|Dr. John proudly stands alongside Louis Armstrong and Fats Domino as one of New Orleans all-time distinctive voices. Not only is the Good Doctors dry, gravel cackle one of the most infectious sounds in both jazz and popular music, he is universally celebrated as the living embodiment of the rich musical heritage exclusive to the Crescent City. Both his unique musical approach and his striking physical appearance encompass local African American-Indian and Creole influences mixed in with quite a few equally exotic tributaries besides. Hes both the essence of the citys colorful past and its ever evolving future and beyond.
Dr. John has been doing what he does best since the1950s, but if we require a suitable jumping off point, let s take the year 1968 and the generosity of I Got You Babe hitmakers Sonny & Cher. Former jobbing session singers themselves, Sonny & Chers commercial blend of The Byrds' jingly-jangly folk rock and Phil Spectors bombastic kitchen-sink-and-all Wall Of Sound had, despite their appalling dress sense, momentarily made them the hottest act in town. And Dr. John - then still known under his given name of Mac Rebennack - was part of the twosomes backing band.
Mac had arrived at this juncture of his highly checkered career after years of dues-payin and sporadic financial return. Since his mid-teens, Mac had been junco piano punching and guitar crunching for just about anyone around the New Orleans area who would hire him. Early on, he became one of a tight coterie of local musicians that included raucous sax men Lee Allen, Alvin "Red" Tyler and Herb Hardesty, boss bass player Frank Field and one of the greatest of all drummers, Earl Palmer (nobody quite played eight notes against a Crescent City shuffle like Earl). These stoic players plus a few others appeared to spend every waking hour in local studios such as J&M Recording Service (later famously re-named Cosimos), Sea-Saint or any of the dozens of exotically named no-holds-barred night clubs that included The Dew Drop Inn, Club Desire and The Gypsy Tea Room. Pay was seldom above union scale, but this was more than compensated for by the good times that continually rolled. Sometimes such hedonistic pursuits got him into all kinds of problems, most notably when, attempting to break up a fight during a gig in Florida, a gun went off and almost severed his index finger.
Part of Macs musical apprenticeship saw him move out to the West Coast: to be specific, Los Angeles. It was there that he became a first-call session player for the likes of legendary record maker Phil Spector. This was due in part to his hometown friend Harold Battiste, who had become musical director for the Sonny & Cher phenomenon. And it was Battiste who encouraged Mac to develop his Dr. John character. Sonny & Cher generously gave Mac free studio time at the end of their own sessions to record the tracks which would form the basis of his critically acclaimed Gris-Gris album for Atco.
Macs inspiration for his alter-ego was rooted in a 19th Century Bambarra prince called Dr. John Montaine who lived in New Orleans. Apart from claiming to be a genuine African King, Montaine was known for his extensive knowledge of both occult and voodoo practices. This dark side of Dr. John Montaines lifestyle appealed to Mac, who once admitted, I felt a spiritual kinship.
This was a period when young white rock musicians were simultaneously looking towards Chicago in their pursuit of amped-up Acid Blues and investigating alternative ideology. Mac on the other hand, headed homewards for his Louisiana bayou blues juice. What emerged in 1968, festooned in Mardi-Gras Indian-feathered headdress and long colorful robes was Dr. John Creaux - The Night Tripper, a swampy cure-all, psychedelic medicine man uttering "Gris-Gris" incantations, the most famous being Walk On Gilded Splinters. Almost immediately, everyone was talking about Dr. John, and in next to no time, both Eric Clapton and Mick Jagger headed a list of celebrities who either wanted to guest on his records or, as was the case of artists as diverse as The Band, Bob Dylan, Van Morrison, Mike Bloomfield and jazz stars Bennie Wallace and Art Blakey, invited him spice up their own work.