In The Afterglow Of Listening
In 1968 I was in college and working at the campus FM station. It was there that I came across a new album titled “Gris-gris” by Dr. John, the night tripper. That album was the real introduction of a musical mystery man to the world of popular music. The cover was dark, compelling, irresistible. The title was intriguing. And of course there was the music. At that moment, Dr. John was everything that 1950s parents feared would happen at the birth of rock ’n’ roll as music began pushing the envelope. A decade later, many (if not most) young people hearing new music by Jefferson Airplane, The Who, James Brown and others discovered lyrics, genres, styles, rhythms and themes that flew past those earlier fears. And “Gris-gris” was there to give the envelope another push.
When Dr. John was delivered as a baby boy, he was probably already infused with all that New Orleans musical talent. While his persona and music may have taken different roads from first recording to last, his voice and his music were legitimate, compelling and authentic. In those songs from this new “Gris-gris” album a kid from the midwest could hear witchcraft, voodoo, R&B as well as a unique personality. I asked a friend of mine just what was Gris-gris. He told me “it’s a charm. You know, like your sister wears on her bracelet.” Right. My sister? I don’t think so. Well, I found out my friend was right, but by oversimplifying. Gris-gris is a charm. A voodoo charm, a talisman, an amulet, a spell, an incantation believed capable of warding off evil and bringing good luck to me or bad luck to you.
Five years later in 1973 Dr. John actually had a pop hit when the Gris-gris man made the Top-40 charts. “Right Place, Wrong Time” was clever, catchy (things many pop stars eschew in public) but it was a bonafide hit that peaked at #9. And it was also an ear worm. Infectious. If you go years without hearing it, and then it comes on the jukebox, the radio, or an online service, you know it instantly. There is a thread through Dr. John’s career as he recorded and played what pleased him.
In 1996 I was recruited to become part of GRP Records in New York. A terrific musician and composer, Dave Grusin, started the label and while he was no longer the owner (Universal Music purchased GRP in the early 1990s) he continued there as a recording artist. My job was simple. I was to help turn around a label that had become somewhat of a financial basket case. I knew that what lay ahead for me were a few years of 80-hour weeks and a return to a heavy business travel schedule, but the challenge was intriguing. Besides, I’d be working for Tommy LiPuma whom I knew from my first days in the music business when he was part of Blue Thumb Records, and later when Tommy took another turn at producing artists for A&M.
Arriving at GRP, I immersed myself into listening to the current releases and a few that had been released in the year prior to my coming on board. One of the latter albums was so good I began to wonder just why it hadn’t broken through to a wider audience. I sat with Tommy one morning and asked him to give me some background. His response was to assure me he had been supportive of it (he was the label president, after all) but the short answer was “hey man, it was what it was”. I suggested that we could re-market the album, perhaps with some tour dates, etc., but Tommy wanted to just move on. And that was that.
Back at GRP that one specific 1995 album capturing my attention was “Afterglow” by Mac Rebennack, aka Dr. John. The album is pure enjoyment—almost enchanting—as Mac creates a mood, drawing music from some great songwriters. The tracks included “I Know What I've Got”, “Gee Baby Ain’t I Good To You”, “I’m Just A Lucky So-And-So”, “Blue Skies” and “I’m Confessin' (That I Love You)”. The songwriters included Louis Jordan, Don Redman, Duke Ellington, Mack David, Irving Berlin, Charles Brown, Johnny Moore, and Doc Pomus. Obviously song selection for the album wasn’t about creating an “all Dr. John collection” (although there are a few Dr. John originals as well). Instead the album is largely a nod to an earlier time.
“Afterglow” is a beautifully crafted late 20th century recording yet the tracks remain true to the ideas of the original songwriters, many of whom were already writing songs a half-century before Dr. John was born. And the studio players did their part: John Clayton, Ray Brown, Jeff Hamilton, Phil Upchurch, Lenny Castro, Larry Bunker, and (I’m certain) many unnamed studio musicians. Credit too goes to Al Schmitt at the board, and Tommy LiPuma’s decision to get the album made.
I had several conversations with Mac during my years at GRP. One after a show in Europe, another after a show in New York, and one at a business meeting in the city. There were social moments and business moments during those conversations, including a discussion of the recording budget for the followup to “Afterglow”. My recollection is Mac wanted $350,000 and Tommy was offering $150,000. At the time Tommy elected to hold firm to the lower number which, to be fair, I thought was realistic. In the years since, I wonder if we should have given him more, if only to say thanks for “Afterglow”.
Mac—Malcolm John Rebennack—died June 6 at the age of 77. In 1985 critic Stephen Holden wrote in the New York Times of a Dr. John performance: “As usual, Dr. John recreated the essence of early New Orleans rock 'n' roll - the style of Professor Longhair and Huey (Piano) Smith - in a contemporized [sic] format and with an intensity and zest that transcended mere imitation.”
Mac’s New Orleans’ self was never overwhelmed—intentionally or otherwise. Anytime we hear one of his recordings we hear the true Dr. John. Whether his recordings channeled the “Night Tripper”, moved toward the Blues, displayed his Jazz chops, or was Mac simply being 'Mac from the Big Easy', we are at ease. And if you haven’t yet gotten the message, buy, borrow, or download a copy of “Afterglow”. That album—like those good feelings after a pleasurable experience—will stay with you. And if the afterglow fades, simply listen to the album again.