Music

Dr. John: The Atco/Atlantic Singles, 1968-1974

A new singles compilation captures a key era in Dr. John's six-decade career.


Dr. John

The Atco/Atlantic Singles, 1968 - 1974

Label: Omnivore Recordings
Release Date: 2015-09-18
Amazon
iTunes

American vernacular music is full of brilliant eccentrics, inspired weirdos, oddball geniuses. Malcolm John Rebennack, known to the world as Dr. John, surely ranks among the greatest of them. Born in New Orleans in 1940, the pianist, guitarist, and singer long has been one of pop's most colorful characters and a preeminent exponent – and passionate advocate – of his hometown's unique musical culture.

I first heard Rebennack when he introduced his Dr. John the Night Tripper persona on his 1968 album Gris-Gris. The record, with its mysterious atmosphere, esoteric hoodoo jargon, and deep funkiness, entranced me. Even more thrilling was seeing him perform numbers like "I Walk on Gilded Splinters" and "Gris Gris Gumbo Ya Ya" in his Mardi Gras Indian-inspired getups as he moved through the audience sprinkling "goofer dust." My experience of Dr. John's outrageous roadshow was lysergically enhanced, but you could say the chemical was superfluous. He, and his crew of first-rate musicians and soulful backup singers, was psychedelic enough.

Rebennack had been around for years before he became Dr. John, as a studio guitarist and pianist. He was a teenager when he played in recording sessions at Cosimo Matassa's legendary French Quarter studio, the birthplace of world-shaking R&B and rock 'n roll like Little Richard's "Good Golly Miss Molly'' and "Tutti Frutti", Big Joe Turner's "Shake, Rattle and Roll", Frankie Ford's "Sea Cruise", and Fats Domino's "The Fat Man" and "Walking To New Orleans". He led sessions for Ace Records with bluesman Earl King and pianist James Booker and cut some of his own numbers, like the Bo Diddley-esque instrumental "Storm Warning" and "Morgus the Magnificent", an homage to a local TV horror show host.

In the early '70s, after several albums that continued the gris-gris theme, Rebennack felt it was time to change musical direction. He dropped "the mighty-coo-de-fiyo hoodoo show" and replaced it with what he called "a Mardi Gras revue". The shift produced one of his best albums, Dr. John's Gumbo (1972), a return to his New Orleans R&B roots that transcended nostalgia, as Rebennack reinvented classics by Professor Longhair, Earl King, and Huey "Piano" Smith with his own marvelous pianism and idiosyncratic personality. Over the next four decades, Rebennack went on to produce a diverse and often dazzling body of work spanning R&B, rock 'n roll, funk, jazz, and pop. He continues to record (his most recent album, Ske-Dat-De-Dat, is a somewhat overstuffed but often splendid Louis Armstrong tribute) and, despite health problems in recent years, to tour the US and abroad.

The Atco/Atlantic Singles, 1968-1974 comprises twenty-two selections covering the hoodoo years, the (re)turn to New Orleans roots music, and Rebennack's short-lived stint as a Top 40 hit maker. They were released as "A" and "B" sides of singles and also appeared on albums he cut over the seven years. "I Walk on Gilded Splinters" is here, in two parts. That may have made commercial sense at the time but splitting the nearly eight-minute album version diminishes its spooky power. The compilation includes several other great Gris-Gris tracks released as singles – "Mamaroux", "Jump Sturdy", and "Gris Gris Gumbo Ya Ya".

One pairing was issued only in England – "Big Chief", Earl King's tribute to the Mardi Gras Indians, covered by Dr. John on Gumbo, and "Wang Dang Doodle", the Willie Dixon party anthem done definitively by Howlin' Wolf. Dr. John can't match the ferocity of Wolf's vocal (who could?); the blues titan made the raucous ball down at the union hall sound like a riot in the making. But it's a creditable take on the song nonetheless; Dr. John growls through Dixon's lyrics, savoring each turn of phrase, and his guitar solo surely would've impressed Wolf's lead player, Hubert Sumlin. Another British single, "A Man of Many Words", teams Dr. John with Buddy Guy and Eric Clapton. The song is good, rowdy fun; it's also a copy of Otis Redding's "Hard to Handle". Maybe there's some poetic justice there, since Redding ripped off a great New Orleans artist when he tried to pass off Allen Toussaint's "Ruler of My Heart" as his own "Pain in My Heart". (When Toussaint threatened to sue, Redding's label Stax re-credited the song to Toussaint.)

In 1973, Dr. John scored the biggest chart successes of his career: "Right Place Wrong Time" and "Such a Night", both from the Toussaint-produced album The Right Place. The first features couplets by Bob Dylan ("I'm on the right trip / But in the wrong car") and Bette Midler ("My head's in a bad place / I don't know what it's there for"). "Such a Night" sets Rebennack's lyrics about sexual rivalry and "sweet confusion under the moonlight" to what he aptly called Toussaint's "music hall, soft-shoe" arrangement. Both are as irresistible today as they were forty years ago, and both are staples – and high points – of Dr. John's concerts with his current band, the Nite Trippers.

The Night Tripper and New Orleans classicist personae sometimes obscure another side of Dr. John: his politics. He became particularly outspoken post-Katrina, on his 2008 album City That Care Forgot and in his public comments excoriating the Bush administration's response to the man-made "natural" disaster. A year later, he took on economic inequality with "The Gap" (between rich and poor). "Ice Age" and "Revolution", from Locked Down (2012), offered some pointed and pissed-off observations about "CIA, KKK" and the "deaf ears of power". But Dr. John made his first foray into social commentary with "The Patriotic Flagwaver", released as a promotional single for his 1969 album, Babylon. It opens and closes with a chorus of children singing "My Country 'Tis of Thee". Dr. John's lyrics, about war, poverty, and racism, are an ironic counterpoint to the kids' sweet earnestness: "I wear a ten-gallon hat / I carry a baseball bat"; "Down on the corner of 6th and Main Street / Stick all the communists in one neighborhood / Terrorize they children/ We'll feel real good".

Mac "Dr. John" Rebennack turns 75 this year; he moves slower onstage than he used to, but he performs with undiminished skill and commitment. His fans await his next step (he ain't done yet, as Ske-Dat-De-Dat proved), but in the meantime, there's The Atco/Atlantic Singles, 1968-1974 to remind us of a brilliant era in the six-decade career of an essential American artist.

8
Music


Books


Film


Recent
Music

The 60 Best Albums of 2007

From tech house to Radiohead and Americana to indie and everything in between, the 60 best albums of 2007 included many of the 2000s' best albums.

Love in the Time of Coronavirus

Solitude Stands in the Window: Thoreau's 'Walden'

Henry David Thoreau's Walden as a 19th century model for 21st century COVID-19 quarantine.

Love in the Time of Coronavirus

Will COVID-19 Kill Movie Theaters?

Streaming services and large TV screens have really hurt movie theaters and now the coronavirus pandemic has shuttered multiplexes and arthouses. The author of The Perils of Moviegoing in America, however, is optimistic.

Gary D. Rhodes, Ph.D
Television

Fleabag's Hot Priest and Love as Longing

In season two of Fleabag, The Priest's inaccessibility turns him into a sort of god, powerful enough for Fleabag to suddenly find herself spending hours in church with no religious motivation.

Music

Annabelle's Curse's 'Vast Oceans' Meditates on a Groundswell of Human Emotions (premiere)

Inspired by love and life, and of persistent present-day issues, indie folk band Annabelle's Curse expand their sound while keeping the emotive core of their work with Vast Oceans.

Music

Americana's Sarah Peacock Finds Beauty Beneath Surface With "Mojave" (premiere + interview)

Born from personal pain, "Mojave" is evidence of Sarah Peacock's perseverance and resilience. "When we go through some of the dry seasons in our life, when we do the most growing, is often when we're in pain. It's a reminder of how alive you really are", she says.

Television

Power Struggle in Beauty Pageants: On 'Mrs. America' and 'Miss Americana'

Television min-series Mrs. America and Taylor Swift documentary Miss Americana make vivid how beauty pageants are more multi-dimensional than many assume, offering a platform to some (attractive) women to pursue higher education, politics, and more.

Hilary Levey Friedman
Music

Pere Ubu 'Comes Alive' on Their New, Live Album

David Thomas guides another version of Pere Ubu through a selection of material from their early years, dusting off the "hits" and throwing new light on some forgotten gems.

Music

Woods Explore Darkness on 'Strange to Explain'

Folk rock's Woods create a superb new album, Strange to Explain, that mines the subconscious in search of answers to life's unsettling realities.

Music

The 1975's 'Notes on a Conditional Form' Is Laudably Thought-Provoking and Thrilling

The 1975 follow A Brief Inquiry... with an even more intriguing, sprawling, and chameleonic song suite. Notes on a Conditional Form shows a level of unquenchable ambition, creativity, and outspoken curiosity that's rarely felt in popular music today.

Music

Dustbowl Revival's "Queen Quarantine (A Home Recording)" Is a Cheeky Reproach of COVID-19 (premiere)

Inspired by John Prine, Dustbowl Revival's latest single, "Queen Quarantine (A Home Recording)", approaches the COVID-19 pandemic with wit and good humor.

Books

The 2020 US Presidential Election Is Going to Be Wild but We've Seen Wild Before

Americans are approaching a historical US presidential election in unprecedented times. Or are they? Chris Barsanti's The Ballot Box: 10 Presidential Elections That Changed American History gives us a brief historical perspective.

Reviews
Collapse Expand Reviews

Features
Collapse Expand Features
PM Picks
Collapse Expand Pm Picks

© 1999-2020 PopMatters.com. All rights reserved.
PopMatters is wholly independent, women-owned and operated.