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.