Dr John’s latter-day reputation as an avuncular ivory-tinkling presence on the margins of pop culture, liable to pop up on TV every so often to sing a good-humoured rendition of Iko-Iko, before disappearing back to Louisiana to play ragtime piano in a bar, is at serious odds with his early music.
Dr John was born Malcolm John Rebennack in, of course, New Orleans in 1941. He was a promising guitar player, beginning to make his way in the local music industry, until an accident with a gun (he was trying to disarm someone holding up his friend and the gun went off) left him with a damaged ring finger on his fretting hand. Unable to regain the feeling and movement needed to play guitar as he had previously, he switched to piano, and developed a style indebted to Professor Longhair.
During a couple of years of session playing in LA, he cooked up an idea. What could you do by mixing up jazz and R&B and rock with voodoo mythology and a theatrical, Screaming Jay Hawkins-style stage show? He decided, after pondering a while, that you could do quite a lot, and his old friend Harold Battiste (who was an oboe player and arranger for Phil Spector) agreed.
Rebennack wanted another friend, Robbie Barron, to assume the Dr John persona, but Barron’s manager convinced him it would be a bad career move. So Rebennack, clad in a headdress that would never go over these days, took on the role of Dr John himself. His creation, Dr John Creaux, was a sort of witch doctor/voodoo priest, presiding over a band made up of LA session pros, some of whom were fellow NOLA transplants.
Gris Gris, Dr John’s debut album, was recorded at Gold Star in Los Angeles, where Spector and the Beach Boys did much of their work, but it could scarcely be further away in sound or mood from sunny LA pop. With its sound world of mandolin, bass clarinet, multitudinous percussion instruments, snaky bass grooves and sparing use of keyboards and electric guitars, the songs on Gris Gris sound like the accompaniment to a sinister ritual taking place deep in the Bayou Sauvage. Backing singers chant incantations and Rebennack slips in and out of English and Cajun French, as he wheedles you into trying his potions and gris gris, warning you all the time not to cross him. Three of the album’s seven tracks are eerie quasi-instrumentals with vocal chants.
Mama Roux is one of the album’s two relatively traditional songs – the tracks with the most connection to what Rebennack has done since his fifth album, Dr John’s Gumbo, remade his image and sound and cast him as a more cuddly, good-time kind of figure (I’d love it if he’d gone back to his voodoo-doctor roots when asked to provide the theme to the TV show Blossom, but alas no). The rhythm track isn’t straight two-and-four stuff on a drum kit (like the other songs on the record, it puts equal weight on shakers, congas, timbales, talking drums and other assorted percussion), and the ridiculously deep bass comes from organ pedals rather than a bass guitar, but it’s essentially an R&B tune at heart. If you like the weird edge it has, check out the whole album. It’s one of a kind.