Dr. John, whose real name is Malcolm “Mac” Rebennack, is certainly one of the most widely known artists to come out of New Orleans, at least as far as radio play is concerned. While many people do not think of him as a singles artist, and certainly his albums will give you a more inclusive feel for his mastery of mood, this collection of Atco/Atlantic singles released early in his commercial career will be of interest to any fan and is a fascinating look at how a musician develops a persona.
The first song on this collection was a U.S. promo-only single, the deeply sarcastic “The Patriotic Flag Waver (Mono Short Version),” and it may be offensive to those who do not remember the particular characters that inspired it in the ’60s when young people and the conservative elders were so deeply divided. More than that, it is not representative of anything else in Dr. John’s career and is obviously only included for the sake of completing the collection.
As Mac Rebennack, Dr. John had been a teenage piano prodigy and before he found success as a performer he was a popular session player. When his first singles came out, he had a dark, swampy sound full of voodoo imagery that was very much centered in Cajun and Creole culture. This sound did not gain popularity outside of New Orleans in the ’60s but it is very interesting to hear. Perhaps the best, and certainly the darkest, of these are “Gris-Gris Gumbo Ya-Ya” and “Loop Garoo.”
The tone lightened up a lot with “Iko Iko,” always a favorite, and an excellent Huey Smith medley that illustrated that John was quite capable of partying as well as spreading the voodoo vibe. Then there is a surprising and very good version of Willie Dixon’s “Wang Dang Doodle.” The inclusion of Buddy Guy’s “A Man of Many Words” which features Dr. John on piano and Eric Clapton on guitar, seems out of place since John does not sing the lead and the smooth lyrics sound odd in the midst of that distinctive New Orleans growl.
But then we arrive at “Right Place, Wrong Time” which was written by Rebennack and which was produced by Allen Toussaint, who certainly knew a thing or two about making the New Orleans sound commercially acceptable. This number was the first time many people ever heard Dr. John, and that and the follow-up “Such a Night,” also produced by Toussaint, really launched the career that has lasted all these years, and definitely still stand out as the highlights of this collection. The rest of the songs are enjoyable but are neither as unusual as the first songs nor as unique as the two big hits.
These 22 songs certainly belong in the collection of any Dr. John fan. For anyone who is not a fan yet, you might want to start with one of the albums.
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