and songwriter John Leventhal to mix the record in the fall of 2018, Theriot wrote to Rebennack asking if he and his father had had a chance to hear the mixes.

“We listened to it a few times, and both think it sounds great,” Max wrote, the most recent in a series of correspondences. “He is cool with the order of the songs, whichever way you decide to go with.”

If Theriot was relieved to hear that Dr. John (whose real name was Mac Rebennack) had given his blessing on the project, he would have been stunned to learn that the arduous journey of releasing Dr. John’s final album was only just beginning. 

More than three years after his death at the age of 77, Dr. John’s moving final record will finally be released on Friday via Rounder Records. With unusually vulnerable performances of classics like “I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry” and “Funny How Time Slips Away,” Things Happen That Way is the realization of the singer’s long-held dream of crafting a country-inspired album. 

“He had long wanted to record a country & western album since listening to what was then called hillbilly music as a kid in his father’s record store,” Karla Pratt, Dr. John’s daughter and the executor of his estate, writes via email. 

But the release of Things Happen That Way arrives after a multiyear saga and a series of conflicts between the singer’s estate, which has been represented by a rotating cast of attorneys, and Theriot, who worked hand in hand with Dr. John to record the album in the singer’s final years. 

Theriot and several others involved in the record believe that the estate is releasing a watered-down version of the album that doesn’t fully embody Dr. John’s vision. The estate counters that the finished version is the best possible representation of the musical legend. At the core of the conflict is the age-old music-industry dilemma about what happens to an artist’s unreleased recordings after they die: Who gets to control an artist’s creative output when the artist can no longer control it themselves?

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Many of the behind-the-scenes tensions between the estate and several people who worked on the original recording sessions stemmed from one indisputable fact: Dr. John’s estate altered three of the album’s 10 tracks after the singer’s death. Because Theriot and several others involved in the original sessions claim that Dr. John had fully signed off on the original version of the album, they view these alterations as a direct violation of the singer’s wishes, even if they were ultimately directed by Dr. John’s own family.

As the proper owners of the Things Happen That Way sessions, the estate had the legal right to shape the album as it saw fit. “Mac owned the record and had complete artistic and legal control,” Michael Perlstein, one of several attorneys representing Dr. John’s estate, tells Rolling Stone. “His ownership and rights passed to his estate through his daughter.

Despite several sources involved with the album contending that Dr. John had signed off on the recordings, Pratt now claims that her father was not, in fact, done with the record when he died. 

“Dad had sole artistic control and ownership of his musical project, and before he passed away, he was still focused on putting the finishing touches on his album,” she writes when asked about the estate’s posthumous alterations. “It’s been well-reviewed, with The New York Times saying that the album is Dr. John ‘in peak form.’ I think he would have loved reading that.”

For those who helped record Things Happen That Way, its release comes with mixed emotions: They are thrilled and gratified that a gorgeous piece of art that seemed like it would never get released will finally be heard. “It’s wonderful we have a new Dr. John record,” New Orleans pianist Jon Cleary, who played on the record, tells Rolling Stone. “The record sounds really good, and that’s all that really counts.”

But many also feel frustrated, betrayed, and dismayed by the fact that the estate insisted on changing the record and alienating its major players after the singer’s death. 

“We finished the record, it was mixed, Mac heard it, he had a big smile on his face when he heard the final mixes, it was all approved,” says Misha Kachkachishvili, who engineered several songs on the album. “So, at this point, for me, this is almost sacrilegious.”

“I’m glad it’s coming out for Mac’s sake,” says Theriot, who is credited as the album’s co-producer alongside Dr. John himself. “And I hope Mac is still happy with the record, because I know he was [happy with it] the first time around.”

To a casual listener, the changes seem minimal: Indeed, the majority of the album (seven out of its 10 final tracks) remain completely unaltered. But after the musician’s death, the estate completely changed one song: Dr. John’s remake of “I Walk On Guilded Splinters.”

The song was initially recorded as an eerie, acoustic reimagination of the singer’s famous 1968 eight-minute epic, with background vocals weaving around Rebennack’s voice. The estate enlisted a new set of musicians, including Lukas Nelson, to rework the track, with nothing remaining of the original rerecording except for Rebennack’s vocals.

“I fucking hated it,” says Kachkachishvili of the released version.

On “Guilded,” along with two other songs (“End of the Line,” “Holy Water”), Katie Pruitt, an up-and-coming singer-songwriter on Rounder Records, adds vocals on three songs after Rickie Lee Jones’ guest vocals were discarded. Another additional song, a remake of the singer’s classic “Such a Nite,” was also removed from the tracklisting. “After Shane completed his work and the [recordings] were delivered for mastering, rights and clearances issues arose that required some changing,” says Perlstein.

Theriot highlights his respect for Nelson and Pruitt, two unfortunate bystanders caught in the middle of the conflict. But he is still disappointed the record was changed after Mac’s death. “Three songs may seem like a little thing to people,” says Theriot. “But when you’re talking about somebody’s last record, it’s a big deal.”

Asked via email, Pratt did not directly explain why the estate chose to make the creative alterations. “The estate has taken special care with releasing Things Happen That Way, since it turned out to be Dad’s final studio album,” she writes. “On every creative project, things change, but one constant is that Dad believed in letting his music speak for itself.”

In the case of Dr. John’s estate, which has been represented by a series of lawyers (the album credits thank a total of five attorneys, or “legalizers”), the “main goal,” Pratt writes, has always been to “respect and preserve [Dr. John’s] legacy of artistic excellence.” The dispute, largely hinging on the changed version of “I Walk on Guilded Splinters,” is a difference of opinion between the estate and the Things Happen That Way collaborators in what constitutes that “artistic excellence.”

“Could it all have [happened] slightly differently? Yeah,” says Leventhal, who mixed the record. “But such is the complexity of families and deaths and estates and lawyers and personalities and feelings and misunderstandings.”

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When Dr. John first began work on Things Happen That Way, no one involved, including Dr. John, thought it would be his final record. The singer was animated by the idea of making a long-imagined “country western” album in the vein of Ray Charles’ immortal Modern Sounds in Country & Western. When he started recording in 2017, he was in fine form, playing his signature soulful piano at Kachkachishvili’s Esplanade Studios in New Orleans.

But by 2018, Dr. John’s deteriorating health made the hourlong trip from his home to a downtown New Orleans studio impossible. Theriot and Dr. John’s son Max, who was at that point his father’s caretaker, agreed that it would be best to record the singer at his home.

But engineer Jack Miele faced several absurd obstacles: One day, right before recording, Rebennack’s neighbor began pressure washing his house next door. Later, the neighbor let their barking English bulldog outside, further interrupting the sessions. (Upon finding out he lived next door to a New Orleans musical legend, the neighbor kept the dog inside during recording.)

Despite his health issues, Dr. John remained committed to the project. “Even when he was feeling shitty, he had that work ethic,” says Theriot. “Sha-zane,” Dr. John would say. “We gotta get this shit done.”

By the fall of 2018, recording was complete. Theriot had recruited Rebennack’s old friends Willie Nelson, Aaron Neville, and Rickie Lee Jones to add vocals to several songs. In addition to classic covers like “Old Time Religion,” Dr. John had recorded three new originals he had co-written with Theriot. Taken in full, the record represented a more vulnerable, exposed side of the oft-mythologized singer. 

“This was not a ‘Night Tripper’ record,” Theriot says, referring to the singer’s Seventies voodoo alter-ego. “This was Mac looking back on his life, and some things were funny and sarcastic, and other things were just raw.”

“It wasn’t the Mac of the Seventies and Eighties,” Leventhal adds of the original Things Happen That Way recordings. “But it had a deep, human duty in its fragility and its humanity.… Whatever I was doing was trying to heighten that and not pretend it was 1975 and Mardi Gras in New Orleans.”

Theriot still has a cherished memory of saying goodbye to the singer after the two of them had spent a day listening to the mixes of the record at Dr. John’s home. “He walked me out to my car, stared at me, and said, ‘I’m glad I made the right choice,’ and hugged me,” Theriot told Rolling Stone in 2019. “That meant a lot.”

One rare source of agreement between Theriot and the estate is the idea that Dr. John did not necessarily view Things Happen That Way as his final statement. “It wasn’t supposed to be a posthumous release at all,” says Theriot. 

Pratt concurs: “That fire to keep creating was part of who he was,” she writes. “As he used to say, ‘I have no plans to die during my lifetime.’”

After the album was completed, Theriot and Miele say they discussed the record with a series of labels, several of which expressed interest but would not commit. That all changed when Dr. John died in June 2019. It didn’t take more than a day after Dr. John’s death for the phone calls from lawyers and labels to start coming in. “It was like chum in the water,” says Miele. “It didn’t seem like there was a sense of urgency whatsoever before he died.”

Nevertheless, even the musicians who are resentful of the past few years of delays and tweaks feel as though the finished product is still a profound statement and lasting addition to Dr. John’s legacy that mostly keeps the singer’s vision intact. More than anything, they are relieved the record is finally being shared with the world. 

“Even though it’s been tampered with, it really is a great work of art and a great album,” says Miele. “There are classic movies that have been tampered with, and they’re still classic movies. It doesn’t cease to make it great — it just makes it not the vision that was originally intended.”

Cleary has a similar perspective. “Shakespeare said, ‘Many a slip ‘twixt cup and lip,’” he says. “There’s a long lag between being in the studio and the process that happens afterward: the business of actually getting something released. I think Shane’s original concept was really good, and the process after is where other people come into the picture and want to have an input. I suppose that affected the ultimate product, but that often happens.”

For his part, Theriot just wishes that Dr. John had been alive to see the record released exactly as he claims the singer had intended. “It’s kind of ironic that the title of the record is Things Happen That Way, you know?” he says. “But overall, I’m really happy to see the record come out. The legacy of Mac lives on, [and] that’s the most important thing.”

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