[Recently, Harold Battiste finished his autobiography, Unfinished Blues, which tells the story of his life in the music business, including his time with Sam Cooke, AFO Records, Sonny and Cher and the AFO Executives. In this special Backtalk, we present an excerpt from Battiste’s memoir.]
Los Angeles had a large population of New Orleans natives, many of whom had been there for generations. For the homeboys, I had become, by this time, a person to call when you got to L.A. Often I was able to help cats get some kind of gigs. Such was the case with Mac Rebennack, whom I knew was a very talented musician. I had known Mac since 1957—back in my Specialty Records days. He showed up in the city around 1965. Someone in the music community told me he was in town—or it may have been Mac himself.
Whenever he got a chance to play (guitar or piano) he would get on someone’s list—get to know people so that they would call him for studio work or other gigs. After a while, I introduced him to the Sonny & Cher operation, both for studio and stage work. Sonny seemed somewhat skeptical, but Cher liked him. He was a great asset to me at that time when dealing with some of those local musicians on the road. Mac was there when Sonny & Cher went on tour and was often the go-to musician, playing guitar or piano on a professional level. He was invaluable to me when we arrived to do a show in some small town and the local guys hired by the promoter would freeze up in the presence of Sonny & Cher and couldn’t play the right sequences or notes. But despite his talent, Mac needed to be discreet with his drug needs because, as far as I knew, Sonny & Cher were clean, in public and in private.
When I decided to choose an artist to record on Progress Records—the side project Sonny and I got going in 1967—I approached Mac first, asking if he had anything he wanted to record. Mac told me that he had been reading up on this character called Dr. John from the New Orleans Voodoo tradition and wanted to work something around that. The concept appealed to me immediately. I envisioned creating a new sound, look, and spirit to the popular psychedelic/ underground wave.
We discussed the project for a few days, then Mac and me started selecting musicians, singers, and tunes. The main character, Dr. John, was to be performed by Ronnie Barron, another New Orleans transplant, a White guy we knew from back in the day. Ronnie had a great singing voice for R&B and pop music, and his vocals could pass as Black; he was a performer like Tom Jones. But he had a manager who thought that the Dr. John character would not be good for his career. I felt that Mac’s sound was right for the part, but he was reluctant too. He didn’t see himself as an upfront artist. I saw the whole concept as a tongue-in-cheek thing.
In late summer 1967 I booked studio time at Gold Star Recording Studios and got a cat called “Soulful Pete” to engineer the sessions. Pete worked at the studio as an apprentice doing various things, but this was his first shot at being the man at the controls. We collected our cast of New Orleans refugees who understood the spirit of what was going down. This was not to be a proper production with music arrangements and everything by the number. We would have to create and develop a vibe in the studio where the spirit led the way.
The cast included Mac on guitar, keyboards, and vocals; John Boudreaux (one of the AFO Executives) on drums; Bob West on bass; Ronnie Barron, keyboards; Ernest McLean, guitar/ mandolin; Steve Mann, guitar; Plas Johnson, saxophones; Lonnie Bolden, flute; and singers Tami Lynn, Shirley Goodman, Joanie (I don’t remember her last name), Dave Dixon, Jessie Hill, Al Robinson, and Ronnie Barron. I filled in on bass and vocals. On percussion was a guy called Didymus; I never knew his real name. He was one of those cats who was so well known in the music community that no one ever asked for his full name. He was also a partner of Mac’s in the drug life.
Looking back at this mixed bag of characters, it seems amazing that we got anything done. The studio was like a Mardi Gras reunion, everybody laughing and talking, telling stories all at the same time. But once we got settled, the vibe was there and the music just flowed. I felt better than I had felt in the studio in a long time. I was comfortable, connected spiritually to the people and the music we were making. I became more involved than I had expected, and it became more than a production to me.
When the music was all done and the master tapes sent to Atlantic Records, I focused on getting a release date for fall 1967. That didn’t happen. The execs at Atlantic didn’t quite know what to make of this stuff I sent to them. When I talked to Ahmet Ertegun, president of Atlantic, he wanted to know what to call this type of music. “What am I gonna tell my promotion men? What radio station gonna play this crap?” I really hadn’t thought about that.
Aug.-Sept. 1967. Produce Gris Gris album. Create Dr. John.
Sept.- Meeting with Sonny re: Policies & Percentages; Own Label; Lease masters; Artist contracts; Publishing.
Oct.- Meeting with Ahmet on Dr. John. How to promote; what to call the music (for marketing)
Feb. ‘68. – Gris Gris released. Top reviews.
Mar. ‘68 (request made to Sonny’s office): I need to know the legal status of Progress Records. We need to formalize our agreements with respect to: Type of business; ownership and shares thereof; Responsibilities; Resources (personnel & equipment); Payments to me in the various capacities in which I work.
However, I proceeded to work on the album liner notes, credits, and all the other stuff that needed to be there. The greatest effort was on the photo session for the album cover. I got Sadie, Cher’s seamstress, to make a costume for the Doctor from odd pieces of small animal skins tacked onto colorful clothes. She made him a snakeskin crown, and he found various trinkets and accessories to validate his voodoo status. The photographer Raphael, who did work for Sonny & Cher, set up his studio late one evening, and, as we had for the recording, we created an atmosphere that welcomed the Spirit: subdued lighting, incense burning, Dr. John music playing, Raphael creating—the image was fixed! I never had really expected serious music critics to pay that much attention to what we did. I knew it was real to us and thought it might catch on among a few hippies, underground types, flower children—but the mainstream press? I was floored at all the hype.
Dr. John is “a shadowy figure behind a strange album with a unique sound . . . The album was recorded more than a year ago but its release was delayed because the record company executives were unsure what to do with it when they heard it . . .”—Pete Johnson, the Los Angeles Times, June 24, 1968
“Perhaps the most extraordinary feature of this mysterious note from the underground is its author’s identity. No ancient Black from the Bayous, Dr. John is in fact the imaginary creation of a young, white studio musician . . .”—Albert Goldman, the Sunday New York Times, November 10, 1968
“. . . Boasting in another chant ‘Je suis la grande Zombie’, Mack Rebbenack is obviously a man gifted with strange powers. He well may claim to be a sorcerer, for by sympathetic magic he has stolen the black man’s soul.” —Albert Goldman, Life Magazine, 1968
“. . . The put-on comes with Dr. John himself: He simply cannot sing, but he covers himself with so much swamp-salt marsh- Creole-bayou mumbo-jumbo that no one will ever know the difference. Well, no meshugane appurtenances can hide the outstanding arrangements by Dr. John’s producer, Harold Battiste. They overshadow what they’re supposed to accompany.”—Harvey Siders, The Hollywood Reporter, April 23, 1969
“. . . They [the songs] were, in essence, toned-down variations on some common old voodoo chants, coupled with Dr. John’s seemingly improvised, fascinatingly colorful vocal ramblings, the whole thing arranged and produced to absolute perfection by Harold Battiste.”—Phonograph Record Magazine, July 1973
By the time all this publicity was happening, problems had begun to brew. Mac was primarily a songwriter and studio musician. He was comfortable and confident in those environments. Now he was confronted with the idea of being an upfront stage artist, which required many adjustments, mentally and physically. He needed to put together a band. He needed to develop a show and get it ready for the road. He needed people to do these things for him—he needed managers.
Joe DiCarlo, along with Harvey Kresky, was now managing Sonny & Cher. Mac came to me saying that he had been approached about signing with them, but he was afraid to sign—and afraid to tell them he didn’t want to sign. He suggested that I could be a buffer between him and them by signing with me. I sort of understood his dilemma and went along to calm his fears.
His first major show was at the Fillmore West in San Francisco, where we shared billing with none other than Thelonious Monk! I couldn’t believe it—Mac and Monk? The promoters saw something I missed in putting these acts together (unless they saw them as equally weird!). I thought Mac’s group was rather shabby on stage, but they got through it, and got paid.
From Unfinished Blues by Harold Battiste, Jr. with Karen Celestan; designed by Alison Cody; published by The Historic New Orleans Collection.