DR JOHN-GRIS GRIS.
DR JOHN-GRIS GRIS.
Imagine the scenario that I’m going to describe, because it really happened, and it demonstrates that even the most experienced people in the music industry get things wrong. In January 1968, Dr John had completed his debut album Gris Gris, but when Ahmet Erteghun at Atlantic Records heard the record, he disliked the album so much, that he was reluctant to even release the album. On hearing the record, his response was “how can we market this boogaloo crap?” However, the album was released, and as Ahmet Erteghun forecasted, the album wasn’t a commercial success, failing to chart. However, since then, critics have changed their initial opinions of the album, with most modern-day reviewers recognizing the importance of Dr John’s debut album, which is a combination of psychedelia, R&B and the authentic music of the melting pot that is New Orleans. Nowadays, Gris Gris is recognized as one of the most important albums ever released, and is included in Rolling Stone magazine’s list of the 500 most important albums of all time. Since the release of Gris Gris, Dr John has released over twenty studio albums, proving that even Ahmet Erteghun sometimes got things wrong.
Before Dr John recorded his debut album, he was still Mac Rebennack, an experienced session musician, songwriter and producer, who played both rock and R&B music. In 1965, he’d relocated to Los Angeles from New Orleans because of drug problems and problems with the feds. It was there that he met a group of new Orleans session musicians, with whom he joined, playing various sessions, assisted by Harold Battiste, an arranger from New Orleans. However, Dr John wanted to make an album, but an album with a difference.
Dr John’s concept for the album was intriguing. The album was to combine the different styles of New Orleans music via a front man and lead singer called Dr John Montaine, who said he was an African potentate. He chose the name because his sister knew about Dr John Montaine. Originally, it was Ronnie Barron, a New Orleans singer, who Mac Rebennack wanted to be lead singer and take on the persona of Dr John. His manager Don Costa felt this wasn’t right for Barron’s career, so Mac Rebennack decided to don the persona of Dr John.
This was the lineup that headed into the Gold Star Studios in Los Angeles to record what would become Gris Gris. It wasn’t the best start for the band with a singer who was unprepared, and about to record their debut album. When they arrived at the recording studios, even they didn’t go smoothly. When Dr John arrived at the studio in LA, there wasn’t a studio available for him to record in, until a studio that was reserved for Sonny and Cher became free. Seizing the opportunity that came their way, seven songs were recorded, including Mama Roux and I Walk On Guilded Splinters. Once the album was completed, Dr John sent the album to his record company Atco, a subsidiary of Atlantic, where Ahmet Erteghun dismissed the album. However, since then, Gris Gris has been recognized as a hugely important, classic album, which I’ll now tell you about.
Gris Gris opens with Gris-Gris, Gumbo Ya Ya a song that epitomises Dr John’s new persona perfectly. The sound is dark, really dark, bringing to mind an atmosphere where Dr John’s candles and incense, help set the scene for Dr John, resplendent in his costume of feathers, surrounded by the paraphernalia and trinkets of his grandiose new identity, before he makes his debut as newly crowned musical potentate. A guitar soars, before a husky, whispery vocal from Dr John enters, accompanied by a multitude of otherworldly sounds, percussion and backing vocalists. It’s a mixture of psychedelia and R&B, with rhythm section, percussion and horns combining to produce a sound that is spooky, eery and just a bit unsettling. You wonder what the good Dr is hoping to achieve in this nocturnal sounding journey? Is he trying to contact long forgotten spirits, or raise the dead? Whatever, he hope to achieve, he has produced an intense, atmospheric and quite brilliant track, that’s best listened to late at night, in the dark, with someone to hold your hand when these unsettling sounds emerge from your speakers.
The unsettling, eery atmosphere continues with Danse Kalinda Ba Boom, which opens with a melange of chanted vocals, dark, booming drums, and an intense combination of prominent percussion and frenzied, repetitive vocals. Together, with mandolins, flutes and whistles, congas and guitars, Dr John takes you a walk on the dark side of New Orleans. Goodness knows what rituals are being performed in the studio given the darkness, intensity and ferocity of the music. What makes the experience even more edgy, and even dangerous, is the way the music has been separated, and different instruments and sounds can be heard from different speakers. By the end of this fascinating combination of chants, rhythms and percussive diversions, you’re hooked, in love with the music, and in awe of Dr John’s vision and bravery at releasing such and ambitious and inspirational music.
After the two previous authentic slices of the dark side of New Orleans, things change quite drastically with Mama Roux, a track that has a brighter, more traditional sound. As the track opens it’s a combination of rhythm section, guitars and percussion accompanying backing vocalists, before Dr John regales us with the tale of Mama Roux. Here, he takes on the persona of the fast talking, pseudo mythical potentate. His vocal is atmospheric, whispery, and husky, with the backing vocalists a complete contrast, their voices sweet and melodic. Behind them, a jumble of percussion, drums and guitars provide a backdrop that’s very different to previous tracks. Gone are the edgy, eery sounds and in, is a much more melodic sound. Here, Dr John demonstrates his skill as a vocalist, on a track that has a much more subtle arrangement. It’s quite simply one of the best tracks on Gris Gris, and even today, is one of Dr John’s legion of fans favorite tracks.
Danse Fambeaux begins with a mandolin playing, before some slick guitars licks join a melange of whistles, percussion and rhythm section, as if announcing the imminent arrival of backing vocalists and the newly appointed potentate Dr John. The backing vocalists unite against soulfully and spiritually before Dr John gives one of his most haunting, otherworldly vocals, seemingly embracing his new identity. His vocal one part, haunting and otherworldly, the other part theatrical and grandiose. It seems as if his new mysterious alter ego, is perfect for the mysterious concoction of psychedelia and R&B. Like the arrangement, which is a mixture of exotic and sometimes moody, percussion, haunting voodoo drums, bringing to mind visions of mystery, faux spirituality and darkness. Together, they combine magically, creating a song that’s a masterful concoction of haunting and otherworldly sounds and vocals.
When Croker Courtbullion opens, immediately, your dark gothic journey through the sights and sounds of New Orleans underbelly continues. Quickly, drums rumble and reverberate, more of those slick guitar licks, which soar and chime as a harpsichord melodically plays while percussion, and a dark moody bass combine. The tempo is quick, nearly frantic, with the track drifting towards a discordant destination, only to be rescued at the last minute. Vocals, haunting, chant, as an eery flute plays, congas quick and sharp play, as somewhere in the distance, sounds that are almost indescribable can he heard. You can hear Screaming and shrieking, dogs barking, and that’s just some of the things that you hear. Quite simply it’s an intriguing piece of music, where although you find yourself at the edge of your seat, you just must hear what happens next. Although very different, totally unorthodox, and out of step with the music of 1968, it’s unique, original and strangely, totally riveting and hugely listenable.
Distant percussion, opens the track before backing singers unite, soulfully interjecting as a banjo plays a melodic, catchy solo before Dr John sings the lyrics to Jump Sturdy. Here, if you listen carefully, there’s a hesitancy to his vocal, with him singing his lyrics either to soon, or at the wrong time. He has to stop himself, then after regaining his composure, goes again. It’s a very much warts and all version of this track, complete with percussion and dark, moody bass. Having said that, he gives a great vocal, laden in charisma and emotion, his voice loud and confident. The track lasts just under two and a half minutes, and I’ve always felt that this track could’ve been extended, made into something even better, an epic track, like the previous track. However, it’s still a great track, one of the best tracks on Gris Gris.
Gris Gris ends with another track that has long been a favorite of mine I Walk On Gilded Splinters, a track that when Dr John performs live, brings to life, injecting the sheer force of his personality and charisma into. It’s a dark, moody sound that opens the track, congas, percussion accompanied by a choir of finger-clicks that accompany Dr John’s equally mood, atmospheric vocal. When the backing vocalists enter, their voices have a distant, haunting sound, matched by a swampy, eery otherworldly arrangement. A clarinet plays, its sound haunting, while congas and percussion combine in producing one of the eeriest and moodiest arrangements on the album. However, the man that makes this the best track on the album is the former Mac Rebennack, newly anointed potentate Dr John. Quite simply, his performance is stunning, charismatic, eery and atmospheric. This is a great track to end the album, one with a great arrangement and stunning vocal.
Listening to Gris Gris, it’s a debut album like no other. One can only the look on Ahmet Erteghun at Atlantic Records when he played the album. He must have wondered what on earth was going on. However, he wasn’t the person who never saw the potential and brilliance in Gris Gris. It was only many years later, that a new generation of reviewers revisited Gris Gris with an open mind, and realized just how good an album it really is. Granted, it’s not the easiest album to listen to. Many people just don’t understand the album. I’ve loved the album since I first heard it many years ago, but many people can’t seem to “get” Gris Gris. If however, you listen to this album with an open mind, and persist with it, you’ll soon find and see the beauty of the album. The music on the album is excellent, a cosmic combination of psychedelia and R&B, which brings to live the other side of downtown New Orleans. After Gris Gris, Dr John released Babylon in 1969, Remedies in 1970 and The Sun, The Moon and The Herbs in 1971. Along with Gris Gris, these are some of the best albums Dr John released. in fact, the albums he recorded on Atco, contain some fantastic music, and if you have never heard Dr John’s music, these are a good place to start. Standout Tracks: Gris-Gris, Gumbo Ya Ya, Mama Roux, Jump Sturdy and I Walk On Gilded Splinters.
DR JOHN-GRIS GRIS.