Author: Bruce Jenkins  Date Posted:7 June 2024 


If you have never made an appointment with Dr John then, friend, you are missing out. 

Sadly, you would be in good company as the doctor—born Malcolm John Rebennack in Louisiana, November 1941—never achieved the recognition his illustrious career deserved. Critics loved him, fellow musicians revered him, yet by-and-large he remained on the fringes of popular music culture; more cult figure than celebrity.

Perhaps the aura of mystery surrounding Dr John deterred some. Others may have found his growling, gravelly voice too much. His mingling of rhythm & blues, New Orleans jazz, funk, San Francisco psychedelia and voodoo rock was possibly a gumbo too rich for many. Although he mellowed into a shuffling elder statesman of Louisiana roots music, even in his later years there clung to Dr John shreds of a shadowy magic that were developed during his youth.

For Dr John was a character, a creation concocted by Mac Rebennack from an assortment of New Orleans figures, both real and legendary. Much of the inspiration came from an actual Dr John, a prince of Senegal who arrived in 'New Aw-lins' from Haiti and was famous for his collection of lizards and snakes, his many wives and countless children, and in particular his services as procurer of gris-gris, voodoo amulet pouches to protect the wearer from bad spirits and harm. This was the basis for the persona of Dr John The Night Tripper, a figure bedecked in feathers and robes who conducted musical rites for the hip inhabitants of late-60s San Francisco. 

The feel is spookily captured in the grooves of the hypnotic 1968 single "I Walk On Guilded Splinters", lifted from Dr John’s debut album Gris-Gris. The title track of Gris-Gris was also released in 7" form and leads off a 2024 RSD album collecting Dr John’s singles from the era: Gris-Gris Gumbo Ya Ya: Singles 1968—1974. This excellent double LP is pressed on royal purple vinyl and boasts informative cover notes. Of the titular "Gris-Gris", we learn:

The Night Tripper posts his professional bonafides by listing the contents of his secret satchel (dragon’s blood, black-cat oil, and "Get-together drops") and the ills they’re sure to cure.

Aren’t you feeling better already?

Sales of the first three albums were modest, but other musicians were certainly listening. Eric Clapton and Mick Jagger were both fans, with the former playing on the ripping 1971 LP The Sun, Moon & Herbs (featured here). Clapton is also on a collaboration with Dr John and Buddy Guy, "A Man Of Many Words", which appears on the 2024 compilation.

As the far-out Sixties flowed into the fragmented Seventies Dr John journeyed back towards the New Orleans jazz and blues roots of his youth. The 1972 album Dr John’s Gumbo comprised mostly R&B standards, including the doctor’s biggest hit up to that time, "Iko Iko". This bouncy sing-along charted in the US, a feat repeated a year later with the even greater success of the single "Right Place, Wrong Time", lifted from the LP In The Right Place.

Throughout the first six years of his solo recording career, Dr John released seven albums on the Atco label plus over a dozen singles. Gris-Gris Gumbo Ya Ya: Singles 1968—1974 collects the latter in a luxurious package that serves as a suitably varied introduction to Mac Rebennack: pianist, songwriter, guitarist, arranger, collaborator, musicologist and myth maker. 

Visit Dr John, The Night Tripper. He’ll heal your ills.


© Bruce Jenkins—June 2024

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