Dr. John’s “Gris-Gris” Turns 50

“Producer Harold Battiste gave the record his style of psycho-delphia,” Dr. John says of the album “Gris-Gris.” “I didn’t want to be the front man but (singer) Ronnie Barron’s manager thought it would be a bad career move for him. My conga player ‘Didymus’ told me that if Bob Dylan can sing, then I can sing, too.” Photo courtesy of Dr. John.

By Mike Greenblatt

Mac Rebennack, also known as Dr. John, at 77, is taking a break. The thought that we may never get to see him on a stage again is quite sobering. But, then again, we still might. Either way, there is much to celebrate about this great man’s achievements. Especially when you think that he was run out of his native New Orleans on a rail when he was 28 and told to never come back.

So what did he do?

He headed west, ended up in Los Angeles where he became the go-to guy on a lot of Hollywood sessions just like he was back in Louisiana but with one difference. He steered clear of the law. He continued doing heroin, of course, but he didn’t pimp, he didn’t push drugs and he threw his gun away. Then he rechristened himself Dr. John, The Night Tripper and recorded his debut as a solo artist, one of the greatest albums of all-time, 1968’s Gris-Gris.

Gris-Gris is now 50. It still stands tall, sounding as swampy, soothing, funky, sexy, mysterious, psychedelic and laden with enough voodoo to steal one’s heart and mind. It was, and is, a true adventurous hippie trip despite there being no rock ‘n’ roll within its mere seven tracks. But it opened up America to the inner sanctum of New Orleans culture like a travel guide on LSD. In other words, it has yet to lose its singular charm and pioneering essence. It sounded like nothing that had ever been recorded at the time and still, 50 years later, nothing recorded since. In a word, it’s timeless.

The prospect of speaking with Mac was a daunting one. I had met him once in the Pocono Mountains of Pennsylvania in the 1980s. He looked like a dandy, all spiffed up, beads around his neck, double-breasted suit, rose in his lapel, Beatle boots, walking cane and when he strolled onstage the place went wild. There was a real skull on his piano. Backstage, I stammered out my appreciative gushes and I think he got a big kick when I called him “The Architect of Rock ‘n’ Roll” but I couldn’t really tell. His Creole patois was so thick I could barely understand him and he purposely mangled words into a kind of hipster jargon. But he is, indeed, one of rock’s great early architects. As a teenaged producer/arranger/guitarist, he had a hand in the creation of some of the earliest of  the 1950’s rock ‘n’ roll and pre-rock ‘n’ roll hits by such artists as Professor Longhair, Art Neville, Joe Tex, Frankie Ford and Allen Toussaint.

Getting the opportunity to email questions to the man himself was too good an opportunity to pass up so I asked him what the real reason was that he left New Orleans in 1965 for Hollywood. His answer was forthright, blunt and short. “After serving time in the joint,” he admitted, “I was invited not to go to or through New Orleans.”

He had switched to bass guitar before going to jail but prior to that, when he was barely 20, his left ring finger was shot off in a gun fight as he tried to protect his best friend, singer Ronnie Barron, thus precipitating him to become the greatest nine-fingered piano player in history. His life of crime didn’t pay. He was sentenced to two years hard time in a Fort Worth, Texas federal prison.

Upon being released, he knew he couldn’t go back to his home town so he headed west where he became a fixture within The Wrecking Crew, an amazing amalgam of West Coast musicians who played on almost every single song to come out of California in the 1960s, including hits by The Mamas & The Papas, Canned Heat, Frank Zappa & The Mothers of Invention, Van Morrison, The Monkees, Aretha Franklin and The Rolling Stones. 

But he always loved that old voodoo magic. He took his name from the original Doctor John, an African Prince who set up shop in Haiti to cure the sick, sooth the savage soul and bring a world of hurt to your enemies with concoctions, herbs, chants and, most of all, his gris-gris (an amulet in a small cloth bag with numerous other ingredients), worn to protect oneself from demons or other dangerous entities. It is said the original Doctor John had 50 children by 15 wives and once he emigrated to New Orleans, he was the main competition for the much more feared Marie Laveau who, in the 1800s, practiced an aggressive brand of voodoo meant to bring ruin and devastation on whomever she chose.

“Gris Gris Gumbo Ya Ya” opens the album. “That was patterned around Voodoo church music,” says Mac, “but it wasn’t the exact music or lyrics. I got affiliated to Gris-Gris with Deacon Frank Lastie in the Spiritual Church of New Orleans. His wife, the Reverend Mother, opened all that up to me. And I wrote ‘Danse Kalinda Ba Doom’ about a girl who was dancing with us. She knew all the traditional voodoo dances despite bring trained in ballet.”

“Mama Roux,” according to Mac, is “a story about a Gris-Gris queen, and the little Red, White & Blue was a Mardi Gras Indian tribe. ‘Danse Fambeaux’ was inspired by the spiritual part of the New Orleans scene. When I was coming up, everybody did little Gris-Gris things like herbal remedies. It’s a big part of our culture.

“Producer Harold Battiste gave the record his style of psycho-delphia. Sonny & Cher gave us their studio time to cut the record. I didn’t want to be the front man but (singer) Ronnie Barron’s manager thought it would be a bad career move for him. My conga player ‘Didymus’ told me that if Bob Dylan can sing, then I can sing, too. I was shocked when Ahmet Ertegun said he was going to put out the record. He wasted 15 minutes of a Bobby Darin session saying at first ‘what is this crap?’ But everyone has their own taste. Like Louis Armstrong once said, ‘there are two kinds of music, good and bad.’

“‘Jump Steady’ is a Mardi Gras Indian-style thing from way back in the game.”

“Croker Courtbullion” made my beagles start howling. “That just means that music is the universable language,” Mac says.

This reporter was 17 when “I Walk On Gilded Splinters” became the go-to track of the nascent FM radio scene in ’68. It gurgles, bubbles and erupts for over eight minutes of mysterioso whispering and chanting with black magic mojo like nothing anybody had ever heard before. Here was the kind of New Orleans off-limits to tourists. Dr. John opened up a Pandora’s Box of Crescent City darkness, an aural equivalent of the kind of danger only denizens of the dark truly understand. For the rest of us, it was an open invitation to walk on the wild side, too daring not to venture within…and my generation, and every generation since, has delved down deep for a half-century of fascination. Yet all Mac has to say is, “all these cats like Jessie Hill and Dave Dixon put their whole spirit into (the album). New Orleans got more people in touch with the spirit kingdom than most other places. And Tami (Lynn) and Shirley (Goodman) sang their hearts out. You gotta do what’s in your heart.”

About Mike Greenblatt

A longtime music journalist, Mike Greenblatt is a contributing editor with Goldmine magazine.

Leave a Reply