Towards the end of 1965, after their meteoric rise to the top of the charts with I Got You Babe, Sonny and Cher were invited to perform at a private party in the penthouse apartment of mining tycoon Charles Engelhard Jr. at the Waldorf Astoria in New York City. The invitation came after Jackie Kennedy, a guest of the intimate party and on one of her first social outings following the tragic death of her late husband, expressed her wish to see the rising duo perform in the flesh at the event. When royalty make their wishes known, no expenses are spared. Ahmet Ertegun, head of Atlantic Records and feeling quite generous after the number one hit single saved his company from being sold to ABC-Paramount, flew the singers with their entourage and five piece backup band from the west coast. The keyboard player in that band was Mac Rebennack, at the time an unknown entity to Ertegun and most anyone else. Two years later Ertegun would come to learn a whole lot more about the keyboard player, this time under the moniker of Dr. John, who would deliver to him a strange LP oozing southern psychedelic voodoo no ears have yet to hear. This is the story of Dr. John’s Gris-Gris.
Since the mid 1950s Mac Rebennack built a steady career of live and studio music gigs in New Orleans. The city was ripe with night clubs and other joints where a wide variety of music styles old and new where intermixed. Rebennack was mainly a guitar player then, honing his skills in numerous gigs and recording dates. He started playing the instrument as a child, figuring out strumming patterns from records. One day his teacher visited his house and on hearing blues music coming from one of the back rooms remarked approvingly ‘I’m so glad he’s listening to records’. ‘Oh, he’s not listening to records, that’s Mac playing’ said his mother. An interesting example of his guitar playing is on Storm Warning, recorded in 1959 and anticipating in its style many garage bands of the early 1960s.
A gun shot accident during a brawl in a Florida motel in 1960 ended with his left index finger hanging on a thread: “Ronnie Baron was singing with my band. He was underage, and his mother told me ‘Don’t let anything happen to him or I’ll cut your nuts off.’ So I walk into the dressing room, and the promoter’s pistol whippin’ the kid. I start beatin’ his hand off the wall, but my fingers are over the gun barrel, and it goes off. When they sewed my finger back on, it was dead from the middle-up. I’d play a note on the guitar and it would just go ‘thunk’.” Rebennack shifted his focus to the piano and other keyboard instruments and wrote songs for local artists, such as A Losing Battle from 1962, a national R&B hit for Johnny Adams, peaking at number 27 in the R&B charts.
In 1965 Mac Rebennack moved to LA. There was nothing left for him in New Orleans. After the 1961 election of District Attorney Jim Garrison (years later Kevin Costner portrayed Garrison in Oliver Stone’s film JFK, focusing on the DA’s investigation into Kennedy’s assassination), things were not that fun anymore in the night clubs, brothels and juke joints of the Crescent City. The DA made it his mission in life to end vice in the city, and the collateral damage that ensued eliminated many opportunities for music to be performed. Rebennack was a direct casualty, doing time at the Fort Worth prison after being arrested for possession of Heroin. When he got out he followed the path of other New Orleans musicians and left for the city of angels.
On his arrival in LA, Mac Rebennack was taken under the wings of composer, arranger and producer Harold Battiste. The two knew each other well from New Orleans, where at the end of the 1950s they collaborated on a number of singles for Specialty records, where Harold Battiste managed the local branch of the label. Lights Out by Jerry Byrne from 1958 was written by Rebennack and was their biggest hit together. In 1961 Battiste founded All For One (AFO) Records in New Orleans, where the house musicians included many artists that will later show up on Rebennack’s recordings. The Point, a rhythm n’ blues number that sounds akin to the tunes coming out of Stax Records in Memphis, was one of Rebbenack’s recordings for the label.
Battiste established himself in LA as a piano player and then arranger for Sonny and Cher. The duo’s success in the mid 1960s was due in no small part to his arrangements of hits such as I Got You Babe (including the oboe part, one of the song’s signatures) and Bang Bang My Baby Shot Me Down. Through Battiste’s connections Rebennack got himself into many studio sessions for Phil Spector, about which he later said: “When I got to California, Phil Spector had a real reputation for doing his ‘walls with sound.’ I just looked at it like, ‘Walls with sound?’ It’s just padding the payroll.” He later became one of the musicians in Sonny and Cher’s band.
The multitude of artists Rebennack played with extended to all musical facets in LA, including Aretha Franklin, Ray Charles, Marvin Gaye and one Frank Zappa, who in 1966 was recording his debut album Freak Out with the Mothers of Invention. The Dr. recalls: “Frank had written me this part to play, five or six notes on the piano over and over – not much different than Sonny and Cher. In the background a twenty-voice choir croaked out monster sound effects, something like ‘Gggrrrrrrhhhhrrr!’ When I had had about all I could take I asked Les McCann to hold down my chair, telling him I had to go to the bathroom. I walked out of there and never came back.” Four years later, at the Mothers of Invention’s November 13, 1970 concert at the Fillmore East, Zappa made fun of one of the songs discussed in this article, Gris-Gris Gumbo Ya Ya, on a track called Wino Man-with Dr. John Routine. What goes around comes around.
In 1967 Mac Rebennack decided it was time to realize a project he was dreaming about for some time, ever since his sister gave him books on Haitian voodoo. In New Orleans he visited spiritual ceremonies and the Cracker Jax drug store that carried all kinds of potions and mysterious remedies to all maladies known to men. He was aware of a New Orleans mythological character from the 1840s named Dr. John, a huge black man who made a small fortune by offering a multitude of concoctions and gris-gris (small cloth bags containing scriptures) to lift curses for a fee. Some of these potions went no farther than boiled water with some herbs. As he told a friend: “I hurt nobody, but if folks want to give me fifty dollars, I take fifty dollars every time.” Fifty dollars were quite a sum in the mid 19th century. Mac also discovered a book telling the story of how Dr. John and a Pauline Rebennack were thrown in jail for their voodoo craft. That sealed the idea of taking on the Dr. John persona, and Mac started writing songs with that vibe in mind.
The venture would have gone nowhere without the help of Harold Battiste. The arranger knew the heads of Atlantic Records through their subsidiary ATCO that released all of Sonny and Cher’s albums. Ahmet Ertegun and Jerry Wexler gave Battiste some level of freedom to come up with projects of his own. Battiste seized an opportunity of free studio time when Sonny and Cher were busy filming the musical thriller comedy Good Times, a waste of celluloid that better remains in the vaults. It was William Friedkin’s debut as a director, and he later commented: “I’ve made better films than Good Times but I’ve never had so much fun.” But as footballer Johan Cruyf said, every disadvantage has its advantage. During that free studio time Battiste got Mac and his crew into Gold Star Studios to record their brew of music voodoo. Mac wasn’t planning to sing on the record but his first choice, his childhood friend Ronnie Barron, was not available. Realizing that he can do a singing job no worse than Sonny Bono or Bob Dylan, he decided to debut on vocals on this album.
The resulting album was appropriately named Gris-Gris and it starts with one of the best album opener lyrics of all time:
They call me Dr. John, The Night Tripper
Got my satchel of gris-gris in my hand
Day trippin’ up, back down the bayou
I’m the last of the best
They call me the Gris-Gris man
Got many clients
Come from miles around
Running down my prescription
I got my medicine, to cure all your ills
I got remedies of every description
The track, Gris-Gris Gumbo Ya Ya,
includes great contributions from fellow New Orleans musicians. The mandolin riffs are courtesy of Ernest McLean, a guitar player who in the early 1960s was hired by Walt Disney to perform at Disneyland. McLean never played a mandolin prior to this recording. The Gris-Gris chant throughout the song is one of its highlights, sang to creepy perfection by a host of backing singers: “Tami and Shirley all sang they hearts out, and Dave Dixon and Jesse Hill and those guys from New Orleans, they all just really put they whole spirit into it. Jesse’s sister was the one that taught me voodoo back in like the ’50s.” Tami Lynn and Shirley Goodman would later sing backing vocals on the Rolling Stones’ Let It Loose from the Exile On Main Street album. Its them at the marvelous ending of that song, which also features one Mac Rebennack on piano.
Danse Kalinda Ba Doom,
a writing collaboration with Harold Battiste, has a great tribal feel due to the variety of instruments played by percussionist Richard ‘Didimus’ Washington. In his autobiography Under A Hoodoo Moon: The Life Of The Nite Tripper, Mac Rebennack writes about him with deep respect: “Didimus was the greatest conguero I ever heard, and the only one I ever worked with who played five conga drums – not one, not three, but five. Not only that, he had two bongos between his legs, and on a stand next to him two dombekis – a battery of nine percussion instruments. He played Haitian finger-style rhythm, and African-style, and mixed that up with his own Cuban jazz. I was lucky as hell to have him join my first Dr. John band.”
There are so many wonderful musical passages on the album, played by musicians who do not get sufficient credit for their work on this album. Steve Mann, an excellent guitar player who played with many San Francisco 1960s artists such as Janis Joplin and Jefferson Airplane, plays guitar and banjo on the record. You can hear that banjo on Jump Sturdy
In 1967, the same year that Gris-Gris was recorded, Steve Mann taped a live performance at the Ash Grove club in LA and shortly after retired following a nervous breakdown. The recording was released years later, lamentably a forgotten album that showcases his finger picking talent, as in Pallet On The Floor.
Drummer John Boudreaux played drums on some of the most successful hits coming from New Orleans in the late 1950s early 1960s, including Jessie Hill’s Ooh Poo Pah Doo from 1960 and Lee Dorsey’s Sittin’ On My Ya-Ya from 1961. A jazz drummer at heart, John Boudreaux reflected: “I’ve always wanted to play Charlie Parker’s music, you know, but at the same time they were throwing all these gigs at us, and Dixieland gigs, so I had to learn that and I learned it, but the funk music was sort of … natural to me, so I fell right into that. That’s not what I was pursuing, but that’s what I’m known for.”
Plas Johnson played saxophone on the album. He was part of the Wrecking Crew and one of the most active studio musicians in LA in the early 1960s, recording with artists of all sides of the music spectrum. His saxophone can be heard on The Great Pretender by The Platters, on some of Ella Fitzgerald’s wonderful American songbook albums, and most famously it is his tenor saxophone solo on Henry Mancini’s The Pink Panther Theme. On Gris-Gris Gumbo Ya Ya Plas Johnson is playing a saxophone fed through a condor box effect pedal, resulting in a sound between a guitar and an oboe.
My favorite tune from Gris-Gris is I Walk on Guilded Splinters,
selected as an unlikely single release by Atlantic. Seven minutes of laid back groove that became one of Dr. John’s signatures songs in his live shows. Coco Robicheaux, a New Orleans musician who played with Mac Rebennack in the early 60s, is mentioned in the song. He later said that based on voodoo lore, guilded splinters are the points of a planet that appear mystically like fire that holds still. A year after the album’s release the song received a few cover versions, the first curiously performed by Cher on her 1969 album 3614 Jackson Highway recorded at Muscle Shoals. A much superior cover from 1969 is by the excellent Humble Pie with Steve Marriott and Peter Frampton, featured in their live performances as a blues-rock jam.
Ahmet Ertegun found out about the album only after the recording was complete. The strange sounds he heard did not sit well with him. Dr. John tells the story: “I was doing a session for Bobby Darin when Ahmet Ertegun walked into the studio looking for me. ‘Why did you give me this shit? How can we market this boogaloo crap?‘ He wasted about 15 minutes of Bobby Darin’s studio time just yelling at me. And I’m thinking ‘Oh, this record is never going to see the light of day.’” But Say what you will about Ertegun, money was not his only motivation. The man had an ear and passion for music, and he agreed to release the album. The stage performances that followed helped make the album a minor counter-culture hit: “It was a show in the New Orleans tradition. We were lucky with it, because all those love-ins and be-ins and freak-ins were happening at the same time. I got Chicken Man and some other guys that did a real voodoo show. That was too much for some people, so I toned it down when I began promoting the record. Basically, I kept the snake dancer and the backup singers and a small version of the band”. It was enough to secure Mac Rebennack four more album recordings with Atlantic. His music changed and took a different direction over the years, but the gris-gris psychedelic vibe of his debut album still remains the most enduring for me in his rich catalog.
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