Album Reviews

Dr. John: The ATCO/Atlantic Singles 1968-1974 (Omnivore Recordings)

dr john

Dr. John
The ATCO/Atlantic Singles 1968-1974
Omnivore Recordings

One of the most colorful musicians of the 1970s music scene, Mac Rebennack, better known as Dr. John, embodied the spirit and diversity of his hometown of New Orleans, blending rock and blues into a swampy, voodoo-hinted gumbo that was and still is unclassifiable. To embody his sound, Dr. John took to wearing the lavish outfits of Mardi Gras indian tribes, making his already flamboyant music even more spectacular and alien. Dr. John is the embodiment of uniqueness, a one-of-a-kind man whose music can only be classified as “Dr. John.”

Making his career and his story even more fascinating is that he’s done so with only a modest bit of tangible commercial success. His is a career built off of a handful of early successes in the single charts, earning him a loyal, devout audience. That career-building success is documented nicely by The ATCO/Atlantic Singles 1968-1974, starting with his early work as Dr. John The Night Tripper, through the successes at the beginning of the 1970s.

His career did not take off immediately, though; his debut album, Gris-Gris, is one of his most beloved recordings, yet it wasn’t a commercially successful record. That would change, though, as Dr. John’s star began to rise, and several of its songs are now considered iconic: “I Walk On Gilded Splinters” has become a standard in some quarters, as have “Mama Roux” and “Gris-Gris Gumbo Ya Ya,” all of which appear here, but in their single mix format, which have rarely been compiled digitally. The album’s lack of success prompted the shortening of his performing name (even though he’s still known as The Night Tripper), but that mattered little to the music he made, and in retrospect, perhaps the decision was a wise one.

Life didn’t necessarily get better for Dr. John, thanks to drug addiction and legal problems, but it didn’t stand in the way of him recording and releasing some amazing and enjoyable music. From the murky “Loop Garoo” and “I Been Hoodooed” to the jaunty fun of “Wang Dang Doodle” and “Wash Mama Wash,” it’s easy to understand why he would become a live attraction during this timespan. Some of these songs have become bonafide classics; “Iko Iko,” “RIght Place Wrong Time” and “Such A Night” not only have served Dr. John well, but they live on in perpetuity, being regularly covered by everyone from pop and rock superstars to your local blues-rock band.

Though personal demons and elusive commercial success may have plagued him during this time, Dr. John’s music only kept getting better. His albums did, too; his radio hits brought in the audience, and his albums kept them coming back. The Sun, Moon, & Herbs, released in 1971, found him consorting with rock and roll and blues legends such as Eric Clapton and Mick Jagger. His next album, Dr. John’s Gumbo, came a year later. Predominantly a covers album, it is a love letter to his native New Orleans, and it established him as the spokesman of the Big Easy. It would soon be followed by his best selling record, In The Right Place, and his legacy as a showman and a songwriter was secured.

Dr. John continued on well after the scope of this collection ended, releasing album after album, recording and performing, creating a legacy of wonderful music and live performances. The ATCO/Atlantic Singles 1968-1974 documents where he came from, and more importantly, it shows you why he’s such a beloved figure—great music, great songs, great fun. Laissez les bons temps rouler!

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