CULT CLASSIC: DR JOHN-REMEDIES.
Cult Classic: Dr John-Remedies.
Although Dr John eventually won six Grammy Awards and was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in March 2011, commercial success and critical acclaim didn’t come overnight for the great showman who released thirty studio albums and nine live albums during a career that spanned six decades where his music fell in and out of fashion. Dr John it’s safe to say enjoyed a roller coaster career and made an impression on anyone who saw him live.
His theatrical stage show was inspired by medicine shows, Mardi Gras costumes and voodoo ceremonies while his inimitable genre-melting sound was a fusion of blues, boogie-woogie, funk, jazz, pop, R&B and rock ’n’ roll. Dr John in full flow was a spellbinding sight as he mixed music and theatre. However, it took time for Dr John’s albums to find the audience they deserved.
Dr John’s first three albums failed to trouble the charts. This included his third album Remedies which was released by Atco on April the ‘9th’ 1970. It was a frustrating time for twenty-nine year old Dr John who must have wondered whether Atco was the right label for him? He was releasing music that was variously ambitious, dark, otherworldly, powerful and poignant. However, very few people had heard his first three albums including Remedies which was the latest chapter in the Dr John story.
The future Dr John was born Malcolm John “Mac” Rebennack Jr, on November the ‘20th’ 1940, in New Orleans, Louisiana. He grew up in the Third Ward of New Orleans, and music was always around him.
His father Malcolm John Rebennack ran an appliance shop in the East End of New Orleans, where he repaired radio and televisions and sold records. He introduced his son to the music of King Oliver and Louis Armstrong. However, one of the people who inspired Mac Rebennack was his grandfather who he heard singing minstrel songs. So did hearing his aunts, uncles, cousins and sister playing the piano. Despite this, Mac Rebennack wasn’t inspired to take music lessons.
This only came later when he was a teenager. He also joined a choir, but was soon asked to leave. However, over the next few years Mac Rebennack learnt to play the guitar and later piano, and through his father’s contacts in the local music scene was soon playing alongside some well known names including Guitar Slim and Little Richard. This was just the start for Mac Rebennack.
When he was thirteen, he met Professor Longhair and he was instantly impressed by the flamboyant showman. Mac Rebennack was soon playing alongside his new hero, and this was the start of his professional career.
Around 1955 or 1956, Mac Rebennack made his debut in the recording studio when he was signed as a singer and songwriter by Eddie Mesner at Aladdin Records. The future Dr John’s career was underway and towards the end of 1957 with the help of Danny Kessler, he joined the musician’s union. That was when he considered himself to be a professional musician.
By the time he was sixteen, Mac Rebennack had been hired by Johnny Vincent at Ace Records as a producer. This led to him working with Earl King, James Booker and Jimmy Clayton. This was all good experience for the young, up-and-coming musician
Despite his new career, Mac Rebennack was still a student at Jesuit High School. This didn’t stop him playing in night clubs and forming his first band The Dominoes. The Jesuit fathers weren’t happy with Mac Rebennack’s lifestyle and issued him with an ultimatum. He was to either stop playing in nightclubs or leave the school. Not long after this, he was expelled from the school. It turned out to be the best thing that happened to him as he was able to concentrate on music full time.
By the late-fifties, Mac Rebennack was playing with various bands in and around New Orleans. This included his own band Mac Rebennack and The Skyliners. However, the young bandleader had also embarked upon a career as a songwriter.
In 1957 Mac Rebennack cowrote his first ever rock ’n’ roll song Lights Out. It was recorded by New Orleans based singer Jerry Byrne, and released on Specialty Records later in 1957 and give him a regional hit.
Two years later, in 1959, Mac Rebennack also enjoyed a regional hit single when he released Storm Warning, a Bo Diddley insprired instrumental, on Rex Records. This was the first hit he enjoyed in a long, illustrious and eventful career.
After Storm Warning, Mac Rebennack and Charlie Miller joined forces and recorded singles for various local labels. This included Ace, Ron, and Ric. They continued to release singles until Charlie Miller decided to move to New York to study music. Mac Rebennack stayed in the Big Easy and continued his career.
Around 1960, Mac Rebennack was playing a gig in Jacksonville, Florida, when his career was changed forevermore. That night, his ring finger on his left hand was injured by a gun shot during an incident. This was a disaster for a right handed guitarist and when he recovered he made the switch to bass guitar. However, after a while Mac Rebennack switched to the instrument he made his name playing, the piano.
Soon, Mac Rebennack had developed a style that was influenced by Professor Longhair who he had met when he was thirteen. It looked as if this was a new chapter in Mac Rebennack’s musical career.
That wasn’t the case and Mac Rebennack ended up getting involved in the dark underbelly of The Big Easy. He was using and selling illegal drugs and at one point, running a brothel. It was almost inevitable that Mac Rebennack was going to have a brush with the law.
He did. In 1963, when Mac Rebennack was arrested on drug charges and sentenced to two years in the Federal Correctional Institution, in Fort Worth, Dallas. By the time his sentence ended and he was released in 1965, New Orleans was a different place.
There had been a campaign to rid the city of its clubs, which meant that musicians like Mac Rebennack found it hard to find work. That was why he decided to move to LA where he knew he could find work as a session musician.
It turned out to be a good decision, and it wasn’t long before Mac Rebennack was one of the first call session musicians in LA. That was the case for the rest of sixties and the seventies. He was also a member of the legendary Wrecking Crew and worked with some of the biggest names in music. This was the new start Mac Rebennack had been looking for when he left New Orleans.
Growing up Mac Rebennack had developed an interest in New Orleans voodoo. This was something he revisited during his early years in LA when he began to develop the concept of Dr John, which initially he thought could be a persona for his friend Ronnie Barron. The concept was based on the life of Dr John, a Senegalese prince, a witch doctor, herbalist and spiritual healer who travelled to New Orleans from Haiti. He was a free man of colour who lived on Bayou Road, and claimed to have fifteen wives and over fifty children. It was believed Dr John also kept a variety of lizards, snakes, embalmed scorpions as well as animal and human skulls, and sold gris-gris, voodoo amulets which were meant to protect the wearer from harm. This Mac Rebennack incorporated into the project he was working on for Ronnie Barron.
Soon, Mac Rebennack had decided to write, produce and play on an album and stage show based on his concept with Dr John emblematic of New Orleans’ heritage. It was meant to feature Ronnie Barron. However, when he dropped out of the project Man Rebennack took over the role and adopted the identity of Dr John. This was a turning point in the life and career of the man born Mac Rebennack.
Dr John became the name that he found fame as and won five Grammy Awards. However, that was still to come.
Having adopted the moniker Dr John,The Night Tripper he was signed by Atco Records and recorded his debut album Gris Gris. It was his his own “voodoo medicine” and marked the start of what’s now regarded as a golden era for Dr John.
When a copy of Dr John’s debut album Gris Gris, which 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.
Gris Gris 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.
This included his sophomore album Babylon on January the ’17th’ 1969. It was a powerful, cerebral and innovative genre-melting album which socially had much in common with Dr John’s debut album Gris Gris.
Sadly, 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, and having managed to put his problems behind him, Dr John was discharged from the psychiatric ward. By then, he was worried about violating his parole and ending up back in jail. Especially the infamous Louisiana State Penitentiary, where one of his friends Tangleye had spent forty years.
When Tangleye was released he told Dr John: “I’m gonna sell you this song. Got it in Angola, but ain’t nobody ever cut this song.” This was Angola Anthem which he recorded during the Remedies sessions. It featured on the second side of the album. Forty years after he recorded the song Dr John said: ” Even now guys I know getting out of Angola know this song. It’s still a horrible place to be.”
Having bought Angola Anthem Dr John wrote the other five songs 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. They’re very different to Angola Anthem which became an eighteen minute epic that took up all of side two of Remedies. Just like the rest 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 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.
The songs on side one were loose, swampy, expressive and lysergic and as Dr John delivers photo raps, humorous rhymes and uses New Orleans’ street slang and lyrics that are full of innuendo. As he chants and raps his incantations take on a mysterious and otherworldly sound. It’s a spellbinding and inimitable sound. Meanwhile, the rhythms were funky, fluid and slinky as the horns bray and blaze lazily through an acidic haze. Then on side two there’s the eighteen minute epic Angola Anthem where Dr John retails the terror of life in the Louisiana State Penitentiary. This he does against a backdrop that features Afrobeat inspired drumming and understated instrumental parts that add to the drama, horror and terror of forty years in the pen. This was a powerful and poignant way to close Remedies which Dr John hoped would be his breakthrough album.
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.
Remedies was the third of seven albums that Dr John released for Atco Records between 1968 and 1974. While these albums weren’t always appreciated or understood by critics, they’re now regarded as part of what was a golden era for Dr John.
He was at his creative zenith during his Atco Records years and was often misunderstood even by the supposed experts who ran the label. It was only much later that critics reappraised the albums that Dr John released for Atco Records and realised that he was recording and releasing ambitious, imaginative and innovative albums of genre-melting music.
This included Remedies which was one of the finest of the seven albums that Dr John released while signs to Atco Record. It’s also one of the best albums of a career that spanned six decades. It was long and sometimes illustrious career. Other times, it was a roller coaster career lows following highs.
It wasn’t always been smooth sailing for Dr John who battled heroin addiction but eventually he conquered his demons and continued to released albums and tour. By the time of his death on June the ‘6th’ 2019 aged just seventy-seven, Dr John had released thirty studio albums and nine live albums. This includes the seven albums he recorded during the six years he was signed to Atco Records. Looking back, these albums set the bar high for the rest of Dr John’s career.
It was only much later when Dr John’s Atco albums were reappraised that critics and cultural commentators realised their importance and what he was trying to achieve. Dr John was way ahead of his time, which and is part of the reason why his first three albums, including Remedies failed to find an audience. On its release, Remedies passed record buyers by and critics failed to understand what’s nowadays regarded as one of the finest and most ambitious albums Dr John released on Atco. Remedies showcases Dr John’s inimitable genre-melting sound and is part of his rich musical legacy and is a reminder of a truly talented, maverick musician and flamboyant showman during what was one of the most productive periods of his six decade career.
Cult Classic: Dr John-Remedies.