The “Listen Again” series went over well enough here in the L.A. area that your favorite rockin’ record reviewer decided to follow the lead of some Los Angeles TV executives and do a spin-off. In this series we once more examine previously-released albums but the platters we shall peruse in this particular series will be (Rolling Stone magazine) five-star albums. This time we (ahem) examine Dr. John’s Gris-Gris.
But first, for those not up on their music history, Dr. John, born Malcolm John “Mac” Rebennack, Jr. on November 21, 1940, is also known as Dr. John Creaux and Dr. John the Night Tripper. He is an American singer-songwriter, guitarist and pianist. His signature sound utilizes elements of blues, boogie woogie, jazz, pop, rock and zydeco.
The 6-time Grammy winner entered the industry in the 1950s working as a New Orleans session musician. Drug problems and the law would force him to relocate to Los Angeles in 1965. A few years later he would gain a cult following thanks to his appearance at the Bath Festival of Blues and Progressive Music and the release of his premiere platter Gris-Gris.
It was 1967 when Rebennack stepped into an L.A. recording studio to record what he hoped would be a combination of the different “strains of new Orleans music behind Dr. John—a fictitious frontman named after Dr. John Montaine–a supposed African potentate with which Rebennack felt a “spiritual kinship.” Since he could not persuade New Orleans vocalist Ronnie Barron to assume the identity of Dr. John he took the name himself.
Rebennack, now Dr. John, led the way with his vocals, keyboards, guitar and percussion. He was assisted by other artists including: arranger/producer Harold Battiste (bass, clarinet and percussion), Richard ‘Didimus’ Washington (guitar, mandolin and percussion), Plas Johnson (saxophone), Lonnie Boulden (flute), Steve Mann (guitar and banjo), Ernest McLean (guitar and mandolin), Bob West (bass), Mo Pedido (congas), John Boudreaux (drums), Dave Dixon, Jessie Hill, Ronnie Barron (backing vocals and percussion) and Joni Jonz, Prince Ella Johnson, Shirley Goodman, Sonny Ray Durden, Tami Lynn (backing vocals).
Side One of the 7-track album lead-in is Dr. John’s own memorable “Gris-Gris Gumbo Ya Ya”. This near titular track was an apt opening and introduced listeners to his songwriting skills as well. The second selection, titled “Danse Kalinda Ba Doom” demonstrated what he could do when collaborating with another songwriter (in this case Battiste).
The next number is “Mama Roux”. Here Dr. John once more tunefully teams with another artist. In this case, he works with the now late Jessie Hill who is best remembered for his song “Ooh Poo Pah Doo”. By the time the side ends with Dr. John’s “Danse Fambeaux” listeners have already had a fair introduction to this musical hybrid of psychedelic rock and New Orleans R & B.
The flip side opens on the noteworthy “Croker Courtbullion”. This is the only piece composed entirely by Battiste. It is followed by the short but sweet track “Jump Sturdy”. This, like the last cut on the platter is also a Dr. John original.
The album’s end-note is the humorously titled charmer “I Walk on Guilded Splinters”. It’s also the lengthiest track clocking in at 7 minutes. (Mind you, once one gets lost in the music they don’t really notice.)
Upon hearing the master tapes Atlantic executive Ahmet Ertegun had serious doubts about releasing the project. He bluntly asked: “How can we market this boogaloo crap?” Nevertheless, with a running time of over 33 minutes, Gris-Gris was released on Atco Records, a sub-label of Atlantic Records, in 1968.
It did not quite chart in the US or the UK. It was initially considered unsuccessful although would receive some critical acclaim including a five-star rating from Rolling Stone magazine. Once later re-issued on CD years later it received a much better response from music fans. Allmusic gave it a five-star rating and the disc was slotted in at number 143 on Rolling Stone magazine’s list of the 500 greatest albums of all time in 2003.
In short, Dr. John’s Gris-Gris/Atco 234 is a wild, musical celebration of Magnolia Street mayhem. It is perhaps one of the more bizarre releases of the late 1960s . . . and that’s saying a lot.
My name is Phoenix and . . . that’s the bottom line.