Dr. John, The Conqueror
Here it is a week into November, already. I've been so busy, not only did I miss posting some Halloween-related music this year, but I almost forgot that I'm now entering my fourth year of blog-consciousness, having started HOTG in October, 2004. Amazing. I'm posting less than I'd like to these days, but feeling lucky to be posting at all. As some consolation, my tech-savvy and generous friend and cyber-guru, Jockomo, created the HOTG webcast this year, still streaming along at hotg.org. I add to that playlist frequently. So far, it's up to 15 funkifried hours or more of seldom heard New Orleans tracks in rotation, mainly from the HOTG post archives; and we plan to lay in some choice cuts of more recent vintage, too, if and when we can. But the entire project is still at the mercy of the mega-corporate entertainment industry, which has yet to make a decision on the fate of us poor, microscopic web stations - virtual plankton drifting along in a sea of broadcasting sharks. Anyway, tune in while you can. It's a day to day thing.
November being Mac Rebennack/Dr. John's birth month (he''ll be 67), I thought I'd take the opportunity to feature some more of his music as performed by his own bad self and others. Let's kick it off with a track that features him in his best 1970s hoodoo/hipster/philosopher mode.
"Black John The Conqueror" (Mac Rebennack)
Dr. John, from The Sun, Moon & Herbs, 1971
(tune in to HOTG Internet Radio
Already a seasoned bandleader, songwriter, producer, and session man for over a decade, Mac Rebennack emerged as Dr. John, the Night Tripper, on his debut Atlantic LP, Gris Gris, in 1967, concocting a mind-blowing, ground-breaking expression of the many intertwined musical and cultural influences of his hometown. The character he assumed, the hoodoo hipster shaman, was inspired in part by a routine his former partner Ronnie Barron had played around with, as well as by his onetime AFO labelmate, Prince LaLa, and the many characters he encountered hanging around the spirtual churches of New Orleans, starting as a teenager. The music he cooked up over the course of his first four LPs blended sounds and rhythms of the Afro-Caribbean diaspora, including voodoo/hoodo rituals, second line parading, Mardi Gras Indian chants and Carnival revelry, plus jazz, barrelhouse R&B, and deep dark fonk, all steeped in the free-form psychedelic vibe of the times.
As he relates in his revealing (and recommended) autobiography, Under A Hoodoo Moon, Mac envisioned this fourth album for Atlantic as a large scale project, a three LP conceptual composition that would reflect the feelings and atmosphere at different times of the day: a Sun LP for morning, a Herbs LP for later in the day when partaking of various herbal blends, and a Moon LP for night music. Coming off a difficult European tour that most of his regular band could not make for various reasons, Mac and his crooked, crazy manager, Charles Green, decided that England would be a good place to work on the album, and booked time at Trident Studios in London. Having only his regular drummer, Fred Staehle, and background singers with him after the tour, Mac sent out a call for recording musicians and got a large, diverse assortment to participate, including Eric Clapton, some members of Stevie Wonder's band, saxophonist Graham Bond and a large horn section, numerous African and Caribbean percussionists, and even Mick Jagger contributing backing vocals in spots. According to Mac, the stoned-out but productive sessions generally went very well, resulting in hours of prime material recorded around the clock over several days.
Satisfied with the the tracking phase, Mac shipped the tapes back to Green in California to be mixed, mastered and turned over to Atlantic for release; but Green had other ideas and withheld them, forcing a confrontation, with Mac demanding he hand the masters over. When Rebennack finally brought the tapes to Atlantic's Southern headquarters at Criteria Studios in Miami, he was shocked and disheartened to discover that much of the material he recorded was missing and many of the remaining tracks had been altered by Green. It took Mac and Atlantic's Tom Dowd many weeks to overdub some of the missing sections and piece together enough material to assemble an album, reduced to just one LP, named The Sun, Moon & Herbs, with a total of six complete songs on it - a mere shadow of the original idea.
I've got to say that, for a collection of salvaged, reconstituted tracks, I've always considered this album second only to Dr. John's atmospheric debut masterwork, Gris Gris, from the early period. The two albums in between, 1968's Babylon (like Gris Gris, produced by Harold Battiste in Los Angeles) and Remedies from 1970, "produced" by Green (if that's what you call turning in scratch vocals and other incomplete tracks as finished products), have good moments but don't hang together very well. To me, the standout track on SM&H is "Black John The Conqueror". It's got a funky, sauntering groove to it, plenty of percussion, and some nice horn jabs and slurs (with the Memphis Horns added, probably in Miami). The jazzy, but rather basic piano playing is the work of Walter Davis, Jr., who Mac knew from New York and brought to London for the sessions. Some of the others likely on this cut are listed below. *
As with many of his songs of the period, the lyrics and music here were inspired by Mac's expriences in those spiritual churches he grew up around, with their Santeria-like mix of Catholicism and elements of Afro-Haitian voodoo, hoodoo magic, plus various sprinkles of other world religions thrown in to taste. Dr. John tells us a tale of receiving enlightenment from a wise old dude on Decatur Street (French Quarter: the scene of many a transcendental moment!) who had a John the Conqueror root in his hand and a universal state of mind. The female chorus adds a sense of mysterious ritual majesty to it all.
It is truly a credit to Mac Rebennack's prodigious talents, determination, and maybe a few potent incantations and some good gris gris, that he and his career survived this tumultuous period. He was consumed by a serious heroin addiction that continually disrupted his life and art and allowed him to fall victim to shysters like Charlie Green, who did not have his best interests in mind or at heart, to put it mildly. Yet, after the SM&H debacle, with several years left on his Atlantic Records contract, Mac regrouped, dropped Green, and, at the urging of Jerry Wexler, made a classic Dr. John album dedicated to his hometown R&B roots, Gumbo. He then worked with Allen Toussaint and the Meters on two LPs that got him into the pop charts, In The Right Place and Desitively Bonnaroo (which I have featured previously - check the links provided). Though he has long lived far from the city of his birth and musical beginnings in the Ninth Ward, Mac has become a personification of New Orleans. He radiates the city's spirit and funk, which inspire and color every quirky word he says and note he plays. If you are not overly familiar with his career, you can pretty much start anywhere and hit some pay-dirt fairly easily. I encourage you to do so. In the meantime, I'll be featuring some more of his more obscure endeavors in the coming days and weeks.
*Fred Staehle - drums
Walter Davis - piano
Tommy Feronne, Dr. John - guitars
Carl Radle - electric bass
Chris Mercer, Graham Bond - saxes (plus the Memphis Horns)
Doris Troy, Bobby Whitlock, Tammi Lynn, Shirley Goodman, P. P Arnold and Joni Jonz -backing vocals