Steve Wilson. On music.

Wednesday, April 25, 2012

Dr. John - Locked Down (Nonesuch)

Every music lover has moments of revelation. I still recall vividly the first time I heard the Animals riveting (yes, it was riveting – I know it’s the critical cliché to end all critical clichés, and I don’t care) take on the American folk chestnut “House of the Rising Sun.” It was playing on the car radio. I made my mom leave the car running as we pulled into a parking space in front of my bro’s jewelry store in downtown Lawrence. Never in my sweet, short life had I heard anything like it. I was a pre-teen. My exposure to black music was limited to Nat King Cole and Harry Belafonte; suffice to say Charley Patton wasn’t playing on WHB. The Animals’ singer, Eric Burdon, was from Newcastle, England, but that voice, and its amazing conviction and intensity stemmed from his adoration of the American blues tradition. I didn’t even know it yet, but I was hooked.

The mise en scene of “House of the Rising Sun” was New Orleans. When you’re a white bread kid in the sixth grade from Kansas your impressions of New Orleans came from Al Hirt and Pete Fountain (okay, Louis Armstrong might cross your radar occasionally, but almost as a novelty). That’s what you saw on television. No knock on those dudes, but they represented a commercialized, somewhat sanitized version of the music of New Orleans. That sound occasionally seeped into the pop mainstream of the Sixties. Fats Domino may have been past his chart prime, but songs like “Iko Iko” by the Dixie Cups and the odd hit from Lee Dorsey (especially “Working in a Coal Mine”) gave a hint what was cooking in the Big Easy. Aaron Neville had a hit with “Tell It Like It Is” but its rhythm n’ blues sound was not especially Nawlins-centric.

For me, another revelatory moment was the first time I heard Dr. John – on a short-lived Kansas City underground FM station called KCJC. The tune was “Mama Roux” if I recall correctly. I’d never heard anything quite like it. Heck, most of America hadn’t. The gumbo of styles, representative of New Orleans, that became available to anyone receptive to it in the Seventies, was still underground culturally in 1968. The Meters first album didn’t drop until 1969. Professor Longhair, after recording for several labels in the Fifties with marginal commercial results, was working as a janitor throughout most of the Sixties. The aforementioned chart hits by Dorsey, Neville and the Dixie Cups only hinted at what was going on in the diverse neighborhoods of the Crescent City. 

 Dr. John, the Night Tripper was a persona created by a Los Angeles based New Orleans ex-pat named Mac Rebennack. Rebennack had played on many recordings as a very young man in New Orleans. He moved on to Los Angeles where he was a go-to session man between 1963 and 1968.

As Dr. John, Rebennack combined the full simmering roux of New Orleans sounds (sanctified church music and Saturday night grind) and mixed them shrewdly and affectingly with the psychedelic wail of the emerging counterculture. Three similarly themed albums cementing the Dr. John cult followed the debut record (Dr. John, the Night Tripper - the album that included “Mama Roux”). Rebennack followed those first four releases with Gumbo, an excellent session that paid homage to hometown piano heroes like Professor Longhair and James Booker, produced by fellow New Orleans legend, Allen Toussaint.

Over the last thirty-some years the Dr. has kept active. As a solo artist he’s responsible for twenty-eight albums. Not bad for a guy who hasn’t had a hit in forty years (1973’s “Right Place, Wrong Time”) and who fought a junk habit until the late Eighties, as I understand it. There’s good music throughout that twenty-eight record catalog; but nothing quite as unique or captivating as those early records – until Locked Down.