Over a colorful life and career spanning seven decades, Mac Rebennack – a.k.a. Dr. John, The Night Tripper – left his mark as a singer, songwriter, musician, arranger, and producer spreading the gospel of New Orleans rhythm and blues. With his distinctive rasp of a growl and expressive touch at the keyboard, nobody sounded like Dr. John. Nobody looked like him, either, with his voodoo beads, colorful feathers, and larger-than-life frame. Even his speech patterns were all his own. Funk, blues, rock, soul, psychedelia, and jazz were just a few components of Dr. John’s heady, magical, mystical, musical brew. We’ve written about Dr. John numerous times at The Second Disc over the last near-decade, and today, in tribute to him, we’re reprinting our September 29, 2015 review of Omnivore Recordings’ collection The Atco/Atlantic Singles 1968-1974. It still remains the best single-disc distillation of the good Doctor’s purple patch, though he continued making thrilling, relevant music right up to the present day…music that will carry his indelible spirit – and that of his beloved Crescent City – ever forward. Rest in peace, Night Tripper.
Dr. John’s most famous single was titled “Right Place Wrong Time,” but the one and only Mac Rebennack has certainly found himself in the right place at many a right time. One particularly halcyon period of the funky New Orleans piano man’s long career is captured on Omnivore Recordings’ essential new collection of The Atco/Atlantic Singles 1968-1974 (OVCD-149).
Though the 22 U.S. and U.K. singles included on this collection represent Dr. John’s earliest years as a solo artist under that moniker, Rebennack was already a music veteran by the time he signed with the Atlantic family of labels. Countless records made in the Crescent City bore his imprint as musician, songwriter, artist and even A&R man before he decamped with producer Harold Battiste for Los Angeles in the mid-sixties. In LA, he recorded his debut album Gris-Gris with Battiste, only taking on the flamboyant persona of Dr. John Creaux, The Night Tripper when he could find nobody else to “play” the role – and the rest is, as they say, history.
The acerbic, dry political commentary of “The Patriotic Flag Waver” open Omnivore’s set, although it originated on Dr. John’s second Atco LP, Babylon (1969). Incorporating snatches of “My Country ‘Tis of Thee” as sung by a children’s chorus, it reflected what Dr. John called his “own sick-ass view of the world.”
“Mama Roux,” “Jump Sturdy,” “I Walk on Gilded Splinters” (split into two parts for single release) and “Gris-Gris Gumbo Ya-Ya” were all belatedly pulled by Atco from Dr. John’s debut Gris-Gris. With its cool, hip fusion of R&B and darkly-tinged psychedelia, it’s one classic record that still sounds like no other, some 47 years after its 1968 release. “Mama Roux” (bearing a beat that can’t help but anticipate War’s hit “Low Rider”) and “Jump Sturdy” have a loose, sing-along vibe; “Splinters” is another beast altogether. Styled after a voodoo church song, it conjures a mysterious, foreboding yet slyly inviting atmosphere as Dr. John incants over hypnotic, primitive rhythms, aided by background vocals both ethereal and earthy. Such was the song’s unlikely power that artists from Cher to The Allman Brothers Band took their turns in covering it.
1970’s Remedies came from a bleak period in Dr. John’s personal life in which his battles with hard drug addiction took a mighty toll. (Happily, he has been sober since 1989.) Both the light and the dark could be heard on the album’s lone single comprising the Gris-Gris-esque “Loop Garoo” and the breezy, brassy R&B of “Wash, Mama, Wash.” Dr. John headed to London for Remedies’ follow-up The Sun, Moon & Herbs, but surprisingly the album (his first to chart) yielded no 45s. Whereas Atlantic’s Tom Dowd co-produced Remedies, another Atlantic great – Jerry Wexler – joined Harold Battiste to co-produce 1972’s Dr. John’s Gumbo. On the contentedly nostalgic Gumbo, Dr. John’s distinctive drawl graced a set of New Orleans classics including the single release of “Iko Iko” b/w a Huey “Piano” Smith medley. Affectionate and authentic, Gumbo remains one of Dr. John’s most enjoyable LPs, and the singles reprised here – also including Earl King’s grooving “Big Chief” – convey palpable joy and a celebratory air. (In his fine liner notes, Gene Sculatti quotes Dr. John of this era: “I dumped the Gris-Gris routine and worked up a new act, a Mardi Gras revue.”)
Omnivore’s collection happily includes the 1972 U.S. promo single/U.K. release of Willie Dixon’s sprightly blues “Wang Dang Doodle” (with the Doctor on guitar) as well as Buddy Guy’s “A Man of Many Words,” featuring Dr. John and Eric Clapton. (The next year, Dr. John moonlighted from Atlantic when he teamed with Mike Bloomfield and John Hammond for the Triumvirate LP on Columbia; the single “I Yi Yi” b/w Dixon’s “Pretty Thing” falls out of the purview of this collection.)
Five tracks on The Atco/Atlantic Singles hail from Dr. John’s all-time classic and commercial breakthrough, 1973’s In the Right Place. Producer-arranger-conductor and fellow New Orleans native Allen Toussaint proved the perfect match in the studio for Rebennack. Toussaint’s unerring instincts and the musical participation of The Meters gave In the Right Place, including its incomparably cool, funky anchor “Right Place Wrong Time,” the right balance of grit and playfulness, rendered with a potent commercial sheen. (Bob Dylan, Bette Midler and Doug Sahm were among the artists to contribute to the song’s lyrics, each offering up an instance of bad luck!) “I Been Hoodood,” the B-side of “Right Place,” returned Dr. John to the murky swamp waters. Toussaint took Dr. John back to vaudeville with his bouncy soft-shoe arrangement of “Such a Night,” with its woozy horns and cooing voices supporting Dr. John as he jauntily croons about stealing his best friend’s woman. “Such a Night” received unique flipsides in the U.S. (“Cold Cold Cold”) and the U.K. (the Toussaint-penned “Life,” with the composer adding his familiar background vocals), both of which are included here.
The contrasting sides of Dr. John were also heard on the singles released from the good doctor’s final Atco album, 1974’s Desitively Bonnaroo. The freewheeling vibe of In the Right Place continued to this LP, also produced and arranged by Toussaint and featuring The Meters. “Everybody, let’s sing,” Dr. John whoops and wails on the bright “Let’s Make a Better World,” which was backed on 45 by the pretty ballad “Me – You = Loneliness.” The second single’s A-side, “(Everybody Wanna Get Rich) Rite Away,” doesn’t go much deeper than the title, but Dr. John certainly had his finger on the pulse – then and now. Its B-side and the closing track on this compilation, “Mos’ Scocious,” glides – like much of the Doc’s best work – on an irresistibly swaggering groove.
Today, Dr. John is rightly venerated as a grand old man of jazz and R&B and an unofficial ambassador for the music of New Orleans; he can follow his muse wherever it leads, whether to a Disney animated film (The Princess and the Frog), a modern/retro collaboration with Dan Auerbach of The Black Keys (2012’s Locked Down) or a spirited tribute to New Orleans’ own Louis Armstrong (2014’s The Spirit of Satch). Omnivore’s The Atco/Atlantic Singles, crisply remastered by Michael Graves and featuring new liner notes by Gene Sculatti in a colorful booklet designed by Greg Allen, vividly captures the fertile early period of a true renaissance man and a singer-songwriter unlike any other. And that’s no hoodoo!