CLASSIC ALBUM: DR JOHN-DR JOHN’S GUMBO.
Classic Album: Dr John-Dr John’s Gumbo.
Success didn’t come overnight for the late, great Dr John. His first three albums failed to chart and his fourth album The Sun, Moon and Herbs stalled at 184 in the US Billboard 200 in August 1971. This was progress for one of music’s great survivors. He was on his way and returned in April 1972 with his breakthrough album Dr John’s Gumbo. By then, Dr John was thirty-one and was into his third decade as a musician.
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 for his fifth album. These weren’t just any cover versions. Instead , they were billed as an album of covers of New Orleans’ classics. These tracks became Dr John’s Gumbo which was produced by Harold Battiste and Jerry Wexler and ironically, was recorded in Los Angeles.
For his fifth album, Mac Rebennack aka Dr John wrote Somebody Changed The Lock which joined eleven other New Orleans classics. This included the traditional song Stack-A-Lee; Professor Longhair’s Tipitina; James “Sugar Boy” Crawford’s Iko Iko; Earl Gaines’ Big Chief; Bob Shad’s Junko Partner; Ahmet Ertegun’s Mess Around; Huey “Piano” Smith and Izzy Cougarden’s Blow Wind Blow and Earl King wrote Let the Good Times Roll and cowrote Those Lonely Lonely Nights with Johnny Vincent. He cowrote Little Liza Jane with Huey Piano Smith and the medley of High Blood Pressure, Don’t You Just Know It and Well I’ll Be John Brown. These tracks became were recorded in LA and 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, 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.
Dr John’s Gumbo was the fifth 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. Ironically when he returned to what was a much more traditional R&B sound on Dr John’s Gumbo he enjoyed the most successful album of his career. It’s also one of the finest albums of not just Dr John’s Atco Records’ years but a career that spanned six decades.
During what was a long and illustrious career, Dr John had released thirty studio albums and nine live albums. He 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 a truly talented and maverick musician left behind a rich musical legacy which includes the seven albums he recorded during his Atco Records years including one of his finest and most accessible, Dr John’s Gumbo, which is ranked at number 404 on Rolling Stone magazine’s list of the 500 greatest albums of all time, and is the perfect introduction to a musical legend.
Classic Album: Dr John-Dr John’s Gumbo.