Dr. John

TrackAlbum
Danse Kalinda Ba DoomGris-Gris
Mama RouxGris-Gris
I Walk On Guilded SplintersGris-Gris
Mardi Gras DayRemedies
Somebody Changed The LockDr. John's Gumbo
Blow Wind BlowDr. John's Gumbo
Right Place Wrong TimeIn The Right Place
Such A NightIn The Right Place
Traveling MoodIn The Right Place
Dance The Night Away With YouCity Lights

Dr John photo 1

 

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Dr. John playlist

 

DAVE STEPHENS’ NEW ORLEANS SCENES

#14 DR. JOHN

One LP.

His first. And he was 26 years old so hardly in the first flush of youth for a would-be pop star (always presuming that this was his target).

But without Gris-Gris which might not even have happened had it not been for some borrowed studio time and a label boss with a more than generous attitude, would the world outside New Orleans ever have got to know Mac Rebennack or his alter ego, Dr. John, known as the Night Tripper, with a bundle of gris-gris in his hand?

Under the heading ‘Genre’, Wiki categorises the album as: New Orleans R&B, psychedelic rock, swamp rock, zydeco; but whether that makes you much wiser in terms of its content is debatable (and I do wonder whether all those categories had been used to describe the contents of one album ever before). I’m inclined to prefer the words in AllMusic, and by that I don’t mean those contained in the excellent review from Thom Jurek. No, instead I’m talking about the user review from a gentleman called Dylan Hope which starts:

“You are, as you can tell by the reviews, pretty much either going to love this album or hate it. Or at least you’ll be stymied by it. In my opinion, along with much of the best of the psychedelic era, you really have to want to open your mind and ears and take in someone else’s mind-bending experience and, hopefully, add it to yours. Put this next to The Incredible String Band’s “The Hangman’s Beautiful Daughter”, Love’s “Da Capo”, Pink Floyd’s “Atom Heart Mother”, the best early output by Spirit, Caravan, etc. You (may) get the picture I’m painting here.”

I tick most of those boxes so it won’t surprise the reader to learn that I picked the LP up almost as soon as it appeared in the racks – this was 1968 to put things in context – and yes, I was a little stymied at first. Not so much by the music but by those sleeve notes. Under the heading WHO?, there was a cast list of musical contributors, often in heavy disguise: DR. POO PAH DOO (New Orleans artist and émigré to L.A., Jessie Hill), DR. BOUDREAUX OF FUNKY KNUCKLE SKINS (New Orleans drummer John Boudreaux), GOVENOR (sic) PLAS JOHNSON (the more recognisable ex New Orleans based sax man Plas Johnson who had successfully transplanted himself to L.A. in 1954), SHIRLEY MARIE LAVEAUX (Shirley Goodman who had been half of the New Orleans vocal duo Shirley & Lee) and more.

Even more confusing was the lengthy paragraph which followed, again, all in caps and under the heading WHAT? (and I’ve attempted to retain the punctuation even if it doesn’t all seem to make sense). This is but a portion:

I WILL MASH MY FAIS DEAUX-DEAUX ON ALL YOU BUY MY CHARTS. THE RITES OF COCO ROBICHEAUX WHO, INVISIBLE TO ALL BUT ME, WILL ACT AS A SECOND GUARDIAN ANGEL UNTIL YOU OVER-WORK HIM. ALL WHO ATTEND OUR RITES WILL RECEIVE KITES FROM THE SECOND TIER OF TIT ALBERTO WHO BROUGHT THE SAUTE CHAPEAU. TO CHIEU VA BRULER UP TO US FROM THE ANTILLES TO THE BAYOU. ST. JOHN AND AUNT FRANCIS WHO TOLD ME THE EPIC OF JUMP STURDY AND APRICOT GLOW.

And so it continued with occasional track titles scattered through the stream of consciousness.

And the reader who has, with exemplary patience, put up with all this verbiage needs some music to keep body and soul alive. Here’s Danse Flambeaux, track 4 and the closer to side one in the original LP format.

I told you once and I told you twice. Never do a limbo behind red beans and rice.

Some more context is called for so we need to backtrack a few years.

 

Dr John photo 2

Act 1: New Orleans – Birthplace of Jelly Roll Morton, Louis Armstrong and Malcolm John Rebennack Jr.

He was born on 20th November 1941 though there is some fluidity about that date – see Footnotes –and a degree of vagueness does extend to other dates in the Rebennack story. According to Wiki he was of German, Irish, Spanish, English and French heritage, which strong blend wouldn’t have been at all unusual for his place of birth. There were threads of music scattered right through his family; stretching back to his grandfather, a number of them used to sing minstrel songs together and his father Malcolm John Sr. ran an appliance shop which also stocked a wide variety of 78s of jazz, blues and even country. In addition, according to Jeff Hannusch’s excellent liner notes to the 1993 Mos’ Scocious compilation, “his hip Aunt Andre taught him how to play “Pinetop’s Boogie Woogie”” on the piano”.

The young Rebennack had two musical idols in his youth: Professor Longhair with his flamboyant keyboard skills, echoes of which appeared on tracks like Dr. John’s take on Tipitina in 1972 and Fess Up, his tribute to Longhair which appeared on 1992’s Goin’ Back To New Orleans, and Walter “Papoose” Nelson, guitarist with the Fats Domino band; Nelson would effectively become Mac’s unofficial guitar tutor with the young man having shown little regard for formal musical training. While he got to grips with both instruments, it was the guitar which initially received more attention probably because it gave off the right vibes for a budding rock’n’roll star.

Another way in which he picked up tips was by hanging around Cosimo Matassa’s famous studio. The latter gentleman was friendly with Mac’s father which gave our hero initial entrée to the premises and he took full advantage, picking up the rudiments of arrangement and production in addition to seeing how the session team which often included many of the legends of New Orleans music, worked their instrumental magic.

Mac gained more invaluable experience from working at Johnny Vincent’s Ace label which operated out of Jackson, Mississippi. His role was that of A&R Manager though from his account it moved substantially into producer territory. Artists he worked with included Huey Smith, Jimmy Clanton and Joe Tex. However, his sights were set on becoming something more than a backroom boy and he played with several loose bands – Skyliners, Loafers, Spades etc.– whose membership included names like Frankie Ford, Roland Stone, Ronnie Barron and Jerry Byrne, white lads who were attempting to emulate some of their black musical peers. Byrne nearly achieved that success with a song co-written by Mac, Lights Out, a Little Richard styled rocker produced by Harold Battiste. Unfortunately for Jerry (and Mac) sales didn’t extend beyond the Crescent City.

His first record under his own name was Storm Warning, a Diddley beat instrumental with Mac’s reverb guitar taking the lead role. A couple more instros followed – Mac seemed keen on hiding any vocal chops under a bushel at this juncture. However, he wasn’t averse to a spot of unison singing under a pseudonym. Drits and Dravy (think grits and gravy) appeared on the two parter, Talk That Talk on “Another Record” label in 1963, with the duo consisting of Ronnie Barron and Mac (who also wrote the number). This wasn’t the first outing for the Rebennack voice though. In spring ’59 a single was released called Morgus The Magnificent from Morgus And The Three Ghouls. The ‘group’ (M & the 3 Gs) turned out to be Ronnie Barron, Jerry Byrne, Ken Elliott Jr. and Frankie Ford; Mac Rebennack was in the backing team on guitar. The flip, a typical late fifties teen ballad entitled The Lonely Boy was, however, credited to Frankie And Mac and there are no prizes for guessing who was accompanying Frankie Ford.

In 1962, after a falling out with Johnny Vincent, Mac switched to work for Joe Ruffino who ran the Ric and Ron record labels. Back in ’59 he (Mac) had helped soul man Johnny Adams achieve some recognition by producing his first single I Won’t Cry on Ric. In ’62 he was reunited with Adams for whom he both produced and wrote the song Losing Battle giving Johnny his first R&B Chart hit.

 

Interval

At roughly that same time he got involved with hard drugs both as a user and dealer which resulted in arrest and incarceration in prison in Fort Worth for two years. His return to New Orleans in ’65 coincided with the period when District Attorney Jim Garrison “cracked down on prostitution and the abuses of Bourbon Street bars and strip joints” (Wiki), resulting in a load of unemployed musicians mourning the closure of clubs in which they used to play. All in all, a pretty good reason for Mac to head for the potentially more inviting pastures of L.A. (or so he’d heard from earlier New Orleans emigrants).

 

Act 2: (with suitable change of scenery depicting Sunny Southern California)

Almost as soon as he’d arrived in California, Mac found his feet. Harold Battiste, who’d got there a year or so earlier, and a man who Mac had worked with in The Big Easy – the assiduous reader will recall that he produced Jerry Byrne’s Lights Out – was working as producer for Sonny & Cher. He found Mac a role in the S & C band and made all the right noises about him for session work to other producers. Mac didn’t disappoint those producers and found himself a member of the legendary Wrecking Crew of studio musicians in almost no time flat, working with artists as varied as Iron Butterfly, Canned Heat and Frank Zappa. Look up the Wiki essay on Freak Out and you’ll find Mac listed as one of three pianists under “Mothers’ Auxiliary”.

All of which should have kept him occupied and happy, but he had a dream. This dream centred around a character called Dr. John. Wiki use the phrase, “Dr. John serving as an emblem of New Orleans heritage” while Mac himself (in the liner notes to Mos’ Scocious) talks about “the idea of music for people that was never in New Orleans, a part of New Orleans music that they never knew existed.” Which is all a tad airy-fairy. Richie Unterberger in his liner notes for a CD release of Gris-Gris, brings the whole concept and its implementation a little bit closer to earth:

“”Gris-Gris” itself is a New Orleans term for voodoo, and the name Dr. John taken from a New Orleans root doctor of the 1840s and 1850s. Also known as John Montaigne and Bayou John, he was busted in the 1840s for practicing voodoo with Pauline Rebennack, who may or may not have been a distant relative of our man Mac. One of Mac’s grandfathers sang in a minstrel show, and the latter-day Dr. John adapted one of grandpa’s favorite tunes, “Jump Sturdy,” into the track on Gris-Gris of the same name. His onstage costumes and feathered headdresses, the source of shock and delight to audiences since the late 1960s, are similarly adapted from those worn by Mardi Gras Indians in New Orleans, famed for the infectious tribal percussive rhythms and chants they perform in local parades.”

I note that I’ve effectively used the dreaded words “concept album” in the introduction to the Unterberger quote but I guess if you’re going use them, this is as good a place as any.

All of which might have remained little more than pie in the sky but Harold Battiste was a very capable gentleman. To quote, once again, the Mos’ Scocious liner notes:

“Battiste had some leftover studio time between Sonny & Cher sessions, so in fall 1967, he and Rebennack decided to experiment. They went into the Gold Star Studio with a band of several New Orleans expatriates to record Gris-Gris, which was credited to “Dr. John, the Night Tripper.””

Quite how those New Orleans expatriates got paid – if they did – doesn’t get explained. But how Mac himself, who’d hardly done any real singing on record before, got to front the whole thing, does. The story that appears virtually everywhere, so one assumes it’s true, is that Mac had originally envisaged his friend Ronnie Barron in the Dr. John role but he wasn’t available (but did turn up for some of the background singing). Did Mac have his eye on the top job all along one wonders?

And the mind boggles at the visualisation (with sound effects) of Harold and Mac explaining what they’d done to label owner Ahmet Ertegun. There’s a story in the Mos’ Scocious notes but let’s just say that this was late ’67 and psychedelia was in so maybe Atlantic, in the shape of Ertegun, felt that they were on trend. (According to Mac’s memory in his autobiography “Under A Hoodoo Moon”, Ertegun is reported as asking “How can we market this boogaloo crap?”

 

Interval

I’m aware of two precedents only for the music that appeared on Gris-Gris; certainly nothing with which he was directly involved in his New Orleans sojourn seems pertinent.

– A single entitled Zu Zu Man from the “Zu Zu Blues Band” was released in 1966. It was written by Malcolm Rebennack & Jesse Hill (sic), sung by Jessie Hill and produced by Charles Underwood and Malcolm Rebennack. While the effort was largely an up tempo soul dancer, lyrically this could have been the first incarnation of the Dr. John character (without the name) offering zu zu (an alternative to gris-gris) “I got ‘em, I got ‘em”.

– In the liner notes to Mos’ Scocious, it is stated that “Battiste claims that the actual roots of the sound heard on Gris-Gris can be traced to an unreleased track called “Need You” which was recorded for A.F.O. by Prince La La in 1962”. This is the record and Battiste could well have a point. Although more conventional than anything on Gris-Gris it’s still pretty unusual for its time so that’s possibly why it didn’t see release.

 

Dr John photo 3

Act 3: Gold Star Studio, 6252 Santa Monica Boulevard, Hollywood (and the studio Phil Spector always used)

Silence. Near darkness. Heat and humidity. A sound far away which could be an instrument but is unrecognisable (later research would determine this was Plas Johnson’s sax fed through a condor box effect pedal). A croaky voice coming from a shambling shape that’s appeared out of nowhere, doing a “Please allow me to introduce myself” thing with a swished doffing of the hat. “They call me the Gris-Gris man / Got many clients / Come from miles around”. All to a slow conga beat that trembles through the swamps. Dr. John doesn’t really sing. This is talking but the words and their meaning aren’t always clear. Smooth and sensual ladies intermittently chanting Gris Gris Gumbo Ya Ya. Mandolin and guitar injecting half heard bursts, and, whoah, that eerie sax is back.

They call me Dr. John, known as the Night Tripper

This is your introduction. All five and a half minutes of it. Like nothing you’ve heard before.

African drums. The ladies going “Yah, yah, yah, yah, yah, yah … yah, yah, yah, yah, yah, yah … yaaaaaah, yah, yaah, yah”. A bass or something like it echoing the intricate melody line. A scratchy mandolin followed by a Spanish sounding guitar. Many and varied percussion instruments pick up a latin sounding rhythm and the sounds coalesce into a two chord riff with a flute coming into the mix. The ladies can be seen in the distance but coming closer and intoning a repetitive Danse Kalinda Ba Doom which gets more frantic. The drums are back, with some urgency, breaking it all up and steering the parade in another direction. There’s no clear evidence of Dr. John on this one but you know he’s lurking somewhere. (And he tells us in the Mos’ Scocious notes that the bass sound was him on bass pedals of an organ.)

Only two tracks on Gris-Gris resemble “normal” tunes, Jump Sturdy, the origins of which Richie Unterberger refers to in the para from his liner notes above, and track #3, Mama Roux. Both have that lazy feel which we associate with New Orleans but Mama Roux, in particular harks back to times before the greasy rock and roll that Rebennack used to involve himself in. One can imagine a marching and swaying brass band doing something with this number. And the lady was determined that we join in – “You know better than mess with me”.

The Queen is comin’, oooh, un ba may
Queen is coming to way pocky way
Better not get in the way
Got the second line fever today

Singin’ wham bam hang ham
Come on down boy and follow me
Wham bam thank you mam
Come on boys and follow me

Ernest McLean’s scratchy mandolin introduces Danse Fambeaux, the final track on side one. Bird calls enter into the mix and male singers – Jessie Hill, the apparently unavailable Ronnie Barron, and more – supply the chanting backdrop this time.

The Harold Battiste authored instrumental, Croker Courtbullion kicks off side two and gives the impression in the first few bars – lead flute and afro-cuban rhythm – that it’s something from Mongo Santamaria land (which could well be why the occasional critic hasn’t been turned on by this track; it’s perceived as being too safe). By the half way point the whole thing has turned a lot more dangerous – John Coltrane meets Martin Denny might describe it – with both bird and animal noises seeking attention from guitars and other instruments which fade in and out. Mac/John’s contribution is limited to some baroque harpsichord playing at the start and near the end. For me, an enjoyable interlude from the more New Orleans oriented tracks.

Julian Cope’s Head Heritage essay performs an amble through the Gris-Gris tracks, gets to this point and says ““Jump Sturdy” follows with all the pelvic bump and grind of high-steppin’ strutting in broad daylight public” and, “… it’s one of the more orthodox-sounding tracks of the album but it’s still an alien groove transmitter”.

The final track, I Walk On Guilded Splinters, is the one which the reader is most likely to have heard. It marks the return of the Dr. John character or “je suis le Grand Zombie” as he puts it. This number plus Gris-Gris Gumbo Ya Ya, form bookends or the intro and the outro to the album. It’s also the most realised in terms of use of the components present to supply both lyrical and melodic hook lines: the vaguely Diddley-like rhythm is sufficiently different to be even more insinuating, that descending phrase from Plas Johnson is one to die for and the interplay between the good doctor and the ladies is more advanced and developed than elsewhere in the set. And I’ve not even mentioned the pillaging of Screamin’ Jay Hawkins lyrical vocabulary – “I rolled out my coffin / Drink poison in my chalice”. Maybe I’m making fun but just listen to it. This track cooks. As a climax to the album what more do you want?

 

Interval

Given the trippy style of music that was in favour when Rebennack recorded Gris-Gris, was the recording of it little more than shameless opportunism or was it a genuine attempt to dig deeper into the history of the Crescent City and its musical outpourings? I’m inclined more to the latter; there’s evidence that our man was exploring some of its aspects, notably the voodoo theme that runs right through, well before he moved to the West Coast. There’s also an argument that none of this matters. It resulted in a slab of vinyl which has subsequently given a lot of enjoyment to a lot of people.

But that wasn’t the case at the time. The record did a whole load of nothing as far as the hit parade was concerned. However, there were people buying, just not in great numbers and this continued over the years, particularly on our side of the pond. In 1998, after a series of perfectly formed records with Dr. John on the sleeve, a number of Brits including Paul Weller, members of Supergrass, Portishead and Primal Scream got together with Mac in a studio and attempted to reawaken the spirit of Gris-Gris. The result was Anutha Zone, not a total success but a valid try.

There were to be further attempts to commune with the Night Tripper. Tribal in 2010 and Locked Down in 2012 both have merit. The second of this pair was produced by Dan Auerbach of the Black Keys; it attempted to meld the vibe of its source with some of the tougher parts of what had happened afterwards. Eleggua is a good sample of its content.

 

Act 4: What came immediately after

Not actively discouraged by the lack of visible success of his debut album (and probably encouraged by the lack of any cold shoulders coming from Atlantic), Mac continued the Dr. John ‘story’ over three more albums, Babylon, Remedies and The Sun, Moon & Herbs. Reviews of the albums were mixed, both at the time and later. The usually reliable “Rolling Stone Record Guide” (1979 edition) said that they “… did not match the spontaneity or excitement of Gris-Gris”. I too don’t regard any of this trio to have the quality of their eminent predecessor but do feel that there are nuggets to be found if one perseveres.

Babylon suffers from the trying too hard/second album syndrome. Where it sticks relatively close to its forebear it’s more successful. Good examples are Black Widow Spider and, even more so, Barefoot Lady (with its organ squelches and intriguing tune) which could easily have been a Gris-Gris track.

Apart from the elongated Angola Anthem – all seventeen and a half minutes of it – which occupied the entirety of side two (and it could have worked at five minutes), Remedies was considerably better than its immediate predecessor. All five tracks on side one were of interest to varying degrees and a horn/brass section was present, perhaps the only thing that was missing from Gris-Gris. The difference it made is apparent on the closing track on side one, Mardi Gras Day: without the full and fruity brass punctuation, the basic format of a Fat Tuesday chant with simulated crowd noise would have worn thin. Repetition and simplicity are fine but are improved immeasurably by extra touches, and that’s where that brass came in. It wasn’t overused.

The big bass drum led the big parade
All on a Mardi Gras Day
The big bass drum led the big parade
All on a Mardi Gras Day
(gotta have a doctor ready to go)

We’re told that The Sun, Moon & Herbs (1971) was intended to be three albums but got whittled down to a single disc. It was recorded in London with later work taking place in Miami and with a vast amount of support musicians including The Memphis Horns, Eric Clapton plus P.P. Arnold and Mick Jagger in the backing singing team (though the last-named isn’t audible). And, yes, it was largely more of the same though Where Ya At Mule was more akin to the New Orleans R&B of Mac’s past, prompting at least one reviewer to see the album as “transitional”. I’d see that as a bit of convenient hindsight knowing what came next, but there you go.

 

 

Interval (and a few thoughts)

It’s easy to come up with words like “flogging a dead horse” in relation to the three soundalike records that followed Gris-Gris. Better perhaps that the album had been allowed to stand on its own as a solitary statement. But then we wouldn’t have had Mardi Gras Day and I’m sure there are other tracks that dyed-in-the-wool fans of the doctor would claim to be essential.

One word (usually applied as an adjective) that has seen a lot of usage in relation to these albums is ‘cajun’. I would be a little wary. While it’s fine to talk in that manner about myths that were common across Southern Louisiana including New Orleans, to use the work directly in relation to the music on Gris-Gris and the follow-up albums is downright misleading. While Rebennack was happy to sing in a kind of franglais, reminding us that almost all cajun music was sung in French, that was as close as he got to cajun.

The music in Gris-Gris wasn’t cajun, it wasn’t rock and it wasn’t psychedelia. It was Dr. John, the Night Tripper music.

 

Act 5: The Rest

By way of an introduction to the next album, Dr. John’s Gumbo, Jeff Hannusch in the Mos’ Scocious notes introduces a new character in this drama, Atlantic president Jerry Wexler:

“A longtime fan of New Orleans music, Wexler had recorded three of Rebennack’s idols nearly two decades before: Professor Longhair, Champion Jack Dupree, and Guitar Slim. During a studio lull, Wexler and Leon Russell were calling out the titles to old New Orleans songs, and Rebennack played pieces of each request on the piano. At the end of the evening, Wexler suggested Rebennack get with Battiste and the other New Orleans musicians on the West Coast to do an album’s worth of Crescent City R&B standards.”

Hence the album. And it’s one that’s always found me in two minds. Yes, it’s a splendid way of evoking the music (and the spirit) of New Orleans from roughly the early fifties to the early sixties – the only great Crescent City R&B performer of that era who doesn’t get covered herein is Fats Domino – but for many of the tracks, I hold the originals in such reverence that nothing in my mind is ever going to compete with them. I own this LP, of course, and replaying tracks now makes me marvel at the job that Mac did with most of the numbers (but also makes me realise how little I’ve played his versions over the years). I often groan at phrases like “brought up to date”. In this instance Mac/John has interpreted the numbers in his way without tearing down the frame of reference.

I’ve selected a couple: one was probably the least celebrated number of the “NOLA oldies” and the other being, ostensibly, a new number and the only one in the set written by “Mac Rebennack”. (And to follow up that “ostensibly”, see Footnotes.)

Let’s take the second first. Somebody Changed The Lock sounds as if it came from a generation prior to Huey Smith, Longhair, Earl King etc. It has that Dixieland feel, something that occasionally broke through, albeit often with other influences, in the Gris-Gris foursome. It’s also a period in musical history that Mac would not infrequently inhabit in many later sessions. Note the duelling cornets (or cornet & trumpet) in support and the added oomph provided by the trombone.

And the NOLA oldie? Blow Wind Blow, a song originally performed by Junior Gordon but composed by Huey Smith, whose band also supplied the backing to that record. Gordon was one of the more obscure New Orleans artists who worked for a spell as a member of Smith’s vocal group, the Clowns. His record, one of only two that he ever cut, was released on the Ace label in ’57 so there’s a distinct chance that Mac was involved, possibly as producer. With his Dr. John hat on, he slows the whole thing down, strongly emphasises the rhumba shuffle aspect with intricate percussion and Longhair-ish piano and beefs up the horn section. According to Sir Shambling, Lee Allen got to play a (typically excellent) solo on the original. He was also on the Dr. John cut but didn’t get a solo. Shame. In all other respects it’s a great track.

A single from Gumbo, Iko Iko got to #71 in the Hot 100, the first real sniff of chart action for Mac. The album itself had solid sales figures without charting but it’s another which has gathered praise as the years have flown by. In 2003, it was ranked number 404 on Rolling Stone’s list of the 500 greatest albums of all time.

There was to be one more important album for Dr. John – and yes, he did retain the name but discarded the stage image. That was 1973’s In The Right Place which gave him a Top Ten single with the similarly named track while the album stuck like glue in the Album Chart. It was his breakthrough to mainstream America and beyond.

The album was produced by Allen Toussaint and his house band, the Meters provided the backing. The flavour of the day was funk. Not that funk had been entirely lacking so far in the John oeuvre; there were traces of the New Orleans flavour of the genre as far back as Gris-Gris but Right Place brought it stage front, with Toussaint the acknowledged master. The set also saw the greatest blossoming of Mac’s composing skills to date with 9 of the 11 tracks being written or co-written by him. His old sparring mate Jessie Hill had a hand in a couple. And among these were recognisable melody lines rather than just chants or semi-recitation whilst maintaining a strong rhythm basing.

The single, Right Place Wrong Time, must be the track that epitomises the good doctor for many people and I’d be willing to bet that a goodly number of people who bought it have never heard, or heard of, Gris-Gris. No matter. Mac’s own words on the track (from Mos’ Scocious):

“That was a song that was written and put together right in the studio. It was a thing I’d been fooling around with, with the Meters, but I never finished writing the words. We got in the studio and started throwing ideas for lyrics around at each other. We got a good groove going and we did a nice little arrangement on it. It fit right in with what was going on at the time.”

The track was probably not the best choice to illustrate my comment preceding its introduction but if you wanted melody you only needed to listen to the second best known track from the set, indeed I’m not sure it hasn’t overtaken Right Place Wrong Time in fans’ attention over the years. I’m talking of course of Such A Night wherein John/Mac rhapsodises about an evening when she arrived with his best friend Jim, which led to “sweet confusion in the moonlight”. Below is the live version from The Last Waltz, parping trombone included. The doctor’s penchant for an old timey sound sometimes reminds me of a similar trait I’ve observed with Michael Nesmith.

If I don’t do it, somebody else will

Two other tracks competed for a final selection from In The Right Place. The loser was the Toussaint composed Life, a delightful example of funk from the master with his New Orleans origins on show but winding around and around a mighty riff. The one it lost out to was a number that wouldn’t have sounded out of place on Gumbo, a cover of a semi-obscure little gem from a gent variously known as Wee Willie Wayne, James Wayne or James Waynes entitled Traveling Mood . Mac retained the whistling but almost everything else changed. The funkometer had taken over but you could still picture yourself eating po-boys let alone gumbo. It eventually fades, emulating the parade disappearing into the distance with Joseph Modeliste’s late flourishes on the drum still engaging those parts of the body other beers couldn’t reach.

Mac Rebennack/Dr. John didn’t really go downhill after “Right Place”, he kind of plateaued. The follow-up, Desitively Bonnaroo, was the same kind of mix again and some would say that it was as good as its predecessor. Discogs lists 73 albums in total from the man not counting compilations and contributions to others’ records, of which there were plenty including Exile On Main Street and Van Morrison/Lonnie Donegan’s Skiffle Sessions. A good number of these albums get 4 stars from AllMusic and not too many drop to two, indicative of a decent overall quality level which must have kept the fans happy.

I stopped pretty early on but that’s not a comment on the music he was producing, merely an observation on its freshness and degree of innovation. In my skipping through later tracks though, I did come across this one, Dance The Night Away With You, on 1978’s City Lights. Doc Pomus provided the lyrics.

In reviewing the album, Thom Jurek made the following comment about this track:

“Rebennack’s music is filled with plinking upright piano, a killer horn chart, a languid pace, and some background effects that reinforce the song’s imagery.”

While it doesn’t fully characterise quite a complex man, it certainly captures some of his attributes and it’s the way he’ll be remembered by many.

Dr. John, a white man in New Orleans.

 

Footnotes

1. Both Jessie Hill and Shirley Goodman feature in the Toppermost Scenes From New Orleans series, Jessie in #3 and Shirley with her singing partner Leonard Lee (as Shirley & Lee) in #12. Mr. Hill was a One Hit Wonder with the song Ooh Poo Pah Doo in 1960.

2. Malcolm Rebennack’s birthday appears in a number of places as 21st November 1940 but it was revealed relatively recently that this date is incorrect. John Wirt, a music writer for Nola.com and The Times-Picayune, discovered the correct date in the back copies of that paper and reported this fact in 2018. Apparently, young Malcom tacked an extra year – minus a day for some reason – onto his age in order to get into and perform in clubs in New Orleans. It then kind of stuck. In his autobiography “Under A Hoodoo Moon” he states “I was born in New Orleans just before Thanksgiving 1940.” (Source: the John Wirt article dated 15 Nov 2018)

3. For much of the information which appears in my biographic section on Mac I am indebted to Jeff Hannusch who wrote the liner notes to the Mos’ Scocious compilation, basing those notes on a series of interviews with the man himself over several years plus dialogue with other key characters like Harold Battiste. In addition, I found the Wiki piece on the man another useful source, often complementing the Hannusch notes.

4. Both sources document the cause of Mac switching from guitar to piano in 1960 (though he did occasionally switch back to guitar briefly in later years). An argument took place in Jacksonville, Florida between Mac’s friend Ronnie Barron and a motel manager. Mac tried to break it up, A fight ensued and the manager pulled a gun. It went off and a bullet took out a chunk of Mac’s left hand index finger, the one used to a significant degree on a guitar’s fretboard (particularly for note-bending). His initial switch after guitar was to bass but then organ (with tutorage from James Booker) and piano won out in the medium to longer term.

5. The song Lights Out has been popular with UK artists over the years with versions from Shakin’ Stevens in 1970, Dr. Feelgood, the Eric Burdon Band in 1982 and the Big Town Playboys in 1997 – unfortunately the last didn’t find its way onto YouTube.

6. Mac was at school with Ronnie Barron and the pair worked together on many occasions. Barron was a minor performer in his own right plus session man; the fact that he played several instruments as well as singing made him useful in the studio. He undoubtedly contributed some of the inspiration for the Dr. John character, witness the quote below from a Blues Access feature on Paul Butterfield with whom Barron worked:

“So I created my ‘Reverend Ether’ character, almost by accident. I made up this mythology about the voodoo and the gumbo. I’d shake the tambourine and say, ‘I’m gonna drop the truth on you!’ I made up all this shit. This was before I worked with Mac, when I was working in a club on Bourbon Street. He’d come in and kind of watch what I was doing. I had also written this song, ‘Black Widow Spider,’ that was part of the act. Mac realized the value in it, and after he hired me he wanted me to be the original Dr. John, because I already had a handle on the thing.”

Another light is shed on the non-availability of Ronnie for the Gris-Gris front man role in “The Mojo Collection: The Ultimate Music Companion” published in 2000: “His manager thought it would be a bad career move”.

7. Two albums with the titles of Good Times In New Orleans 1958-1962 – In The Studio With Mac Rebennack and Return Of The Mac – In The Studio With Mac Rebennack A.K.A. Dr. John 1959–1961, respectively, have been released in relatively recent years. With considerable overlap they cover tracks with which he was involved, though not typically as front man, in the early scuffling years in New Orleans.

8. The name “Jim Garrison” could well have readers of a certain age scratching their heads. He was the man who, while in the role of New Orleans D.A., conducted the investigation into the assassination of President John F. Kennedy.

9. Prince La La, real name Lawrence Nelson, who was born in the Ninth Ward, New Orleans, came from a musical family. His father was a guitarist who played with various artists including Smiley Lewis, and his older brother was Walter “Papoose” Nelson who also played guitar (and has already been namechecked in the main section). The debut session for the prince, which produced She Put The Hurt On Me was held jointly with the debut session for Barbara George (which produced I Know (You Don’t Love Me No More)). The producer was Harold Battiste and the drummer was John Boudreaux (sometimes spelled “Boudroux”). The prince only made a tiny handful of records having died at the age of 27 of a heroin overdose (though Wiki states that there “have been intimations of foul play”).

10. In the course of putting this document together I came across a different (though complementary) story about the origins of the “Dr. John” persona. It resided in the liner notes to Dr. John: The Definitive Pop Collection which were written by John Tottenham:

“The original Dr. John was the most celebrated name in the New Orleans voodoo culture of his day. John Montenet claimed to have been a Senegalese prince who had been captured by the Spanish in the early 19th century and taken to Cuba. After being freed by his master he became a sailor and made his way to New Orleans. It was there, in America’s voodoo capital, that his spiritual talents flourished. He was famed as a healer, fortune teller, and a seller of gris-gris (talismanic bags containing herbs, oils, bones, graveyard dust, and other items selected for the owner’s protection). He is believed to have been the first practitioner in New Orleans to mix other elements, including Catholic ritual, into the voodoo mix.

“Over a century later the Dr. John moniker was assumed again, this time as the stage name of one Malcolm John Michael Crow Rebennack, better known as Mac. There may have been an ancestral link: a Pauline Rebennack had been involved with Dr. John (Montenet) in the 1840s, at which time she had been arrested for involvement in voodoo activities and running a brothel.”

11. The name Coco Robicheaux is mentioned by Dr. John in I Walk On Guilded Splinters. It refers to both a legendary figure and also a real person who Rebennack knew. That person – he died in 2011 – was born Curtis John Arceneaux in Ascension Parish, Louisiana; he was a blues singer and made six albums between 1994 and 2010. The paragraph below from Wiki explains the linkage to the legend and the connection with Rebennack:

“Arceneaux took his stage name from a Louisiana legend, in which a naughty child called Coco Robicheaux is abducted by a werewolf (Loup Garou or Rougaroo). The name ‘Coco Robicheaux’ is repeated in the song “I Walk on Gilded Splinters” (sic) from Dr. John the Night Tripper’s 1968 album, Gris-Gris. Robicheaux claimed that he played regularly with Mac Rebennack (Dr. John) in the early 1960s, and said: “Many times I gone and played with him, all around the world, different places. Dr. John, he was very much interested in metaphysics. We had this little place on St. Philip Street. In voodoo they call the gilded splinters the points of a planet. Mystically they appear like little gilded splinters, like little gold, like fire that holds still. They’re different strengths at different times. I guess it ties in with astrology, and influence the energy. That’s what that’s about.”

Quite why the “u” appears in “guilded splinters” is but part of its mystery. Some reviewers have taken guilded splinters as a play on “gilded splendour” but I doubt whether that was consciously the case and again, the “u” has been added!!!

12. I selected track #5, Mardi Gras Day from Remedies but all four of the numbers which preceded it are of interest. The opener Loop Garoo, a slinky minor key affair is, I assume, based on the werewolf in the last footnote (with a minor spelling change). There’s a total change of mood for What Goes Around Comes Around which is virtually singalong with a brass section that’s clearly enjoying itself. The song or at least its theme gets revisited/recalled on Desitively Bonnaroo with a slightly changed title – What Comes Around (Goes Around) – and a stylistic update. Wash Mama Wash continues the upbeat approach with lots of choral harmonising and great blasts from the horns. Those horns are still there, adding ballast to Chippy, the penultimate track on the side which has the feel of future funk explorations.

13. Remember Drits And Dravy a.k.a. Rebennack and Barron? They also cut a song called My Key Don’t Fit and this is it. The jury is out on whether the track ever saw release; 45cat says no. However it’s the clear precursor to Somebody Changed The Lock on Dr. John’s Gumbo. But the story doesn’t end there. Secondhandsongs identifies the original as coming from Casey Bill (Weldon) in 1936. Again, according to Secondhandsongs, seven other artists had covered the number prior to Rebennack’s Gumbo version, one of whom was James Brown. Granted Mac made some changes to the song – the original was melodically no more than a 12 bar blues – but I think Bill Weldon deserved at least a co-composer credit.

14. I may have understated the quality of Dr. John’s Gumbo. What was remarkable about the record was that there wasn’t the slightest hint of pastiche about it. A track that hovered around the ten at an early point of my selection process was the John take on Ray Charles’ Mess Around. The original is justly famous as the record that signalled Ray moving from the cool Charles Brown style of blues to something with a much more explicit gospel influence. The horn charts on Ray’s original could almost have been scored in New Orleans. It’s notable that Ray was the only artist covered on Gumbo not to come from the Crescent City. Mac was a fan. This is his take. He turns in a virtuoso performance on the piano, and there is a sax solo (probably from Lee Allen).

15. James Wayne (or Waynes) was a man of mystery. His birth date is given as March 1920 or April 1924 depending on which account you read. His birth location varies even more, from Houston or Jefferson County, Texas to New Orleans. Regardless of all that he had a #2 R&B Chart hit in ’51 with Tend To Your Business. In the same year he also cut what is believed to be the first version of Junco Partner though it was based on the Willie Hall written but Champion Jack Dupree recorded, Junker Blues from 1940. He recorded for Imperial in the early fifties and then again from 1955. It was in that year that he cut Travelin’ Mood which became a New Orleans standard. The flip, I Remember, also garnered sales in its own right.

16. One live clip in this essay isn’t enough, so to at least partially make amends, here’s the good doctor in 1983 playing Tipitina, accompanied by Johnny Winter:

MAY THE GILDED SPLINTERS OF AUNTIE ANDRE SPEW FORTH IN YOUR PATH TO LIGHT AND GUIDE YOUR WAY THROUGH THE BAYOUS OF LIFE ON YOUR PIROUGUE OF HEARTACHES AND GOOD TIMES.

 

 

Dr John photo 4

Malcolm John Rebennack Jr. (1941–2019)

 

Dr. John – the official website

Dr. John Discography

Rock & Roll Hall of Fame: Dr. John (1991)

“Under A Hoodoo Moon: The Life of the Night Tripper”
by Dr. John (Mac Rebennack) with Jack Rummel (St Martin’s Press, 1995)

Dr. John biography (AllMusic)

Dave Stephens’ New Orleans scenes
#1 Fats Domino, #2 Chris Kenner, #3 Jessie Hill, #4 Barbara Lynn, #5 Benny Spellman, #6 Ernie K-Doe, #7 Irma Thomas, #8 Barbara George, #9 Earl King, #10 Smiley Lewis, #11 Professor Longhair, #12 Shirley & Lee, #13 Lloyd Price, #14 Dr. John

Dave Stephens is the author of two books on popular music. His first, “RocknRoll”, is described by one reviewer as “probably the most useful single source of information on 50s & 60s music I’ve come across”. Dave followed this up with “London Rocks” in 2016, an analysis of the early years of the London (American) record label in the UK. You can follow him on Twitter @DangerousDaveXX

TopperPost #878

6 Comments

  1. Alex Lifson
    Jun 20, 2020

    Thank you Dave. As always, you have tackled a complex subject and made it informative, insightful, and fun. I can never get through your essays in one read. However this one will be a pleasure to go back through. I did have the chance to see Dr. John. He was still in his gris-gris phase. He was also opening for Alice Cooper at the Montreal Forum. I didn’t get him then. I should check on Youtube if they have concert footage of him from that era.

  2. Peter Viney
    Jun 20, 2020

    Dave, this has the best essay on GRIS GRIS I have read. Then you list SUCH A NIGHT from In The Right Place, and show the YouTube from The Last Waltz. I’d go for the live version, even if I wish he had done I Walk On Guilded Splinters on that night instead. And spelled it GILDED as Cher does. You say “I stopped pretty early on” but consistently you do stop early on in these essays, brilliant as they are on the early days, as if these guys who put in another 30 or 40 years recording never did anything significant again. He did TWENTY albums after 1978. Have you listened to any? I’m by no means a Dr John completist, but even so I have six excellent CDs from post 1998. I’m particularly fond of the duets album ‘N’Awlinz: Dis, Dat or D’Udda’ from 2004 which features so many NOLA artistes. How about Lay My Burden Down with Mavis Staples or I Ate Up The Apple Tree with Randy Newman? Anutha Zone is a powerful album and has him working with younger artists … Ki Ya Gris Gris sounds like a late Robbie Robertson track. Try Sweet Home New Orleans. With Creole Moon, I’d suggest the long jazzy title track or the funky Monkey & The Baboon. Add Duke Elegant the Duke Ellington album. The Locked Down album, produced by Dan Auerbach of The Black Keys not only has a currently interesting title and title track, but also sets Mac in some spacey settings. Then the benefit album, Sippiana Herricane has the Hurricane Suite and also Clean Water (by Bobby Charles). I haven’t got Skat-Dat-De-Dat, his last album which is a Louis Armstrong collection, but I heard good things about it.

  3. Keith Shackleton
    Jun 20, 2020

    I shall skip past tales of the best gig I’ve ever been to (Lundi Gras, Tipitina’s, New Orleans, mid 80s, Mac in full Night Tripper regalia) and the worst (Sheps Bush Emp, late 90s, the Anutha Zone tour). Not Mac’s fault it was the worst, but the audience, who were not interested in Mac AT ALL, but waiting for special guests from the album – Weller, Gaz Coombes, J Spaceman, Jools Holland, ANYONE – to appear and talking all the while. NO special guests appeared. People talked more loudly, and more boringly. I gave up trying to listen.
    Nothing against Jools Holland, but the very idea of him in particular guesting with Mac, and people actually wanting that to happen… makes me shudder.
    But really what I want to do is stand up here for two of those many Mac albums you mention, both of which are the absolute essence of the man. Recorded in absurdly good quality, Dr. John Plays Mac Rebennack, from 1981, and The Brightest Smile in Town, from 1983, are just Mac, his piano, and his voice. Anyone with even a tiny interest in Dr. John would be pretty happy with either or both of these. Brightest Smile has more balance between instrumentals and vocal tracks, Plays Mac Rebennack has slightly more gymnastic, and jaw-dropping, piano playing. Worth a listen!

  4. Andrew Shields
    Jun 21, 2020

    Dave – a few points …
    1. Just wanted to say what an excellent piece this is. Knowledgeable, well-informed and very entertaining. I know a little Dr. John, but this made me want to listen to a lot more.
    2. Peter – you seem to have missed the reference to the Locked Down album here and the clip for ‘Eleggua’.
    3. Would put in a word for this great collaboration with Bobby Rush and Blinddog Smokin’

    4. The Doctor’s version of John Martyn’s ‘Don’t Want To Know’ is also worth checking out.

  5. Peter Viney
    Jun 21, 2020

    I’d forgotten the brief references to Anutha Zone and Locked Down, but I still find it a very limited view of such a long career, let alone his session work. I would guess Down in New Orleans from Disney’s Princess and the Frog would be one of his most financially rewarding songs, and it’s also a good one. I’d have to mention the RCO All Stars and Ringo Starr’s All Star Band too. There is a huge catalogue.

  6. Dave Stephens
    Jun 21, 2020

    Gentlemen, thanks for your comments.

    And Peter, regarding your remarks about an observed tendency on my part to finish any analysis at a certain date hence ignoring later records, I’m aware of it and can tell you that it’s caused by one or more of several reasons – see below (and this is the short version, the long one would be very very long):

    * Many artists in the pop/rock firmament were only popular for a relatively brief spell. While such artists could well have continued to record but with such records being bought in the main by dyed-in-the-wool fans only. I fully recognise the fact that there are exceptions: Dylan, Cohen and Bowie are obvious ones but there are also those where the jury is still out e.g. Waylon. There are also unusual cases like Cash whose contribution was mainly in the first few years, sporadically for decades after that, and then he made some very interesting records towards the end of his life. That’s a subjective judgement of course.

    * The above has an implication of “being in vogue or fashion”. But it’s mingled with a genuine feeling that the early work was felt to be more important or lasting. Think Waylon again.

    * The “Ten” itself comes into play. I don’t feel any obligation to include later records in order to “be fully representative”. This reason carries on into the writing; why write at great length about material which isn’t represented in the ten?

    * Part of the delight of the Toppermost world is that there are no rules other than listing the ten selections. Having said that I believe that most of us who write feel a responsibility to (a) explain the reasons for selection and, (b) talk about the artist, or to put it another way to explain why we feel he/she/or they should be represented in the Toppermost hall of fame.

    * There’s an implied point here that if the writer’s knowledge of or interest in an artist only covers part of his/her/their output (usually the earlier part) then I feel that there is an element of duty to research the “missing part” via listening and reading. (In the knowledge that the dyed-in-the-wool fans I referred to could well be reading the document). I’ve always done that to a reasonable degree but that doesn’t mean it has had to be represented in the text. I stress that this is a personal thing with me. The rules (or lack of) could still allow for big gaps in a career to be present in a Topper which would hopefully spark comment and debate. The fact that Keith and yourself have identified tracks or albums of potential interest to a reader is illustrative of such helpful comment.

    In the Dr. John case I feel that Gris-Gris, Gumbo and Right Place are more important than all the other albums put together which in no way denigrates the quality of said albums. Hence the focus. I said something along these lines in the document.

    * I’m aware that I have a tendency towards lengthy essays which I attempt in part to compensate for via the usage of footnotes to cover the more tangential aspects of an artist. In addition it does imply a need to be as entertaining as possible in order to maintain a reader’s interest. It also implies knowing when to stop.

    Which I will do and those are my last words on the subject.

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