By Richie Unterberger
When Dr. John's Gris-Gris hit the rock underground in 1968, it wasn't certain whether its master of ceremonies had landed from outer space, or just been dredged out of hibernation from the Louisiana swamps. The blend of druggy deep blues, incantational background vocals, exotic mandolin and banjo trills, ritualistic percussion, interjections of free jazz, and Dr. John's own seductive-yet-menacing growl was like a psychedelic voodoo ceremony invading your living room. You could be forgiven for suspecting it of having been surreptitiously recorded in some afterhours den of black magic, the perpetuators of this misdeed risking life-threatening curses for having exposed these secret soundtracks to the public at large.
In fact Gris-Gris was recorded surreptitiously, but not in some New Orleans house of sin. It was laid down in the famed Gold Star Studios in Los Angeles, where Phil Spector had cut many of his classics. It might have never come to pass at all had Dr. John and his co-conspirators not managed to wrangle some free studio time that had been originally earmarked for Sonny & Cher sessions. The resulting album nonetheless sounded as authentically New Orleans as a midnight Mardi Gras stroll though the French Quarter. Given the circumstances, that achievement was just as magical as anything the most powerful voodoo ritual could have wrought.
Gris-Gris was the first record credited to Dr. John, and to most listeners he seemed to have dropped out of nowhere with his mystical R&B psychedelia and Mardi Gras Indian costumes. The album, however, was actually the culmination of about 15 years of professional experience, during which Dr. John -- born Mac Rebennack in New Orleans -- had absorbed the wealth of musical influences for which the Crescent City is famed. Gris-Gris's roots reach back well beyond the dawn of the twentieth century, even as the album took in cutting-edge influences such as 1960s progressive jazz, and pushed into territory that no popular musician had ever explored in quite the same fashion.
"Gris-Gris" itself is a New Orleans term for voodoo, and the name Dr. John taken from a New Orleans root doctor of the 1840s and 1850s. Also known as John Montaigne and Bayou John, he was busted in the 1840s for practicing voodoo with Pauline Rebennack, who may or may not have been a distant relative of our man Mac. One of Mac's grandfathers sang in a minstrel show, and the latter-day Dr. John adapted one of grandpa's favorite tunes, "Jump Sturdy," into the track on Gris-Gris of the same name. His onstage costumes and feathered headdresses, the source of shock and delight to audiences since the late 1960s, are similarly adapted from those worn by Mardi Gras Indians in New Orleans, famed for the infectious tribal percussive rhythms and chants they perform in local parades.
By the mid-1950s Mac Rebennack, still in his mid-teens, was busy gigging around the New Orleans area, absorbing more contemporary influences from jazz, rhythm and blues, gospel, and rock and roll. In the late 1950s and early 1960s the multi-instrumentalist participated in a myriad of New Orleans R&B and rock records as a session musician, songwriter, and producer. After battles with drug problems and the law, he moved to Los Angeles in 1965, joining an expatriate community of top New Orleans session dudes on the Hollywood studio circuit. Rebennack scrounged for survival by playing on L.A. pop and rock sessions, getting much of his work with the help of arranger (and fellow New Orleanian) Harold Battiste. Numerous recordings on which Rebennack played, sometimes as the featured artist, from the decade predating Gris-Gris have surfaced on compilations such as Medical School and Cut Me While I'm Hot . Though of historical interest, and sometimes of considerable musical worth, these enjoyable but journeyman R&B/rock sides gave little indication of the idiosyncratic genius unveiled on Gris-Gris.
Ever since coming to L.A., Rebennack had hoped to make a concept album of sorts melding various strains of New Orleans music behind a frontman named Dr. John. Mac actually wanted New Orleans singer Ronnie Barron to be the Dr. John character, but when Barron was (fortunately) unavailable, Rebennack took on the Dr. John mantle himself. Harold Battiste, now a major Hollywood name as arranger for Sonny & Cher, got Dr. John some of the duo's studio time for free, and also helped get Mac a deal with Atlantic for an LP. Had Atlantic known what was up it probably would have pulled the plug on the project. However, the album was completed, with help from Battiste (who produced and played clarinet) and numerous side musicians. These included transplanted New Orleans veterans like Jessie Hill (renowned for "Ooh Poo Pah Doo"), Shirley Goodman (half of Shirley & Lee of "Let the Good Times Roll" fame), saxophonist Plas Johnson, and Richard "Didimus" Washington, a percussionist who was particularly skilled at devising Afro-Caribbean rhythms and textures. Two basses were used on some songs, which together with the army of percussionists (eight are credited) created an especially deep and thick rhythm section.
The opening track's title, "Gris-Gris Gumbo Ya Ya," was itself an indication of the record's homage to New Orleans eclecticism: the gris-gris voodoo, the gumbo (the regional stew made from numerous ingredients), and "Ya Ya," the title of one of the biggest hits to ever come out of the city (by Lee Dorsey). Rebennack wasted no time in assuming his new identity, immediately declaring "they call me Dr. John, known as the Night Tripper," his half-sung growl a white swamp counterpart to Howlin' Wolf. The snaky rhythms, soulful backup choruses, and ghostly echoing percussion set an eerie mood that if anything got spookier on "Danse Kalinda Ba Doom," its speaking-in-tongues ensemble vocals and middle eastern-by-way-of-New Orleans melodies establishing a quasi-religious ambience that permeated the record. "Mama Roux," by contrast, was deep-fried soul-funk, Gris-Gris 's hit single-that-never-was. It was back to the Bayou jungle, though, for "Danse Fambeaux," with its potion of Mardi Gras Indianesque chants, minstrel strings, impenetrable spell-casting lyrics, and mysterious melody.
The album's mischievous musical chairs were never as entrancing as they were on "Croker Courtbullion," with snake-charming flute and chants, Addams Family-styled keyboards (by Dr. John, who played all the keys on Gris-Gris), and free jazzy interplay revealing Rebennack's little-known admiration of musicians such as John Coltrane and Elvin Jones. As if these weren't enough, there were also birdcalls and animal noises that sound like nothing so much as a futuristic mating of Professor Longhair and Martin Denny. "Jump Sturdy" was a relatively brief, and quite infectious, marriage of vaudeville and funk. The closing eight-minute tour de force, "I Walk on Gilded Splinters," would prove the album's most durable song, a creepy voodoo soup that both smoldered with ominous foreboding and simmered with temptations of sensual delights.
Atlantic executive Ahmet Ertegun was initially reluctant to release Gris-Gris, exclaiming, according to Dr. John's autobiography Under a Hoodoo Moon, "How can we market this boogaloo crap?" Luckily, he relented, inaugurating an erratic career that saw Dr. John grow into an institution as a walking encyclopedia of New Orleans music. For the most part, his subsequent recordings were far more grounded in blues and R&B, never matching the versatile adventurousness of his debut full-length. Hard to find in its original form as an Atco LP, and only sporadically reissued since, Collectors' Choice Music is proud to make this classic available on CD for the first time in the United States. -- Richie Unterberger
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