Sunday, June 6, 2010

Such A Night, Dr. John (1973)

If I don't do it, somebody else will. - Dr. John

Here we are again watching New Orleans in the eye of another storm, this time one that is an unnatural disaster of mammoth proportions and that likely will have consequences as unfathomable as the depths of the ocean floor where the catastrophe lurks. 

As they always do, the musicians of NOLA are responding with everything they've got, and one who's on my radar screen right now thanks to his dazzling appearance performing Such A Night in The Last Waltz is Mac Rebennack, aka Dr. John. It's not that typical of me to have a wide smile pasted on my face, but there are exceptions to everything. What a sweetheart.  And once again, I knew next to nothing about him, except that he is a contemporary of another local jewel, Allen Toussaint. 

Dr. John came on the Big Easy scene early when as a youth he began hanging around in the recording studios of Cosimo Matassa, who helped put the New Orleans sound on the map and launched many careers. Then a guitarist, Dr. John's constant presence led to his sitting in on the sessions of Professor Longhair and Joe Tex alongside more seasoned musicians such as Red Tyler and Earl Palmer.

Paying his dues all around the Gulf, his guitarist gig was cut short when he intervened in a fight involving a friend and his left index finger was nearly shot off.  Not one to cry over spilt milk, he merely reinvented himself as a piano and keyboard player. In the early 60's the city was reeling under the iron fist of District Attorney Jim Garrison, who was cracking down on anything he deemed to be morally corrupt.  This had a chilling effect on the bar and club scene in town, so many musicians said "westward ho" and repaired to California.  There, Dr. John became a much-sought-after session player. 

Legend has it that Sonny and Cher gave him some free studio time at the end of the sessions he worked on, and in 1968 he cranked out the tracks that became his first album, Gris-Gris, melding the influences of his roots with a bit of California psychedelia. It didn't do at all well at the time, although much later it became the darling of the critics, and today is on Rolling Stone's Best Of ... album list.

It wasn't until 1973 that he hit the jackpot with the mondo-funky Right Place, Wrong Time (produced by Toussaint), and people outside the music industry took notice. For whatever reason, he never gained much momentum from that (Such A Night charted but not as highly), at least not on a mainstream basis.

But he has never been at a loss for friends, and he headed for Houston, where he and the notorious record producer Huey Meaux of SugarHill Studios (the impresario who made Doug Sahm a star with Sir Douglas Quintet) laid down the original recording of the album The Night Tripper (his nickname), which is out of print but available for 14.20 pounds on UK eBay. Meaux also captured tracks that weren't released for decades - first as Dr. John: The Crazy Cajun Recordings and again as Hoodoo: The Collection. (Meaux's vaults became a gold mine from which master tapes were licensed to British labels by his accountants to pay off the debts from his conviction on various drug and sex offenses.) 

Dr. John's musical style is a true gumbo of influences that I don't feel merits the attempt to describe it in a neat little package. It's eclectic and versatile, and often described in terms of voodoo. I don't know what that's supposed to mean. He's had a very uneven career, but over the years, he's written film scores, won Grammy awards, played in front of and behind a long list of rock luminaries, produced and arranged the work of others, been a New Orleans booster and railed against the various injustices it's endured, and has lately become involved in the David Simon HBO series Treme (said Simon, "This guy has the whole history of New Orleans music in his head").

His last album City That Care Forgot, with his band The Lower 911, is a blues beauty. When that was nominated for a Grammy (it won), he said, "If it helps anybody down there to get any of their piss-offedness out, if it helps anybody down there in any way - good.  This is a record I just could not not do. I couldn't have lived with myself if I didn't make this record." Doing press in conjunction with a May 17 benefit, Dr. John vented his rage over the current state of affairs in a James Carville-like outburst. One can only imagine what will emerge from him musically in connection with this latest devastation of his beloved home.


Holly A Hughes said...

Beautiful post. I love how succinctly you summarize his motley career!

Wade said...

I'm ashamed to say "Iko" was pretty much the sum total of my Dr. J knowledge. I'm definitely going to dig into him now.