1968: When Mac Rebennack first conjured Dr. John
When the album “Gris-Gris” landed in record stores and on radio in 1968, many listeners weren’t quite sure what to make of Dr. John — aka “the Night Tripper” — and the heady, swirling, smoky musical concoction he had laid down for his first album. Even beyond the music, who was this guy, with his feathered, Mardi Gras Indian headdresses, his sunglasses, his various and sundry voodoo trinkets and scaly, serpentine accoutrements? He was New Orleans native Mac Rebennack, a session musician living in Los Angeles who had brought together a colorful array of musicians, and, with their aid, created one of the most enduring statements of both psychedelic rock and New Orleans R&B and funk. He also birthed the legendary, eternal Dr. John persona, a genuine New Orleans article who, perhaps more than any white musician before or since, captured the city’s various black and Caribbean musical traditions and presented them to the world.
Dr. John has firmly cemented his place in the firmament of legendary, influential piano players and soulful singers from New Orleans. In the tradition of Fess, Fats, Huey, Booker, Bo and Toussaint, Dr. John is nearly 50 years out from “Gris-Gris,” and he’s since traversed the world, as well as just about the entire blues, R&B, jazz, funk and pop landscape over dozens of albums and just as many collaborations and session gigs with other legendary musicians. With six Grammys in his sack of voodoo goodies, and following the 2015 death of Allen Toussaint, Dr. John — who was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame by John Legend in 2011 — is now the elder statesman, the symbol and embodiment of New Orleans boogie piano and tuneful traditions.
- What’s Dr. John’s last name? According to the songwriting credits on “Gris-Gris,” it’s Creaux.
- Among those influenced by Dr. John was “The Muppets” creator Jim Henson, who is said to have modeled his Dr. Teeth character — a hip, befeathered, gravelly voiced piano player — partly on Rebennack’s alter ego.
- Although it’s since been re-packaged, re-mastered and re-released numerous times, “Gris-Gris” was originally issued on the Atco label, a subsidiary of Atlantic Records, as release No. SD-33-234.
- So what’s “gris gris” mean, anyway? They are traditional West African protection charms with magical qualities designed to protect the wearer. Gris gris were brought with slaves to the New World, including what’s now Louisiana, via Haiti, and transitioned into voodoo talismans. However, gris gris is also used to describe the folk magic and spiritual beliefs that blend black and white influences, which is where the album name “Gris-Gris” came from.
- Rebennack adopted his now-famous alter ego from a mid-19th-century New Orleans hoodoo worker named Dr. John, a contemporary of Marie Laveau. For the recording of “Gris-Gris” and Rebennack’s late-1960s shows, the entire band had similar names. Rebennack originally wanted his friend and collaborator Ronnie Barron to assume the role of Dr. John in the band, but when Barron backed out, Rebennack — with his seductive, playful growl of a voice — assumed the role instead.
- “Gris-Gris” was recorded at the famed Gold Star Studios in Los Angeles, where legendary producer/convicted murderer Phil Spector worked his Wall of Sound wizardry, and where dozens of other big-name artists, from Sonny & Cher to Iron Butterfly, cut some of their most popular work. With its odd dimensions and unusual materials, Gold Star offered a reverb-drenched echo chamber that was perfectly suited for the eerie vibe of “Gris-Gris.”
- Pioneering New Orleans record executive/musician/educator Harold Battiste produced the album while he, like Dr. John, was living in L.A. Battiste made his name in the late 1950s and early ’60s, when he worked with on soul legend Sam Cooke’s eternal tracks “You Send Me” and “A Change Is Gonna Come.”
- Performing background vocals on “Gris-Gris” were two other Big Easy musical stalwarts, Shirley Goodman and Jessie Hill. In the 1950s, Goodman was one half of the “Sweethearts of the Blues,” Shirley & Lee (of “Let the Good Times Roll” fame) before finding success as a disco singer in the 1970s. Goodman also sang backup on the Rolling Stones’ “Exile on Main Street,” another masterpiece rock record.
- Jessie Hill, meanwhile, scored his biggest fame with “Ooh Poo Pah Doo” in 1959, which went on to become a blues and R&B standard, as well as a signature Mardi Gras song in New Orleans. When Hill died in 1996, Dr. John honored the memory and legacy of his long-time friend and collaborator when the Night Tripper played a series of shows at the New Orleans House of Blues in September of that year. In addition to a horns-punctuated version of “Ooh Poo Pah Doo,” Dr. John also performed Professor Longhair’s “Cabbage Head” in homage of Hill’s tenure as a drummer for Fess.
- The most enduring track on “Gris-Gris” is probably its closer, “I Walk on Gilded Splinters.” Clocking in at nearly eight minutes, “Splinters” is dreamy, viscous and haunting, an epic that serves as a snapshot of a bountiful, emerging talent in its embryonic stage. Rolling Stone reviewer Tom Moon called it in 1999 “a masterpiece of vibe that has retained its aura even after being sampled and covered every which way. An ambling processional framed by a simple pentatonic guitar melody, it’s everything you want in voodoo music: a feast of pummeling drums, swirling ethereal voices and the patient, mumbled incantations of Dr. John, all coalescing into the sound of a solemn, revelatory ritual.”
- Legendary Atlantic Records executive Ahmet Ertegun reportedly was not pleased when he first heard “Gris-Gris,” leading to speculation he might yank its release. Ertegun is alleged to have exclaimed, “How can we market this boogaloo crap?” Fortunately, he relented.
In 1968, music fans and critics were both enraptured and puzzled by “Gris-Gris.” New York Times critic Albert Goldman said of the seminal album, “Dr. John intones his voodoo spells in a lazy, sexy sinister drawl before a musical scrim of swamp bottom burbles and water bug glissandos.” Today, the album is an acknowledged masterpiece, with Rolling Stone placing it at No. 143 of the magazine’s 500 greatest albums of all time, and allmusic.com writer Thom Jurek giving it a perfect five out of five stars, commenting that the platter is “among the most enduring recordings of the psychedelic era; it sounds as mysterious and spooky in the 21st century as it did in 1968.”