“You all know the doctor, Dr. John, Mac Rebennack?” These are well-known words from Robbie Robertson as Mac joined the Band onstage for The Last Waltz, their farewell concert that occurred in 1978 at the Winterland Ballroom in San Francisco. It’s hard to imagine there ever being a time when music lovers of all kinds were not aware of the existence of this one-of-a-kind and glamorously dressed voodoo M.D.
Mac’s The ATCO/Atlantic Singles 1968-1974, out now through the fantastic Omnivore Recordings, is a musical esplanade from the very early beginnings of his mesmerizing psychedelic swampy debut as Dr. John (The Night Tripper) in Gris Gris to the release of his very funkily executed album, Desitively Bonnaroo, in 1974. Rebennack took his Bayou Road nomenclature from reading about a Senagalese prince who came to New Orleans from Haiti in the 1800s. This infamous figure became a well-known hoodoo man and rival of voodoo queen Marie Laveau. He was known to be a spiritual healer with 50 wives, 50 children, and a fascination with reptiles. His name was Dr. John.
Born in 1940 in New Orleans (duh!), Malcolm John Rebennack (aka Mac), started ditching his middle and high school classes to hang around town with a tougher crowd of musicians and drug users. Though we all know the perils and consequences of substance abuse, I have to admit that his choices led him to impressively spend his teens participating in major recording sessions in the Big Easy. From there, he was able to find steady musical work while ruminating on the combination of rock ‘n’ roll, funk, jazz, swamp pop, and NOLA grooves that would makeup the inimitable “Dr. John.” When he arrived in Los Angeles in 1964 to accompany the extraordinary pianist/arranger Harold Battiste, he already had three Dr. John the Night Tripper albums completed in his head.
I, myself, am a hardcore fan of Dr. John, but after reading the excellent liner notes written by Gene Sculatti that comes with The ATCO/Atlantic Singles, I learned something that took me completely by surprise. Originally, Mac wanted someone else to be Dr. John. He only gained confidence in his singing abilities once he heard Bob Dylan and Sonny and Cher. This sparked him a revelation: “If that’s singin’ well, I sure can sing too!” (Oddly enough, Rebennack later credited Sonny Bono for getting him on Atlantic.) And thus Dr. John, The Night Tripper, was born. The Dr. John we know and love, the one who went on to collaborate with Van Morrison, Frank Zappa, and B.B. King (among many, many others).
Surprisingly, this album of singles starts out with one of the artist’s least-known tracks. “Patriotic Flag Waver” is actually from his second album Babylon, released in 1969. If you can believe it, Babylon was the album that Mac expected to be the end of the Dr. John persona. Let’s all thank our stars and garters that this wasn’t the case. From track two — the deliciously groovy “Mama Roux,” after which I named my red Mazda 3 hatchback — and onward, the album goes chronologically from Dr. John’s first ATCO/Atlantic album, Gris-Gris (1968) through his last, Desitively Bonnaroo (1974).
If you’re not familiar with with ouvre of Dr. John, this smattering of singles is a great place to start. There’s a definite trajectory to his career in terms of frequently shifting musical styles, which he keeps on expertly perpetuating right up until the present moment. You can easily and accessibly perceive his shift from the Night Tripper who sings about having “bayou water runnin’ through his veins,” to “Iko-Iko”-Mardi-Gras crooner, and finally to the funkmaster general that marks the end of Mac’s ATCO/Atlantic years.
If you’re an avid Dr. John fan from the US, don’t write this album off as a compilation of songs you already know. There are a couple of tracks on there that are not domestic releases, the most exciting of which is the 1972 British single “A Man of Many Words,” which is sung by Buddy Guy and featuring Eric Clapton. This track is basically a rip off of Otis Redding’s 1968 hit, “Hard to Handle,” but I think you’ll find it’s way more exciting.
Overall, Dr. John’s The ATCO/Atlantic Singles 1968-1974 is a fantabulous collection of songs to cast the perfect spell: Mardi Gras Indian meets voodoo conjurer meets old-time showbiz.
To get your copy of Dr. John’s The ATCO/Atlantic Singles 1968-1974, head over to Omnivore’s online store!