CULT CLASSIC: DR JOHN THE NIGHT TRIPPER-THE SUN, MOON AND HERBS.
Cult Classic: Dr John The Night Tripper-The Sun, Moon and Herbs.
By July 1970, twenty-nine year old Dr John was about to begin recording his fourth album for Atco which eventually became The Sun, Moon and Herbs. He had written six new track and cowrote Familiar Reality (Opening) with Jesse Hill and he planned to record these tracks with an all-star band in London, Miami and Los Angeles. Dr John hoped the he and his musical friends would record an album that transformed his fortunes.
Dr John had already released three ambitious genre-melting albums for Atco, that had failed to find the audience they deserved. He knew deep in his heart he knew that if his next album didn’t chart he could be looking for a new label. The problem was critics, record buyers and even the founder of Atlantic Records didn’t understand his music which was ahead its time. That was the case with his debut album Gris Gris, which was released in 1968 and marked the start of Dr John’s Atco Records’ years.
When a copy of Dr John’s debut album Gris Gris was sent to Atlantic Records’ founder Ahmet Ertegun he disliked the album so much, that he was reluctant to even release the album and said: “how can we market this boogaloo crap?” This wasn’t the response that Dr John had been hoping when he recorded Gris Gris which was a combination of psychedelia, blues, free jazz, R&B, soul, funk, jazz. Add to this psychedelic stew the authentic music of the melting pot that is New Orleans and the voodoo image that Dr John had carefully cultivated and Gris Gris was like no other album that Atlantic Records had released. That presented the label with a huge problem.
Atlantic Records’ PR department had idea to promote an album like Gris Gris, as they had no cultural reference points, nothing to compare the album to. Despite the best efforts of Atlantic Records PR department, when Gris Gris was released on January the ’22nd’ 1968 and introduced the world to Dr John The Night Tripper, it failed to trouble the charts and neither critics nor record buyers understood Dr John’s groundbreaking debut album. However, like so many albums that fail to find an album on their release, Gris Gris was later reappraised and belatedly, was recognised as a seminal album that was the start of a rich vein of form from Dr John.
This was the start of a six-year period when Dr John could no wrong, and released seven innovative albums that are among the his finest work. These albums are the perfect introduction to Dr John, who followed up Gris Gris with Babylon.
Babylon which was recorded in late 1969, which was a turbulent time for Dr John, who was experiencing problems in his personal life. “I was being pursued by various kinds of heat across LA” and this influenced the album he was about to make. So would the assassinations of Bobby Kennedy and Martin Luther King Jr and the Vietnam War which is referenced in The Patriotic Flag-Waiver. The title-track Babylon was recorded in 3/4 and 10/4 time, and featured Dr John thoughts on the state of world in late 1968. It was a part of a powerful album that was released in early 1969.
Babylon was released on January the ’17th’ 1969 was a powerful, cerebral and innovative genre-melting album which socially had much in common with Dr John’s debut album Gris Gris. However, critics didn’t ‘get’ Babylon and the album which failed commercially. However, just like Gris Gris, Babylon was later reappraised by critics and nowadays is regarded as one of his finest albums and a minor classic.
Following the commercial failure of Babylon, things went from bad to worse for Dr John, before he could begin work on his third album Remedies. This started when a deal went south, and he was arrested by the police and ended up in jail. It was a worrying time for Dr John who was parole, and if he ended up with a parole violation, he knew he might end up in the infamous Angola jail. That didn’t bare thinking about, and already Dr John was desperate to get out of the local jail. However, he needed someone to post bail, so contacted his managers who he remembers: “were very bad people.” This proved to be an understatement.
Not long after this, Dr John’s managers had him committed to a psychiatric ward, where he spent some time. By then, it was obvious to Dr John that his managers were no longer playing by the rules. All he wanted to do was make music, and everything that had happened recently were nothing to do with music. Instead, it was all connected to Dr John’s increasingly chaotic lifestyle, which made it all the more frustrating for those that realised just how talented the Gris Gris Man was.
Eventually, having managed to put his problems behind him, Dr John wrote the six tracks that became Remedies using his real name Mac Rebennack. Among the tracks Dr John had written was What Goes Around Comes Around which later became a favourite during his live shows and Mardi Gras Day which paints pictures of New Orleans when it comes out to play. Very different was Angola Anthem which was inspired by a friend of Dr John’s who had just been released from Angola, the Louisiana State Penitentiary after forty years. Dr John paid tribute to his friend with an eighteen minute epic that took up all of side two of Remedies. It was produced by one of the most successful producers of the day.
Although Harold Battiste had produced Gris Gris and Babylon, he was replaced by Tom Dowd and Charles Greene who were tasked with transforming Dr John’s career. However, although Tom Dowd was enjoying the most successful period of his career, he had never worked with anyone like Dr John.
When the recording of Remedies began, Dr John was joined by a small band that featured Cold Grits who played drums, bass and guitar and backing vocalists Shirley Goodman, Tami Lynn and Jessie Hill who also played percussion. Dr John played piano, added his unmistakable vocals and despite losing part of a finger during a shooting a few years previously, he played guitar on Remedies which was released in the spring of 1970.
Just like his two previous albums, critics didn’t seem to understand Remedies, which was credited to Dr John The Night Tripper. Remedies was another ambitious album of genre-melting, voodoo-influenced album where Dr John The Night Tripper through everything from psychedelia, blues, R&B, soul, funk and jazz into the musical melting pot and gave it a stir to create an album where the music was mysterious, otherworldly and haunting.
That was the case from the album opener Loop Garoo while there’s a darkness and defiance to the lyrics to the hook-laden What Comes Around (Goes Around) which showed another side to Dr John. His recent problems and experiences had influenced Wash, Mama, Wash where soaring backing vocals and horns accompany Dr John on a track that is tinged with humour. The horns return and play their part in the success of Chippy Chippy, before the darkness describes and music becomes moody and broody as chants, moans and cries emerge from this lysergic voodoo stew of Mardi Gras Day which gives way to the otherworldly eighteen minute epic Angola. It brought Remedies to a close, which was a potent and heady brew from Dr John The Night Tripper.
By the time Remedies was released on April ‘9th’ 1970, some FM radio stations had picked up on the album, and were playing it on their late shows. Despite the radio play Remedies had received, the album never troubled the charts, and it was only much later that record buyers realised that they had missed out on another important and innovative album from Dr John The Night Tripper.
The Sun, Moon and Herbs.
Despite Dr John The Night Tripper’s first three albums failing to find an audience, many of his fellow musicians were fans of his music, and were only too happy to feature on his fourth album The Sun, Moon and Herbs. This included Eric Clapton, Mick Jagger, Bobby Whitlock, Graham Bond, Carl Radle, Jim Gordon and Doris Troy. They were joined by The Memphis Horns as Dr John and Charles Greene took charge of production as they recorded the album at Trident Studios in London, Dimension Recorders in Hollywood, Los Angeles and Criteria Sound in Miami. When the album was finished it was the most important of Dr John The Night Tripper’s career.
He and his all-star band were responsible for a dark and swampy sounding album that is rich in imagery and paints pictures of New Orleans on a hot, sticky night as thunder crackles and rumbles in the distance like the drums on The Sun, Moon and Herbs. When it was released on August the ’31st’ 1971, still critics struggled to understand Dr John’s music. However, this time, The Sun, Moon and Herbs which featured an all-star cast, spent five weeks in the US Billboard 200 and peaked at 184. At last, Dr John’s music was starting to find a wider audience. However, given the quality of the music this cult classic should’ve been much more successful.
The Sun, The Moon Herbs opens with Black John The Conqueror where Dr John plays a dramatic, jangly piano solo before his lived-in, worldweary vocal enters. He’s accompanied by drums, a pulsating bass and soaring, soulful female backing vocalists. They provide the perfect contrast to Dr John’s vocal, By then, the horns have entered and the arrangement has grown as elements of soul, New Orleans funk and jazz are combined by Dr John and his all-star band and backing vocalists. They play a starring role in a track that’s dramatic, atmospheric, funky , soulful and features some of the best lyrics on the album.
Stabs of grizzled horns open Where Ya At Mule before Dr John’s piano ushers in the backing vocalists and guitar. They accompany Dr John whose voice veers between joyous and hesitant as if not sure what to expect when he arrives home. Meanwhile, braying horns, a bluesy guitar and backing vocalists combine elements of jazz, New Orleans funk, swampy soul and gospel-tinged harmonies. Later, a searing guitar cuts through the arrangement, a trumpet plays and swaying harmonies accompany Dr John. His vocal grows in power and becomes joyous and emotive as the drama builds as the soulful backing vocals, growling horns and searing rocky guitar combine as the arrangement to one of the album’s highlights sways and swings.
Craney Crow has a slow, hesitant start, with the arrangement atmospheric and almost eery. A pulsating bass, rumbling drums, haunting guitar, mournful, braying horns, chanted vocals and sweeping harmonies are combined with a sample of child’s voice. Eventually, Dr John’s growling vocal enters, accompanied by soulful backing vocals. They’re a contrast to Dr John’s raspy, menacing growl. Behind him, drums are spacious, atmospheric, while guitars and bass play occasionally. Mostly, it’s call and response between Dr John and the backing vocalists. When Dr John sings, the lyrics are atmospheric, telling of the colourful side of New Orleans. Meanwhile, a slide guitar, prowling bass, drums, percussion and brief bursts of Hammond organ play their part in this dark, atmospheric and moody sounding song with a soulful side thanks to the backing vocalists
The tempo rises on Familiar Reality-Opening as the rhythm and horn section combine before Dr John’s vocal enters. It’s loud and strong as he plays piano. Meanwhile, horns soar above the arrangement and is accompanied by a weeping and later searing, scorching guitar. Add to this percussion and a pulsating bass and Dr John’s jangling piano. Later, his vocal becomes a soliloquy as horns bray, percussion plays and the bass prowls. By then, Dr John and his band are in the groove and are fusing jazz, funk, blues and R&B during one of the album’s highlights which features a standout performance from his all-star band.
Understated and melodic describes the shuffling introduction to Pots On Fiyo (File Gumbo/Who I Got To Fall On (If the Pot Gets Heavy)). After the meandering, melodic opening, Dr John whispers the vocal as he plays his piano. Quickly his vocal get stronger as backing vocalists accompany him, their voices high. Congas play, accompanying the piano as the arrangement starts to fill out, the tempo rising. Drums, percussion, rasping saxophone and soulful backing vocalists join in. Their voices grow in power as they repeat the same line while guitars, rhythm and the horn section play. They’re part of a genre-melting arrangement briefly that latterly, becomes discordant and adds to the atmospheric and eerie ending.
A tuba plays slowly opening Zu Zu Mamou before the rhythm section guitar, percussion and then Dr John’s whispery vocal enters. It’s joined backing vocalists who add to atmospheric, sinister and moody meandering arrangement. Behind Dr John’s vocal, a bass prowls menacingly, drums rumble, as backing singers coo and percussion adds to the almost pedestrian paced arrangement. Occasionally a piano or guitar plays, but everything just enters and disappears, and at one point it’s just Dr John and a backing vocalists whispering the lyrics eerily. Once the arrangement rebuilds, it’s just Dr John, backing vocalists, rumbling drums, a meandering guitar and wailing trumpet. By the end, one can only marvel at what’s been eight of the eeriest and most atmospheric minutes of music brought to you courtesy of Dr John.
The Sun, The Moon and Herbs, ends with Familiar Reality-(Reprise), a short track, which begins with a tuba playing, and Dr John’s whispery vocal, almost rapping, against a backdrop of slow, spacious drums. Then suddenly, out of nowhere, the track burst joyously into life. Backing vocalists sing as if giving thanks and a guitar piano and drums fill out the arrangement as they combine to bring the track to a close. Sadly, this only lasts for under two minute and although short and sweet is ensures the album closes on a high.
Dr John The Night Tripper was joined on The Sun, Moon and Herbs by an all-star band who recorded an album of genre-melting, voodoo-influenced, swampy sounding music that was rich in imagery and paints pictures of the New Orleans and sometimes of the Big Easy’s dark underbelly.
To do that, Dr John The Night Tripper and his all-star band combine elements of blues, funk, gospel, jazz, Louisiana R&B, rock and soul. This coproducers Dr John and Charles Greene throw into the musical melting pot and give it a stir to create an album where the music was dark, moody, mysterious, otherworldly, eerie, haunting and swampy. It’s the sound of hot, steamy night in New Orleans as thunder claps and crackles and forks of lightning light up the night sky. This is the pictures that Dr John The Night Tripper, his all-star band and backing singers create on The Sun, Moon and Herbs which became his first album to chart.
Sadly, The Sun, Moon and Herbs stalled at just 184 in the US Billboard 200 and dropped out of the chart after just five weeks. However, it was a start and gave Dr John as he became known as something to build on. He released three more albums on Atco Records Dr John’s Gumbo, In the Right Place and Desitively Bonnaroo which came out in 1974. The seven albums that Dr John released on Atco Records snow different sides to his music which continued to evolve over a six-year period.
Between 1968 and 1974 Dr John released what was some of the finest music of a long and illustrious career. Sadly, for much of his Atco Records’ years critics, record buyers and some of the people who ran and staffed the record label didn’t “get” Dr John. He was a musical visionary who was way ahead of his time and it was only later that albums that critics and record buyers understood and appreciated albums like Babylon and The Sun and Moon and Herbs.
It’s a case of sit back and enjoy what’s without doubt one of Dr John The Night Tripper’s finest albums The Sun and Moon and Herbs. It’s a reminder of what’s now regarded as a golden era for Dr John who for six years could do no wrong. He enjoyed a career that spanned six decades and sadly, Dr John passed away on the ‘6th’ of July 2019. That day when a true musical legend was taken from us aged just seventy-seven, and sadly, there will never be anyone quite like Dr John, a charismatic showman, musical visionary who supremely-talented singer, songwriter and piano player par excellence as The Sun, Moon and Herbs shows.
Cult Classic: Dr John The Night Tripper-The Sun, Moon and Herbs.