CLASSIC ALBUM: DR JOHN-IN THE RIGHT PLACE.
Classic Album: Dr John-In The Right Place.
Very few musicians or bands can be accurately described as an overnight success. That is something that hardly ever exists except in the minds of a few tabloid journalists . The reality is that most bands need to do the hard yards and hone their sound before commercial success comes their way. That was the case with Dr John.
Commercial success eluded him until he released his fourth album The Sun, Moon and Herbs on August the ’31st’ 1971. That was despite him having already released future classics like Gris Gris and Babylon. Sadly, neither album was a commercial success and it was only much later that critics reappraised both albums and they started to find a wider audience. However, The Sun, Moon and Herbs fared better spending five weeks on the US Billboard 200 peaking at 184 . It was a start for Dr John, and something he could build on.
Things improved when Dr John’s Gumbo was released on April the ’20th’ 1972, and spent eleven weeks on the US Billboard 200 reaching reached 112. Gradually, Dr John’s music was starting to find the wider audience it deserved.
When he released his sixth album In the Right Place on the ‘25th’ of February 1973 it was a gamechanger and transformed Dr John’s career. Not only was did it become his biggest selling album, it featured his biggest hit single which became one of his classic songs. Those that were unaware of the Dr John story and didn’t know that the thirty-one year old had been a professional musician since he was thirteen.
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 inspired 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, 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 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.
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 Sun, Moon and Herbs.
Despite Dr John’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.
They were responsible for a dark and swampy sounding album that is rich in imagery and paints 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, but this time, The Sun, Moon and Herbs which featured an all-star cast, spent five weeks in US Billboard 200 and peaked at 184. At last, Dr John’s music was starting to find a wider audience.
Dr John’s Gumbo.
Buoyed by the success of The Sun, Moon and Herbs, Dr John decided to record an album of cover versions for his fifth album. These weren’t just any cover versions. Instead, they were covers of what were New Orleans’ classics. These tracks became Dr John’s Gumbo.
The recording took place at Sound City Studios, in LA with Dr John playing guitar, piano, cornet and taking charge of the vocals. He was joined by drummer and percussionist Fred Staehle, bassist Jimmy Calhoun and guitarist Ken Klimak. They were joined by percussionist Richard Washington, a horn section plus backing vocalists Shirley Goodman, Tammy Lann, Robbie Montgomery and Jessica Smith. Producing Dr John’s Gumbo were Harold Battiste and Jerry Wexler.
They produced what was Dr John’s tribute to the music of the city of his birth. It was a very different album to his four previous releases. Dr John’s Gumbo marked a move away from what his persona Dr John The Night Tripper. Some critics didn’t understand Dr John’s musical alter ego and certainly didn’t “get” the voodoo references. Despite that, he had a cult following. That was about to change.
When Dr John’s Gumbo was released critics called it one of Dr John’s finest albums. They preferred and understood the music on the album which was much more straightforward, accessible and steeped in New Orleans’ R&B traditions. Especially, tracks like Iko Iko, Dr John’s new composition Somebody Changed The Lock, Mess Around, Let The Good Times Roll, Junko Partner, Those Lonely Lonely Nights and the Huey Smith Medley. These songs were part of what was akin to a homage to the Big Easy that showcased Dr John’s considerable talents. It was also Dr John’s most accessible album.
Dr John’s Gumbo was released on April the ‘20th’ 1972, it spent and spent seven weeks in the US Billboard 200. On June the ‘24th’ 1972 it reached 112 in the US Billboard 200 and became Dr John’s most successful album. However, that would change with the release of his next album In The Right Place.
In The Right Place.
Following the success of Dr. John’s Gumbo, Dr John began work on the followup album which eventually became In The Right Place. It was a very different album from its predecessor which was an album of covers of New Orleans’ classics. The only song that Mac Rebennack aka Dr John had written was Somebody Changed the Lock. This time things were different.
Mac Rebennack had penned seven new songs for his sixth album including Right Place, Wrong Time, Same Old Same Old, Just the Same, Life, Such A Night, Shoo Fly Marches On and Cold, Cold, Cold. He joined forces with Jessie Hill to write Qualified and the pair wrote I Been Hoodood with Alvin Robinson. The other two tracks were covers and included James Waynes’ Travelling Mood and Allen Toussaint’s Life. These eleven tracks became In The Right Place which was recorded in Miami, Florida.
Dr John travelled to Criteria Studios, in Miami, where he recorded In The Right Place with songwriter, musician, arranger and producer Allen Toussaint. He was one of the most influential figures in the New Orleans’ music scene and was able to bring out the best in Dr John. Especially with The Meters acting as his backing band. Their lineup included drummer Joseph Modeliste, bassist George Porter Jr, lead guitarist and organist Art Neville. They were joined by The Bonaroo Horn Section, Gary Brown on acoustic and electric saxophone and Allen Toussaint who showcased his versatility as he switched between a variety of instruments. Adding backing vocals were Jessie Smith and Robbie Montgomery while percussionist Ralph MacDonald and David Spinozza made guest appearances. They augmented the all-star band that accompanied Dr John on In The Right Place as Allen Toussaint took charge of production. He was the perfect foil for Dr John and the result was one of his finest albums.
Once In The Right Place was completed, Dr John and Allen Toussaint returned to the Big Easy and Atco began preparing for the release of In The Right Place.
It was a fusion of blues, funk and New Orleans R&B. There’s also elements of gospel, jazz, New Orleans rock, soul and voodoo funk on another Dr John album where musical genres melted into one.
That was the case with the album opener Right Place, Wrong Time. It bursts into life and there’s a degree of urgency as funk, New Orleans R&B, rocky guitar licks and soulful, soaring backing vocals combine and accompany Dr John on a track that would become a classic and a staple of his live shows. Same Old Same Old has a slow, moody and swampy sound that features on previous albums. This is the backdrop for a despairing vocal about the mundane reality everyday life and especially the 9-5 grind. Very different and quite beautiful is the ballad Just The Same where gospel-tinged and soulful harmonies accompany the heartfelt vocal. Then as Qualified unfolds Dr John showcases his peerless piano playing before he and his all-star band deliver a breathtaking performance. They combine funk, jazz, New Orleans R&B, rock and soul on a track that has made in the Big Easy by Dr John and has his name written all over it. Traveling Mood is a tale of love gone wrong which still swings. Horns punctuate the arrangement which features a complex bass line as Dr John’s piano plays a leading role as he contemplates his future. The tempo drops and the Dr is accompanied by soulful backing vocalists as he delivers his message Peace Brother Peace “all over the world.”
It’s a cover of Allen Toussaint’s Life that opens the second side, and gives way to another Dr John classic, Such A Night. This hook-laden song is instantly recognisable and is without doubt one of his finest and most popular songs. Just like it Right Place, Wrong Time it was always on the setlist when Dr John played live. Shoo Fly Marches On is another genre-melting track where blues, funk, jazz and R&B combine with a searing a rocky guitar and soulful harmonies. They’re the perfect accompaniment to the lived-in and impassioned vocal on a track that was way ahead of its time. I Been Hoodood has a moody, swampy sound that is best described as voodoo funk and is one of the album’s highlights. Cold Cold Cold features a vocal full of hurt from Dr John who discovers his partner has been cheating on him. Soaring harmonies, horns, washes of Hammond organ and piano accompany his soul-baring vocal on this tale of love gone wrong. It brought to a close In The Right Place which was a gamechanger of an album.
Critics on hearing In The Right Place which was a fusion of funk, blues and New Orleans R&B hailed the album as one of his finest. Later, the album would regarded as one of Dr John’s classic albums and the album that transformed his career.
Right Place, Wrong Time was released by Atco as the lead single from In The Right Place and it gave Dr John the biggest single of his career. It reached nine on the US Billboard 100, six in Canada and ninety-eight in Australia. Then when In The Right Place was released on February the ’25th’ 1973, it spent thirty-three weeks on the US Billboard 200 and peaked at twenty-four on June the ’23rd’ 1973. This meant that In The Right Place was the most successful album of Dr John’s career.
What Ahmet Ertegun had foolishly described as: “boogaloo crap” just a few years earlier, was now proving profitable for his company. Dr John was having the last laugh. In The Right Place was the sixth of seven albums that Dr John released via 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. That describes perfectly the music on his first four albums Gris Gris, Babylon, Remedies and The Sun, Moon and Herbs.
Ironically when he returned to what was a much more traditional R&B sound for his fifth album Dr John’s Gumbo, Dr John enjoyed the most successful album of his career. That was until he followed this up with In The Right Place which featured two classic tracks Right Place, Wrong Time and Such A Night. They would go on to become staples of his live sets over the next four decades. They would prove eventful for Dr John.
He only released one further album for Atco, and that was Desitively Bonnaroo on the ‘8th’ of April 1974. It was the much-anticipated followup to In The Right Place. It was also produced by Allen Toussaint and found The Meters backing Dr John. However, the album only spent eight weeks on the US Billboard 200 and peaked at 105 on June the ‘1st’ 1974. This brought the curtain down on Dr John’s Atco Records’ years.
Nowadays, the Atco Records’ years are regarded as a golden era in Dr John’s career which lasted six decades. One of the finest albums of Dr John’s Atco Records’ is In the Right Place a genre-melting epic produced by Allen Toussaint who coaxed, cajoled and brought out the best in Dr John and in the process transformed his career.
Dr John enjoyed a long and illustrious career, and released thirty studio albums and nine live albums. He also won six Grammy Awards and was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2011. However, 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.
Sadly, Dr John passed away on June the ‘6th’ 2019 aged just seventy-seven. Dr John was a truly talented and versatile musician who was a mercurial maverick who left behind a rich musical legacy. This includes the seven albums he recorded during his Atco Records years which includes his classic album In The Right Place which was Dr John’s most successful album and introduced his music to a much wider audience. .
Classic Album: Dr John-In The Right Place.