The scenario that I’m going to describe, really happened, and demonstrates that even the most experienced people in the music industry get things wrong. It was in January 1968, and Dr. John completed his debut album Gris Gris. A copy of Gris Gris was sent to Ahmet Erteghun at Atlantic Records. When he heard Gris Gris, he disliked the album so much, that he was reluctant to even release it. His response was “how can we market this boogaloo crap?” When Gris Gris was released, and just as Ahmet Erteghun forecasted, the album wasn’t a commercial success. Gris Gris failed to chart. However, since then, critics have changed their initial opinions of Gris Gris.

Since the release of Gris Gris in 1968, critics have reappraised the album. Belatedly, they’ve recognised the importance of Dr. John’s debut album Gris Gris. It’s best described as a fusion of psychedelia, blues, free jazz, R&B, soul, funk and jazz. Add to this psychedelic stew the authentic music of the melting pot that is New Orleans. The result was an album that was totally unlike anything that had been released before. Variously, Gris Gris has been described as an innovative, cerebral, mesmeric, menacing, haunting, seductive, progressive, psychedelic and lysergic. This presented a problem. Neither Ahmet Erteghun nor critics couldn’t compare it to anything. They’d no cultural reference points. For many critics, Gris Gris was an album that went over their head. However, belatedly, Gris Gris which will be reissued by Atco on 23rd June 2015 has been recognised as classic album.

Nowadays, Gris Gris is recognised as one of the most important albums ever released. Since its reappraisal, Gris Gris has been included in Rolling Stone magazine’s list of the 500 most important albums of all time. As for Dr. John, he’s become a musical legend. What Ahmet Erteghun disparagingly referred to as is “boogaloo crap,” was the start of long and illustrious career. Following Gris Gris, Dr. John has released over twenty studio albums, proving that even Ahmet Erteghun sometimes got things wrong. However, in 1968, Dr. John was still known as Malcolm “Mac” Rebennack

Before Dr John recorded his debut album, Gris Gris, 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. The pair worked together on sessions for the Ric and Ron labels. 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 he decided called Dr. John Montaine, who he 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. 

For the recording of Gris Gris, the newly named Dr. John put together of New Orleans finest musicians. The rhythm section, which produced Gris Gris’ all important heartbeat, featured bassist Bob West, drummer John Boudreaux, guitarist Richard “Didimus” Washington who also played mandolin and percussion. They were joined by Steve Mann on guitar and banjo. Plas John Johnson Jr. played saxophone, Lonnie Boulden flute and Mo Pedido congas. Dave Dixon, Jessie Hill and Ronnie Barron added backing vocals and percussion. Arranger and producer  Harold Battiste played bass, clarinet and percussion. Dr. John played keyboards, guitar and added his inimitable vocals. This was the lineup that headed into the Gold Star Studios in Los Angeles to record what would become Gris Gris.

Despite being an album with a musical DNA that reads New Orleans, the seven songs that became Gris Gris were recorded in Los Angeles, at Gold Star Studios.  Dr. John penned four tracks, Gris-Gris Gumbo Ya Ya, Danse Fambeaux, Jump Sturdy and I Walk On Gilded Splinters. He cowrote Danse Kalinda Ba Doom with Harold Battiste and Mama Roux with Jessie Hill. The other track was Harold Battiste’s Croker Courtbullion. Then when recording was about to begin, things didn’t get of to the best of starts.

When Dr. John and his band arrived at Gold Star Studios, straight away, there were problems. Dr. John was unprepared. After all, he’d wanted Ronnie Barron to be the lead singer. So, Dr. John was a reluctant frontman. That wasn’t the end of the problems. On their arrive at Gold Star Studios, there wasn’t a studio available for him to record in. Then fate intervened. A studio that was reserved for Sonny and Cher became free. Seizing the opportunity that came their way, the seven songs were recorded. Once Gris Gris was completed, Dr. John sent the album to his record company Atco, a subsidiary of Atlantic Records.

When Ahmet Erteghun received Gris Gris, he dismissed the album out of hand. He disliked Gris Gris so much, that he was reluctant to even release it. On hearing Gris Gris, Ahmet Erteghun said: “how can we market this boogaloo crap?” Despite Ahmet Erteghun’s reservations, Gris Gris was released.

On its release in 1968, Gris Gris failed to chart. Gris Gris’ fusion of psychedelia, blues, free jazz, R&B, soul, funk and jazz seemed to go over the head of both music lovers and critics. It was an album that was totally unlike anything that had been released before. This presented a problem. They’d no cultural reference points, nothing to compare Gris Gris. However, like so many albums, Gris Gris was reappraised and belatedly, is recognised as seminal album. You’ll realise that, when I tell you about Gris Gris.

Opening Gris Gris is Gris-Gris, Gumbo Ya Ya, a song that epitomises Dr John’s new persona perfectly. The sound is dark, really dark. It brings 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 favourite tracks.

Danse Fambeaux begins with a mandolin playing, before some slick guitars licks join a melange of whistles, percussion and rhythm section. It’s as if they’re announcing the imminent arrival of backing vocalists and the newly appointed potentate Dr John. The backing vocalists unite against soulfully and spiritually. Then Dr John delivers one of his most haunting, otherworldly vocals. He seems to embrace his new identity. His vocal veers between haunting, otherworldly, 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, this 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, a haunting, chant and an eery flute combine. They’re joined by congas. Somewhere in the distance, sounds that are almost indescribable can he heard. You can hear screaming and shrieking, dogs barking. 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. It’s very different, totally unorthodox and out of step with the music of 1968. Having said that, it’s alo innovative, unique, inimitable, intriguing, 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. 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, and go 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 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, the newly anointed potentate Dr John. Quite simply, his performance is stunning, charismatic, eery and atmospheric. This is a classic track to end a classic album.

Listening to Gris Gris, it’s a debut album like no other. It’s no exaggeration to say that Gris Gris is one of the most ambitious and innovative debut albums. With no thought for his future career, he recored a groundbreaking album, Gris Gris. It proceeded to go over everyone’s heads. This included Ahmet Erteghun at Atlantic Records. 

When he heard Gris Gris, Ahmet Erteghun disliked the album so much, that he was reluctant to even release it. His response was “how can we market this boogaloo crap? However, he wasn’t alone in missing Gris Gris’ 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 realised just how important, influential and innovative an album it really is. 

Granted, when you first hear Gris Gris not the easiest album to listen to. However, after one listen, you’re hooked. Dr. John weaves his spell over you on Gris Gris,  a genre-melting album. It’s best described as a fusion of psychedelia, blues, free jazz, R&B, soul, funk and jazz. Add to this psychedelic stew the authentic music of the melting pot that is New Orleans. Listen carefully to Gris Gris and layer upon layer of music can be heard. With each listen, you’ll hear something new. It’s a like a lysergic mystical mystery tour where the music is ambitious, bold, challenging, eerie, broody, moody, mesmeric, menacing, haunting, seductive, progressive and psychedelic. That’s why Gris Gris is also a truly groundbreaking album. Dr. John dared to go where no artist had gone before. Sadly, many people in 1969 didn’t understand Gris Gris which will be released by Atco on 23rd June 2015. Not any more.

When a new breed of critics reappraised Gris Gris, they hailed it a classic. So did Rolling Stone magazine. Nowadays, Gris Gris is recognised as one of the most important albums ever released. Gris Gris has been included in Rolling Stone magazine’s list of the 500 most important albums of all time and is the album that launched Dr. John’s long and illustrious career. 

After the release of Gris Gris, Dr. John has released over twenty further albums. Following Gris Gris, Dr. John released a string  of innovative and influential albums. This includes 1968s Babylon, 1970s Remedies and The Sun and The Moon and The Herbs in 1971. Along with Gris Gris, these are some of the best albums Dr John released. For newcomers to Dr. John’s music, these albums are a good place to start. The best of this quartet is Gris Gris, a classic album that’s a genre-melting melange of musical influences and genres, which is akin to a lysergic, mystical mystery tour. 





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