Gettin' To The Bonnaroo
"Desitively Bonnaroo" (J. Hill - M. Rebennack)
Dr. John, from Destively Bonnaroo, ATCO, 1974
The sold out Bonnaroo Festival takes place this weekend in Manchester, TN. They’ve got a sampling of New Orleans music there with the Neville Brothers and Toussaint and Costello doing sets. But the most fun will probably be at an all night tent throwdown featuring Dr. John, the Rebirth Brass Band, and Ivan Neville’s Dumpstaphunk. If you went to any of these, feel free give us a report.
I thought I’d talk a bit about the song that inspired the naming of the festival, Dr. John’s own “Desitively Bonnaroo” from his 1974 ATCO album of the same name. Dr. John (Mac Rebennack) co-wrote today’s feature with Jessie Hill. The two partnered often in Los Angeles, where a number of New Orleans musicians had relocated in the mid-1960’s after the bottom dropped out of the local R&B scene. They all had gone out there looking for fame, fortune, or just plain work in that major hub of the entertainment industry. Hill and Rebennack hung out, wrote together, and started their own publishing company (I Found It) and record label (Free) with another NOLA expatriate, Dave Dixon. One outstanding example of their work together was “When The Battle Is Over”, which was recorded both by Aretha Franklin and Delaney and Bonnie. I suspect that “Destively Bonnaroo” was written during that period, prior to Rebennack taking on the Dr. John persona and signing with Atlantic in 1967. Also a drummer and vocalist, Hill was another one of those genuine New Orleans characters no fiction writer could have invented. Some of his best work involved nonsense lyrics (his only hit “Ooh Poo Pa Doo”, plus “Oogsey Moo” and “Why Holler” - both inspired by Professor Longhair – produced by Toussaint for Minit in 1960-1961); and this song is no exception. Whenever the hell Jesse’s talking about, Rebennack's recording makes it worth hearing.
As with Dr. John’s previous ATCO LP, In The Right Place, Allen Toussaint did the producing and arranging on this one; and the core band for the sessions were the Meters. The results were quite good, as you might expect; but the album wasn’t nearly as successful as it’s predecessor, which contained the only two hits of Dr. John’s career, “Right Place, Wrong Time” and “Such A Night”. With Toussaint and the Meters on board and Rebennack composing most of the tunes, both albums had plenty of great grooves. On “Desitively Bonnaroo” listen to Zigaboo’s main repeated drum pattern of five beats on the kick followed by a single snare pop, then there’s that syncopated hit-hat pick-up every couple of bars. Maybe a drummer could explain it all. I can’t, other than to say it seems far from Zig's typical approach. Not that Zig isn’t a gifted, original drummer; but, I’m sure that pattern was Toussaint’s doing, as he directed tight sessions, often writing parts for all the players, including the drummer. As I’ve noted before regarding the Toussaint Treatment, the results were frequently outstanding, but not always funky. He often had drummers play beats in unusual ways and used syncopation (an element of funk) in the various instrumental parts. Those and other creative techniques imparted a focused, ear-catching pop charm to the music, making it more commercial, but not ordinary by any means. The two records Dr. John made in collaboration with Toussaint stand out for that reason among his many recordings and served to boost the roots artist higher into the general public’s consciousness at the time. Certainly not a bad thing to happen in the course of a career. That there is also plenty of credible funk quotient on many of those tracks just goes to show how well Toussaint served Dr. John, the spirit of his music, and the audience – the mark of a truly great producer.
[6/18/2006] This comment just came in from our HOTG correspondent, Dwight Richards, drummer for Chocolate Milk and frequent session player at Sea-Saint Studios during the mid to late 1970's. I often move Dwight's comments up top, as he was on the scene at many sessions run by Allen Toussaint, and has much experience with his style of production and arranging, plus many useful and enjoyable insights on New Orleans music in general. Dwight writes:
Yes, that sounds lke a typical Toussaint drum arrangement. I hadn't really listened to that track before, but obviously it is not Zig's natural playing. it reminds me somewhat of the pattern I was given by Toussaint on the track "Girl Callin". Typically Allen would arrange every drum beat on some songs. And this sounds like one.
Thanks, Dwight. I don't know about you, but I think you got off easier, at least compared to the strange program Toussaint has Zig running on "Desitively Bonnaroo", although it's all relative. They are different songs. I'm sure, though, that you found the arrangement on "Girl Callin'" demanding, as it does have an intricate drum part. My hat's off to you guys for having the expertise (and patience!) to play these prescribed patterns so damn well.