The History of The Albums – n°375
Let's face it, R&B hasn't had such a zany and eccentric popular personality since Screamin' Jay Hawkins, Dr. John is something of an anomaly in music history although he absolutely deserves his place. Malcolm John Rebennack Jr, a.k.a Dr. John, is one of the few white artists to make a place for himself in the Rhythms and Blue music pantheon. Obviously it is difficult to compare Dr. John to some legends like James Brown, Otis Redding, Aretha Franklin or Beyoncé because he is a UFO who is mostly recognized by the specialists. Known mainly for his stagecraft and his eclectic and atypical musical style, Dr. John has built an amazing career to get famous titles, from the Grammy Awards to his place among the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Over a 50+ year career, Dr. John made history with his eponymous persona, a sort of voodoo singer/musician who was his most important concept. Originally from Lousiana, Rebennack developed a fascination for a local religion called Lousiana Voodoo. In a few words, I could say that it is a religion of African origin that merges several principles of different religions practiced by groups or sects rather self-taught and isolated. Rebennack therefore created a fictional voodoo character who acted as a seller of gris-gris to his followers to protect them. Thus was born the concept of one of the classics of R&B/Rock music, "Gris-Gris" released in January 1968.
Born in 1941 in New Orleans, Rebennack grew up in a family of musicians and music enthusiasts. He devel-oped his love for jazz music through his father, a record and appliance salesman, before discovering rock and roll in his teens. Having the chance to participate in recording sessions thanks to his father, notably Little Richard, Rebennack decided to start learning music. While he was still in high school in 1954 (which he would end up dropping out of), he was taken under the wing of Professor Longhair, a famous Blues pianist from the New Orleans scene who would allow him to enter the world of the studio. In full rise of the Rock and Roll, he becomes producer of Ace Record in 1957, in parallel of his life of musician of scene in the clubs/bar. The continuation of its beginnings is rather animated, since it is initially forced to forget the guitar following an accident to concentrate on the bass. He then went through legal problems because he was involved in illegal activities in the 60s. While the New Orleans scene was in free fall because of political decisions, he left in 1965 for Los Angeles to pursue his musical career. With his talent and experience, he easily became a well known session musician in California, to the point that he worked for The Mothers of Invention, as pianist on Freak Out (1966), Harry Nilsson or with Canned Heat.
In order to go solo, Rebennack gave himself the means to do so by creating the concept of Dr. John. Beyond the musical style which combines New Orleans R&B, several psychedelic movements, Freak Folk, Zydeco or Swamp Rock, Dr. John also developed very theatrical shows around the zany universe of his character Dr. John. This is what appealed to the underground scene of Los Angeles, then in full counter-culture period, since it took a few years for Dr. John to enter the charts or for "Gris-Gris" to gain the notoriety it has today. Recorded in 1967 for the Atco label, Rebennack gave birth to his first album "Gris-Gris" by taking advantage of the absence of Sonny & Cher on sessions reserved for the latter. As much to say that the legend Dr.John was born from the opportunism of its author and that the history could have deprived us of that. Produced by Harold Battiste (and multi-instrumentalist), "Gris-Gris" is of course a concept album, which resembled nothing else, where even the additional musicians had stage names with the denomination "Dr.". "Gris-Gris" is an album that transpires the roots and the heritage of its author, that is to say a base of New Orleans accompanied by a very Jazz direction. That is to say that even the 2 singles present, Mama Roux and I Walk On Guilded Splinters were reflected as elements to concepts and not as Hits. The soul of this album is like a live show in studio format.
The adventure "Gris-Gris" extends over 33 minutes around 7 songs. The whole concept is introduced by Gris-Gris Gumbo Ya Ya, a storytelling that describes the voodoo character of Dr.John. We find a rather surrealistic atmosphere that blends into macabre settings. The whole is strewn with black humor, Machiavellian perceptions that really give the impression of being stuck in a very strange spiral. The listener then goes through an anxious malaise "Gris-Gris" builds musically on Rhythms and Blues rhythmics and melodies, while the psychedelic eccentricity melts into the details. Once past the introduction which acts as an enchantment, the listener is then projected into the heart of the adventure, first in Danse Kalinda Ba Doom, a kind of African waltz mainly instrumental where one loses all bearings. Mama Roux is a kind of Calypso Ballad that shows Dr. John's melodic talents, despite his nasal anti-charismatic voice. I also have an admiration for those piano notes, which sound like a lo-fi organ. More conventional, the fun Jump Sturdy flourishes with a warm banjo and faithful bluesy melodies. However, it is I Walk On Guilded Splinters that remains the best moment of "Gris-Gris" as it captures all the essence of Dr John on 7 minutes of happiness. The vocals are masterful, the chorus blending with Dr. John's interpretation, while the instrumentation sticks to your skin with such gusto. Not to mention the African percussion, an indispensable and dominating element of the whole album, which reaches its perfection on this divine song. To conclude, there is only one album like "Gris-Gris" and nothing else will manage to capture all the energy of this record. Yet it was already very complex to succeed in making the concept live on a whole album, but "Gris-Gris" is like a charlatan voodoo, a kind of magic trick absolutely well executed.