It’s pretty simple. The place to start with Dr. John is where he started—before he was Dr. John, before he was the Night Tripper, before he was known as a piano player and singer (and before he even got credited on recordings for which he’d been a key contributor). Of course, if you can find original copies of the singles “Bad Neighborhood” by Ronnie and the Delinquents and “Morgus the Magnificent,” promoting and featuring the titular New Orleans fright-movie TV host, they’ll likely cost you more than it would to buy Mac Rebennack’s entire CD catalog.
So look for some of this early stuff (from the ’50s, when he was a teen regular in Cosimo Matassa’s studio) on various compilations floating around. The best—and certainly most legitimate—is Rhino Records’ 1993 two-CD set Mos’ Scocious: The Dr. John Anthology. It’s a good introduction and overview, touching on the varied musical facets and faces of Mac Rebennack, at least through its 1993 release date. But no New Orleans music collection should be without four or five full Dr. John albums. Or six. Or a dozen. Or, heck, all of them. To that end, let’s break down the Rebennack repertoire into its component styles, periods and personae and offer some help navigating the journey from Morgus to the Hall of Fame.
With drug problems and charges back in New Orleans, Rebennack spent the mid-’60s in Los Angeles working as a session musician. But in exile, pining for home, he crafted the persona of the voodoo-referencing Dr. John—though he intended for New Orleans singer Ronnie Barron to take the role. When Barron declined, Rebennack stepped forward, gathered some fellow Louisianans and other sessioneers in L.A.’s Gold Star Studios (using time actually booked for Sonny and Cher) and as Dr. John, the Night Tripper, made Gris-Gris. The 1968 album made no impact on the market after Atco (reluctantly, it seems) released it, but over time it came to stand as a landmark of spooky, swampy, voodoo grit-funk. Writing (under the alt-alter-ego name Dr. John Creaux) with some collaboration from arranger-producer Harold Battiste and, on “Mama Roux,” Jessie Hill, he evoked a bayou mystique that still captures the dark recesses of the imagination. The clear highlight is the closer, “I Walk on Gilded Splinters,” an extended soul-funk chant that galvanized the Dr. John gestalt.
For 1972’s Gumbo, our man was now simply Dr. John, and R&B/rock great Jerry Wexler joined Battiste in production. Confident, spirited versions of “Iko Iko,” “Big Chief,” “Junko Partner,” “Tipitina” and others paid homage to such heroes as Huey “Piano” Smith, Earl King and Professor Longhair, but also made it clear that Rebennack belonged in that number himself. 1973’s In the Right Place left no doubt. Allen Toussaint took the production helm and installed the Meters behind Dr. John for some of the tightest second-line funk you’ll find. But it’s the songs that made this the career breakthrough. The nimble stomp of “Right Place Wrong Time” brought Dr. John and his hoodoo-ese to the pop charts, with the larcenous romance of “Such a Night” following right behind. The same embrace of his city’s culture returned most effectively on 1992’s Back to New Orleans. The title track is a jumpy winner, but the real attraction is the shaggy hound tale “How Come My Dog Don’t Bark When You Come Around?” 2004’s N’Awlinz: Dis Dat or d’Udda dips back into the spirited well once more, with arranger Wardell Quezergue polishing the purple, green and gold of some sharp originals and such standards as “St. James Infirmary” and, yes, “When the Saints Go Marching In.”
After a couple unsatisfying attempts to replicate the success of “Right Place Wrong Time,” he stopped trying and went back to the basics— just the man and a piano on 1981’s Dr. John Plays Mac Rebennack. As the title implies, he put aside all the guises and put his New Orleans heart on his sleeve. Or his fingers. Its mix of standards (“The Nearness of You,” “Wade in the Water”) and originals serves as a loving tribute to the city’s great piano tradition. A follow-up, 1983’s Vol. 2 (The Brightest Smile in Town), is just as delightful and just as essential.
Cole Porter, Johnny Mercer, Duke Ellington…there ain’t a New Orleans writer on Dr. John’s 1988 album In a Sentimental Mood. But his gruff tones adapt very well to crooning (in a manner of speaking), and his piano makes sure there’s a lot of Crescent City in the interpretations. The duet with Rickie Lee Jones on a sassy “Makin’ Whoopee” is a real kick, and earned a Jazz Vocal Performance Grammy. Mac winningly revisited the concept later, focusing on Ellington for 2000’s Duke Elegant and Mercer for 2006’s Mercernary.
After the Flood
The water that got through the failed flood walls was still receding when Dr. John turned his fuming anger into cathartically evocative music on 2005’s Sippiana Hericane. The short benefit release is built around the four-part “Wade: Hurricane Suite,” in which he and his Lower 911 band riffs on the spiritual “Wade in the Water,” bubbling with emotions of this and past NOLA strife as murky as the toxic stew that blanketed the city. This quick, scattered response is both an accurate snapshot of the moment and an enduring listen. The rage got focused for 2008’s The City That Care Forgot, with dissections of the broken “Promises, Promises” and the anthemic parade paean “My People Need a Second Line.” The righteous rage spilled out of the studio and, Hulk-like, Dr. John once again became the Night Tripper for some shows and spiritually, if not nominally, for his latest album, Tribal. Opener “Feel Good Music” gives way to some serious incisiveness (“Only in America”) and even more serious swamp funk, but also some wink-wink fun, notably the right- place revival “When I’m Right (I’m Wrong)” (next line: “When I’m wrong, I’m wrong”). Oh yeah, and a better song about vegetables than Brian Wilson’s.