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Dr. John

+ {Mac Rebennack} + {Dr. John, the night tripper}

At times underachieving and inconsistent in terms of commercial success, although a critically-acclaimed R&B artist perceived by his peers and fanbase alike, DR. JOHN can claim two of the coolest tracks on the planet: `I Walk On Guilded Splinters’ and `Right Place, Wrong Time’. One thinks if CAPTAIN BEEFHEART had been conceived closer to the Mardi Gras, he’d have boogied like the growling hoodoo-voodoo DR. JOHN. Taking the alter-ego “The Night Tripper” moniker from a 19th century New Orleans witchdoctor type, the character was a hybrid of psychedelic mysticism and Southern 21st century schizoid-mania.
Born Malcolm John Rebennack Jr., November 21, 1940, New Orleans, Louisiana, “Mac” became a noted session guitarist/keyboardist for the likes of PROFESSOR LONGHAIR, JOE TEX and FRANKIE FORD. As MAC REBENNACK, he branched out on his own in 1959, releasing `Storm Warning’ (for Rex Records) and, in 1961, `Good Times’ (for Ace Records). One single that seems to get overlooked by historians is his collaboration in ’62 with Ronnie Barron (as Drits & Dravy) on `Talk That Talk’; or, for that matter, the equally rare subsequent solo single, `The Point’.
Taking up the piano fully after shooting off one of his fingers in a barroom brawl, trouble with the law convinced him a fresh move to L.A. would shake off the blues. Finding session work for fellow N’awlinz ex-pat HAROLD BATTISTE, JR., Mac allegedly blagged some leftover studio time from SONNY & CHER to cut tracks for his “DR. JOHN, the night tripper” debut LP, GRIS-GRIS (1968) {*8}. Released on Atco Records, tracks such as opener `Gris-Gris Gumbo Ya Ya’, `Mama Roux’ and `I Walk On Guilded Splinters’, depicted a sinister series of voodoo funk meditations that combined New Orleans R&B, Creole soul and psychedelic funk; producer Battiste offered up `Danse Kalinda Ba Boom’ and `Croker Courtbullion’.
DR. JOHN’s sophomore set, BABYLON (1969) {*6}, was a less impressive record, but ambitious it certainly was; its off-kilter structures and textures running Beefheart-ian over side one’s title track, `Glowin’ and `Black Widow Spider’, whilst the flip-side had his candid croaks on the 8-minute `Twilight Zone’.
Bailed from jail via a psychiatric ward, the aptly-titled REMEDIES (1970) {*6} was indeed a “bad trip” for the otherworldly DR. JOHN, the Night Tripper. Defined by the voodoo stew of `Loop Garoo’ and the soul-cleansing `Wash, Mama, Wash’, producer Tom Dowd (and Charles Greene) could do little but let the Doc and percussionist Jessie Hill free-base musically on the side-long epic, `Angola Anthem’.
THE SUN, MOON & HERBS (1971) {*7} carried on in much the same vein without achieving quite the same foreboding effect. Bolstered by ERIC CLAPTON (and most of his Dominos), alto saxophonist GRAHAM BOND, keyboardist Ronnie Barron and, among Doris Troy, Tami Lynn, Shirley Goodman and P.P. ARNOLD, MICK JAGGER on backing vox, the Top 200 breaker was thankfully trimmed from its intended triple-LP set. Cooking up a Cajun swamp of meaty rhythms under an unsettling moonlight, the Night Tripper weaved a spellbound mix on the likes of `Black John The Conqueror’, `Craney Crow’ and the 8-minute mantra `Zu Zu Manou’.
The Jerry Wexler-produced DR. JOHN’S GUMBO (1972) {*8} examined his nocturnal tripping on his return to his bayou roots. A deeply satisfying journey through New Orleans’ rich musical heritage, the near Top 100 record saw the good Doctor belting out some spirited updates of standards from The DIXIE CUPS’ `Iko Iko’ (a minor hit), Bob Shad’s `Junko Partner’, EARL KING’s `Let The Good Times Roll’, PROFESSOR LONGHAIR’s `Tipitina’, and others by HUEY “PIANO” SMITH; the only Doc original was the barrelhouse blues of `Somebody Changed The Locks’.
With impeccable Crescent City credentials (produced by ALLEN TOUSSAINT; recorded with The METERS), 1973’s IN THE RIGHT PLACE {*8} concentrated on down-home funk. Opening with the gritty and groovy Top 10 smash `Right Place, Wrong Time’, DR. JOHN served up other delights, `Such A Night’, `Shoo Fly Marches On’ and `I Been Hoodood’, alongside re-vamps of TOUSSAINT’s own track, `Life’, and PROFESSOR LONGHAIR’s `Traveling Mood’.
On the back of a DR. JOHN co-credited `Triumvirate’ album, alongside blues stars MIKE BLOOMFIELD and JOHN HAMMOND, JR., DESITIVELY BONNAROO (1974) {*6} offered similar rhythmical remedies, spawning the rump-shaking single `(Everybody Wanna Get Rich) Rite Away’, the scrumptious `Mos’Scocious’, EARL KING’s `Let’s Make A Better World’ and producer TOUSSAINT’s `Go Tell The People’.
Seemingly abandoning the New Orleans (black) magic, and switching to United Artists Records, DR. JOHN made a misguided attempt at more rocking fare on the live-in-concert HOLLYWOOD BE THY NAME (1975) {*5}. Recorded at Willie Purple’s Niteclub in L.A. with Bob Ezrin at the decks, the routines were excessive, the patter OTT, whilst only a boogie-ing `Babylon’ crossed-over from his back catalogue. Oddly enough, it was his flashy covers of The TEMPTATIONS’ `The Way You Do The Things You Do’, LENNON-McCARTNEY’s `Yesterday’, Roy Montrell’s `Mellow Saxophone’ (spun here as `I Wanna Rock’), plus a medley of Cole Porter’s `It’s All Right With Me’, Irving Berlin’s `Blues Skies’ and A.P. CARTER’s `Will The Circle Be Unbroken’, that gave critics their field day.
Returning from a 3-year break in which he joined the R.C.O. All Stars with LEVON HELM and others, DR. JOHN released the first of two LPs, CITY LIGHTS (1978) {*7}, for A&M’s Horizon subsidiary. Mellower and moodier but still slipping and sliding into funk, producers Tommy LiPuma and Hugh McCracken managed to capture the strolling singer in killer collaboration form on `Dance The Night Away With You’ (one of three penned with Doc Pomus), `Wild Honey’ (with BOBBY CHARLES) and `Fire Of Love’ (with Alvin Robinson).
With much the same session augmentation and production personnel (Pomus shared 5 tracks), TANGO PALACE (1979) {*5}, didn’t really come with anything sparkling and fresh; it opened with Giddon Daniels’ `Keep That Music Simple’ and the cover of a FATS DOMINO song (`Something You Got’) was old hat.
As DR. JOHN was always in demand to the stars of the day (The ROLLING STONES, MARIA MULDAUR, CARLY SIMON, NEIL DIAMOND, VAN MORRISON, RICKIE LEE JONES, AL JARREAU, et al), he still managed to release two sets of boogie-woogie on Baltimore’s Clean Cuts independent: 1981’s DR. JOHN PLAYS MAC REBENNACK {*7} – an album that regained his focus and found him alone at his piano, effortlessly reeling off inspired tributes to New Orleans past masters – and its 1983 follow-up THE BRIGHTEST SMILE IN TOWN {*6}, proving that his return to form was no fluke; the UK-only SUCH A NIGHT! – LIVE IN LONDON (1984) {*6}, reprised a handful of his best tunes.
As time wore on, DR. JOHN was in the studio less frequently, but in 1989 on Warner Bros. (said to free from drugs), IN A SENTIMENTAL MOOD (1989) {*6}, was the piano-player’s homage to the swinging jazz scene; Grammy winner `Makin’ Whoopee!’ (featuring RICKIE LEE JONES) was its most horizontal piece; the rest sounded sleepy and overwrought.
After an eponymous album (`Bluesiana Triangle’) with ART BLAKEY and David “Fathead” Newman, DR. JOHN returned to his old stamping ground on jazz-blues release, GOIN’ BACK TO NEW ORLEANS (1992) {*6}, while 1994’s TELEVISION {*5} and 1995’s AFTERGLOW {*5} – both issued on GRP Records – indicated he wanted to update his standing on the circuit; there was a Anthony Kiedis collaboration (`Shut D Fonk Up’), as were there covers of Berry Gordy’s `Money (That’s What I Want)’ and SLY & THE FAMILY STONE’s `Thank You (Falletin Me Be Mice Elf Again)’ on the first of these.
Sessions with CHRIS BARBER and an autobiography (Under A Hoodoo Moon), kept up his momentum in a different spotlight, while his far-reaching influence was illustrated by his guesting on one of 1997’s best albums: SPIRITUALIZED’s `Ladies And Gentlemen We Are Floating In Space’; this was on the back of TRIPPIN’ LIVE (1997) {*5} – recorded at Ronnie Scott’s, January 7-14, 1996.
Signing to Virgin Records (Parlophone in the UK), DR. JOHN subsequently delivered anutha set of fine work, ANUTHA ZONE (1998) {*7}. With Jason Pierce and SPIRITUALIZED returning the favour, and the flavour of the Mac’s psychedelic/voodoo days (SUPERGRASS, PAUL WELLER, JOOLS HOLLAND and PRIMAL SCREAM musicians also paying visits to the studio), mod Britannia had extended their elixir of life across the Atlantic Ocean to come up some gritty “gumbo”. All penned by the great man himself (bar one JOHN MARTYN piece, `I Don’t Wanna Know’), the funky and cool `Voices In My Head’, `Party Hellfire’, `Soulful Warrior’ and `Sweet Home New Orleans’ came the closest to reeling back the years.
A fan of iconic bandleader Duke Ellington for yonks, DR. JOHN paid homage to the jazz man’s centenary year by recording DUKE ELEGANT {*6}; delivered by the legendary Blue Note Records, in February 2000. As well as nocturnal instrumentals like `Perdido Street Blues’ and `Caravan’, the hoodoo-voodoo man had almost BOOKER T’d Ellington’s place in the new millennium, looking back only, to revive `It Don’t Mean A Thing (If It Ain’t Got That Swing)’, `I’m Gonna Go Fishin’, etc., etc.
After the creative diversions and belated critical rebirth of recent years, it was perhaps inevitable DR. JOHN was going to return to his roots with a vengeance, and so he did on 2001’s CREOLE MOON {*6}. With FRED WESLEY presiding over a horn section (not forgetting the input of slide guitarist Sonny Landreth, saxophonist David “Fathead” Newman and fiddler Michael Doucet), it was back to seriously funky New Orleans bizniz for the sexagenarian piano master, right down to the voodoo trappings of the cover art; check out `You Swore’, `Food For Thot’ and the 8-minute title track.
Roping in a slew of Crescent City’s finest musicians through arranger Wardell Quezergue (Cyril Neville, Earl Palmer and Dave Bartholemew among them), N’AWLINZ DIS DAT OR D’UDDA (2004) {*6} also had room on board for star guests RANDY NEWMAN (on `I Ate Up The Apple Tree’), B.B. KING & WILLIE NELSON (for `Time Marches On’) and MAVIS STAPLES (on traditional pieces `When The Saints Go Marching In’ and `Lay My Burden Down’).
Cut quickly in order to benefit New Orleans’ charities after the storms reeked havoc in his beloved home city, a mini-set SIPPIANA HERICANE (2005) {*5} – with The Lower 911 (guitarist John Fohl, bassist David Barard and drummer Herman Everest III) – DR. JOHN revived the effervescent “Wade In The Water” spiritual (in four `Wade: Hurricane’ suites), and surrounded them with `Clean Water’ and another take of `Sweet Home…’.
Still treading the boards for his JOHNNY MERCER covers tribute, MERCENARY (2006) {*7} – nostalgic folks would recognise the re-arranged `You Must Have Been A Beautiful Baby’, `Lazy Bones’, `That Old Black Magic’, `Come Rain Or Shine’ and `Moon River’ – DR. JOHN and The Lower 911 would thereafter spread their gospel on 429 Records. Together with BOBBY CHARLES on `Black Gold’ and others on CITY THAT CARE FORGOT (2008) {*7}, the Herman Roscoe Ernest co-produced set also convinced ERIC CLAPTON, TERENCE BLANCHARD, WILLIE NELSON, ANI DiFRANCO and Zydeco accordionist Terrance Simien to make cameos.
Allowing his spiritual alter-ego to re-materialize, “The Nite Tripper” DR. JOHN And The Lower 911 unveiled his Southern-fried grooves with 2010’s re-charged TRIBAL {*7} set. Rooted in N’Orleans blues and motivated by Hurricane Katrina’s wake-up call, the man’s `Manoovas’, `Potnah’, the title track and ALLEN TOUSSAINT’s `Big Gap’, were arguably the star attractions, although in contention was one of three penned with BOBBY CHARLES (again!), `Change Of Heart’.
Brewing up another deadly nightshade of nocturnal nuggets, DR. JOHN (and BLACK KEYS’ Dan Auerbach) brought a spooky spontaneity to umpteenth set, LOCKED DOWN (2012) {*8}. For a man now in his 70s, but sounding fresh as the day “Gris-Gris” was created back in the day (he’d also returned to the Top 40!), the Doc swung back the doors of his DeLorean to inject life into a new body of swamp-rock fans, on the unholy, primeval beats of `Kingdom Of Izzness’ (his funkiest for years!), `Ice Age’, `Getaway’, `Revolution’ and the shimmering, out-of-the-storm `My Children, My Angels’.
While one could never criticise the man for expressing his love of everything jazz, taking his motif from Ellington to Louis Armstrong, SKE-DAT-DE-DAT: THE SPIRIT OF SATCH (2014) {*6} was simply for amiable afficianos and lovers of the genre; exceptions to the rule, the exotic Afro-Cuban work-out, `Tight Like This’, featuring Telmary Diaz and Arturo Sandoval. Roping in The BLIND BOYS OF ALABAMA on an up-tempo `What A Wonderful World’, BONNIE RAITT on `I’ve Got The Whole World On A String’ and the smooth Anthony Hamilton on `Sometimes I Feel Like A Motherless Child’ (among others), the whole set gelled and was certainly light relief to DR. JOHN’s other concoctions of swamp fever and verbose voodoo.
© MC Strong 1994-2002/GRD-BG/MCS // rev-up MCS Feb2016

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