CULT CLASSIC: DR JOHN-IN A SENTIMENTAL MOOD.
Cult Classic: Dr John-In A Sentimental Mood.
There aren’t many musicians who enjoy the longevity that the late, great Dr John enjoyed. His career lasted the best part of sixty years and he released thirty studio albums and nine live albums. Dr John also won six Grammy Awards and was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2011. By then, his music which influenced thousands of musicians was enjoying a resurgence in popularity.
It hadn’t always been smooth sailing for Dr John who had battled heroin addiction and eventually conquered his demons. Sometimes, his music fell out of favour and Dr John went back to working as a session musician. That was how he spent much of the eighties, when he only released three albums including In A Sentimental Mood, which shows a different side to Dr John and marked a return to form from one of music’s great survivors.
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, 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 of New Orleans’ classics for his fifth album Dr John’s Gumbo. It was produced by Harold Battiste and Jerry Wexler and ironically given Dr John’s Gumbo featured tracks by legends some of the New Orleans’ musical legends including Professor Longhair, Huey “Piano” Smith, James “Sugar Boy” Crawford and Dr John the album was recorded in LA. However, Dr John’s Gumbo was The Night Tripper’s most successful album.
Unlike previous albums, Dr John’s Gumbo was a much more straightforward album of R&B, and it found favour with critics. After Dr John’s Gumbo was released to critical acclaim, it reached entered the US Billboard 200 where it spent eleven weeks, peaking at 112. Dr John was on his way.
In The Right Place.
Following the success of Dr John’s Gumbo, Dr John headed 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 as he laid down songs of the quality of Right Place, Wrong Time, Same Old Same Old, Peace Brother Peace and Such A Night. Once In The Right Place was completed, the two men returned to the Big Easy and watched as Dr John’s popularity soared.
Critics on hearing In The Right Place which was a fusion of funk, blues and New Orleans R&B hailed the album was one of his finest. Record buyers agreed when In The Right Place was released on February the ’25th’ 1973 thirty-three weeks in the US Billboard 200 and peaked at twenty-four. 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.
The success of In The Right Place was a game-changer for Dr John, whose popularity soared. After six albums, he was enjoying the commercial success and critical acclaim his music deserved. However, Dr John knew that he would have to think about his seventh album, and began writing what became Desitively Bonnaroo.
When critics heard Desitively Bonnaroo they were once again won over by another carefully crafted album of funk and New Orleans R&B from Dr John. It was released on April the ‘8th’ 1974, spending eight weeks on the US Billboard 200 stalling at 105. Despite the quality of Desitively Bonnaroo it had failed to replicate the commercial success of In The Right Place, which must have been a huge disappointment for Dr John.
Sadly, Desitively Bonnaroo was the last album that Dr John released on the Atlantic Records imprint Atco, and was the end of a golden period for Dr John.
Hollywood Be Thy Name.
In 1975, Dr John’s manager Richard Flanzer, hired producer Bob Ezrin to produce a live album which became Hollywood Be Thy Name. It was recorded live at Cherokee Studios, in Los Angeles, which for one night only, was transformed into a New Orleans nightclub. The album was released later in 1975.
Hollywood Be Thy Name was released on October the ‘6th’ 1975. Critics weren’t won over by an album which was a mixture of original material and cover versions. To make matters worse for Dr John, the album wasn’t the commercial success his last three albums had been. Was this just a temporary blip?
Dr John didn’t return to the studio until 1978. By then, he had signed to Horizon, an imprint of A&M and recorded City Lights. It featured three of his own compositions and five he cowrote with various songwriting partners. These songs were recorded with a crack band of musicians and was a return to form from Dr John.
City Lights was released in February 1979, and was well received by critics. However, the album which featured everything from cool jazz, fusion, R&B and soul-jazz failed to find an audience. For Dr John this was another disappointment.
By the time Dr John released Tango Palace later in 1979 he was spending more of his time working as a session musician and had played keyboards on Rickie Lee Jones eponymous debut album. Now he was about to release his with studio album and tenth album overall.
When Tango Palace was released it wasn’t well received by critics who believed it was the weakest album of his career. This came as a blow to Dr John.
Dr John Plays Mac Rebennack.
The eighties began with the release of Dr John Plays Mac Rebennack in 1981. It featured many of his own boogie woogie compositions and showcased the Dr John’s piano playing. The rest of the eighties was a fallow period for Dr John until he released In A Sentimental Moon in 1989.
In A Sentimental Mood
After over a decade recording for smaller labels In A Sentimental Mood saw Dr John recording for a major label, Warner Bros. The sessions for the album took place in two prestigious recording studios, The Power Station in New York, and Los Angeles’ Ocean Way Studio. With a full string and horn section, and a tight band in tow, Dr John recorded some classic songs from yesteryear, including Makin’ Whoopee, Accentuate the Positive and Don’t Let the Sun Catch You Crying. These songs, and other classics, which feature on On In A Sentimental Mood, are reinterpreted by Dr John as he gives them his own unique twist.
In A Sentimental Mood opens with Makin’ Whoopee. It’s given the big band treatment by Dr John, slowed right down, and given a jazzy twist. Rickie Lee Jones sings the female part, as Dr John gives this old classic a new twist. With horns a blazing and drums pounding slowly, the song opens, giving way to Dr John’s tinkling piano. It’s only then that his raspy vocal enters, and you can almost imagine him singing the mildly suggestive lyrics with a big smile on his face. When Rickie Lee enters, her voice is sweet and coy, a real contrast to the Dr’s raspy, more powerful voice. Behind them, the strings sweep and horns rasp and blaze, the tempo slow, the arrangement swings and band play with power on what’s a welcome return to form for Dr John, one that hints at later albums, where he would cover classic by Duke Ellington and Johnny Mercer.
When you hear Dr John’s version of Candy there’s only one man that springs to mind, Ray Charles. Indeed, in the sleeve notes to the album, Dr John gives credit to Ray Charles and Charles Brown for their inspiration. This smoky sounding cover is a fitting testament and tribute to one of the giants of music. The tempo is slow, rasping horns and lush strings sweep and swirl as Dr John gives a beautiful and heartfelt rendition of the lyrics. His piano playing is sparse and jazz tinged, and when he and the piano drop out, the strings take his place. Here, the horns play second fiddle to the strings, with the strings playing a starring role. Of course, the other key ingredient is Dr John’s rasping vocal. Later a saxophone solo drifts above the arrangement, the rest of the horns playing with a subtly. Marty Paich’s arrangement of the strings and horns plays an important part in making this such a great song.
Johnny Mercer becomes the latest of the great songwriters Dr John pays tribute to on Accentuate The Positive. With high kicking horns almost marching through the track, accompanying Dr John’s gruff, rough and rocking vocal. He really gets the song swinging, after a slow and somewhat thoughtful introduction, where a meandering piano solo gives way to his earthy vocal. It’s only after that, that the song unfolds, transforming into a swinging, rocking number with the piano at the forefront and those high kicking horns rasping and adding drama. The combination is a potent and swinging one, that gets even better when a saxophone solo blows gloriously, as the song heads towards a dramatic crescendo.
One of the most beautiful songs on the album is My Buddy, co-written by Gus Kahn and Walter Donaldson. This song has a lovely, understated lush arrangement, with strings playing a major roll, while horns play a supporting roll. It’s just Dr John with his trusty piano that opens the track, with cymbals hissing gently in the background. When the strings enter, they’ve the lushest sound, a perfect accompaniment for Dr John’s thoughtful vocal and piano playing. Behind him a bass meanders, with the strings and later, gently rasping horns entering. Together, they produce a poignant and quite melancholy sound, one that
In A Sentimental Mood benefits from an understated arrangement, with the piano and lovely, lush strings combining as the track meanders along. It’s a song from a different age, gentle and beautiful, as it slowly reveals itself. A few jazzy flourishes from the piano accompany the swathes of strings that float above. During the song, Dr John’s piano playing is among the best on the album, as is Marty Paich’s string arrangement. Together with producer Tommy Lipuma, they combine to produce a beautiful, piano led track, that features swathes of lush strings.
Black Night finds Dr John upping the tempo, on a song written by Jessie Mae Robinson. Dramatic flourishes of piano and braying horns combine as the song opens, with Dr John demonstrating his talent and versatility as a pianist. When his vocal enters, it’s a downbeat and despondent Dr John we hear, as horns rasp and a bass makes its presence felt. The arrangement is full, and drama laden, horns swirling grandly, while the rhythm more than section play their part in the song’s success. By now, Dr John’s raspy voice is powerful, regret and sadness his only friends. As the arrangement reverberates, a combination of jazz players new and modern, including drummer Harvey Mason and bassist Abe Laboriel play their part in helping Dr John give an old song a new magical new twist.
One of the saddest songs on the album is a version of Joe Greene’s Don’t Let the Sun Catch You Crying. As strings swirl in, flourishes of dramatic piano, give way to a wistful vocal from the Dr John. With chiming guitars, strings and piano combining, the song meanders along, flourishes of piano escaping, while a butter and rueful Dr John delivers the lyrics. The arrangement taps into perfectly into the sadness of the lyrics, which have a melancholy, and almost bittersweet quality. Again the arrangement has a somewhat understated sound, relying on the strings, instead of horns. This works well, getting across perfectly the sadness and emotion in the lyrics, especially when delivered by Dr John.
When you talk about the greatest American songwriters of the first half of the twentieth century, then you can’t not mention Cole Porter. Similarly, Dr John couldn’t record an album featuring some of the greats of American songwriting and not cover a Cole Porter song. The one he chose was Love For Sale, choosing to transform the track, with some of his best piano playing on the album. Here he veers between some rollicking jazzy piano playing with flourishes of drama included, while strings sweep and swirl grandly, their sound vaguely reminding me of a movie soundtrack, while horns rasp and blaze, reverberating and the rhythm section provide a light sprinkling of funk. It’s a track that absolutely swings, and has an irresistible sound. Towards the end, Dr John almost raps over the arrangement, a brilliant track, just getting even better.
In A Sentimental Mood ends with More Than You Know, which opens with the wistful strings which have a real retro sound, in keeping with music. They give way to a thoughtful vocal from Dr John while his piano meanders along. He delivers the lyrics perfectly, with a tenderness and thoughtfulness. Above him, sits the strings, which float in and out of the arrangement, with Harvey Mason playing the drums with subtlety, forsaking sticks for brushes. Similarly, the bass meanders, the playing sparse, leaving flourishes of Dr John’s piano playing and his thoughtful vocal to take centre-stage, on what was a tender, beautiful and heartfelt delivery of the lyrics. This thoughtful and somewhat poignant and melancholy song seems the perfect way to end the album.
For anyone who has only experienced the music of Dr John’s vintage Atco Records years, the music on In A Sentimental Mood will come as something of a surprise when they hear it. It features a different side to Dr John’s music. He was a a musical chameleon who seamlessly could flit between musical genres Proof of that is In A Sentimental Mood which was very different to his previous albums.
In A Sentimental Mood is an album that was perfect for late night listening as Dr John revisits a different musical era with an all-star cast for company. Effortlessly Dr John transports the listener to another time and place during the album with his lived-in, worldweary vocal and peerless piano playing during In A Sentimental Mood.
During In A Sentimental Mood Dr John with a string and horn section in tow, transform nine standards, breathing new life and energy into them, as gives them his own unique twist. After In A Sentimental Mood his music continued to evolve, with aalbums rediscovering the music of Duke Ellington, Johnny Mercer and the wonderful music of New Orleans. That is no surprise.
Throughout his career, the late great Dr John was always an innovator, never afraid to try something new, sometimes, even becoming a contrarian. However, he always provided his many fans with some majestic and memorable music, which they’ll always cherish, and return to. This includes In A Sentimental Mood which marks a return to form from Dr John, and is a reminder of this flawed genius who is much missed.
Cult Classic: Dr John-In A Sentimental Mood.