Dr. John: Freaking Out the Squares Since 1940

Dr. John

The first time I came in contact with Dr. John’s work was on an after-hours TV special in which he and Harry Connick, Jr. did a live duet of “Do You Know What It Means to Miss New Orleans?” (Hear it on YouTube).

Coupled with my musical naivety (I was about 7 or 8 when I saw the duet), the low-key delivery of the track led me to believe that Dr. John was something of a crooner. Perhaps he was not a conventional crooner – his voice is certainly not silky smooth like those of Sinatra, Bing Crosby, or Tony Bennett – but I figured he’d be more in the vein of a Lou Rawls. That is, I figured he’d be one of those rare guys who parlayed his unique rasp into a decently successful career singing blues/R&B and jazz standards.

Dr. John
This, of course, made it even more shocking when I heard Gris Gris (1968) for the first time many years later. When I threw on “Gris Gris Gumbo Ya Ya,” the opening track, I was expecting a grittier (and perhaps Cajun-influenced) version of Scott Walker. Instead, I was greeted by a lecherous saxophone line followed by a croaked: “They call me Dr. John, I’m known as the Night Tripper.” This was not a conventional record, let alone a fulfillment of my apparently unrealistic expectations. Despite my immediate enjoyment of the music, it was very clear that it would take several listens for me to fully understand the record. And listen I did.

The most impressive aspect of Gris Gris, I found, was its propensity to resist any sort of meaningful classification. It was certainly very much influenced by the culture of New Orleans (most obviously, the title of the record comes from Voodoo/Creole traditions), but it was not Cajun or Zydeco music. It carried trappings of jazz and soul, but it was clearly not a record in either genre. It was damned funky, but not in the sense that Curtis Mayfield or The Meters were funky. It even showed the influence of contemporary psychedelic albums, despite it being the farthest thing away from a conventional psychedelic record. Indeed, it seems easier to describe what Gris Gris is not as opposed to what it is.

“Mama Roux” (hear it on YouTube ) is a fine representation of the ridiculousness on display throughout Gris Gris. First and foremost, listen to the synergistic bass/keys tone in the left channel. Also note that the drum kit is taking a supporting role to the cowbell and timbales. Dr. John’s vocal is stellar (despite its tendency to descend into sporadic periods of gibberish), but also pay attention to the backing vocalists supporting the song in any way they can – from the “Mama Roux” refrain to the percussive noises about halfway through the track. Much like Gris Gris as a whole, this track is anything but conventional, though oddly catchy nonetheless.

Stephen Press is a producer, critic, and songwriter based out of New York City. He is the author of the daily blog MP3some and records under the name of Nick Adams.

Leave a Reply