Wipe your mind clean of all you’ve ever heard and read about Dr. John the Night Tripper. If you knew that once he was a New Orleans session musician and songwriter called Mac Rebennack, forget that too. And although Gumbo (Atco 7006) comes with maybe the best set of liner notes you are ever going to find, don’t look at them. Instead, hand this record to a friend and ask her to find the place in “Tipitina” (side two, band three) where the first vocal ends and the instrumental break begins, while you go out of the room and wait. Have her turn the volume up loud, plenty of bass, and shout for you to come back in as that break starts to flow.
You will then want to play the track from the start, and will be able to sit through the peculiar rasping voice because you know you’ll be rewarded by some of the richest piano-playing you’ve ever heard, with more rhythms suggested and hinted at than is possible in so little time, with so few notes, and without ever losing an easy rocking sway.
Now, if you must, check out the liner note, where Dr. John tells coproducer Jerry Wexler about the origins of the tune: “You know this one: it’s the piano classic you and Ahmet produced the original recording of, with Professor Longhair in New Orleans in 1953. I heard it played live by ‘Fess’ a hundred times. My pop used to install and maintain sound systems in different clubs in New Orleans and he used to take me around…. I can play ‘Tipitina’ with dozens of variations without ever getting away from Professor Longhair; the version I’m playing here is pure classic Longhair.”
That kind of comment might make you thirsty to hear Professor Longhair, rather than Dr. John. But he under-rates his own contribution; good as Longhair’s version was, his didn’t have quite so much warmth and charm as this has, at least not in the version he recorded for Atlantic (which is due for reissue soon). Put the needle back at the start of side two of Gumbo, and let it go.
“Junko Partner,” like every other song on the record, has a fascinating musical and social history, which the sleeve note documents. But the value is in this particular performance, which once again rises above the original (by James Wayne), thanks to some truly amazing drumming from Freddie Staehle, and several wonderful tenor sax breaks from Lee Allen. Lee did all those nice runs in the middle of Little Richard’s Specialty classics, but in the years since then he has not managed to match them, until this record. Along with the piano, the tenor sax has been a widely recognized New Orleans rock ‘n’ roll instrument, but this track draws attention to the equally distinctive style of drumming, which Dr. John calls “melody drums.” Impossible for me to analyze what Freddie does, but he creates an irrepressible jauntiness that has me shaking my head from side to side every time I hear it.
After playing that three or four times, you may be prepared to let the needle run onto the second track, a faithful rendition of part two of “Stack O’Lee” as recorded in 1950 by Archibald. The right hand skitters up and down the piano keyboard, making it seem longer than most pianists do, while saxes riff along in the background in the way we’ve been accustomed to, through Fats Domino’s records.
“Tipitina” introduces us to the other end of the keyboard, and then Dr. John rolls into “Those Lonely Lonely Nights,” which he describes as “a classic South Louisiana two-chord (E-flat B-flat) slow ballad,” a very useful bag into which all kinds of familiar songs can be dropped (“I’m a Fool to Care,” “The Things I Used to Do”). In contrast to the three previous tracks, this depends more on Dr. John’s singing than on his piano-playing, which receives unnecessary support from a bass guitarist who tends to draw attention to the limited structure of the song, which not even a nice little guitar break can rescue it from. The same sort of criticism applies to the remaining tracks on this side, a medley of Huey Smith songs and a version of “Little Liza Jane” in the Huey Smith style. Whereas the previous songs had given Dr. John space to improvise, here he seems content to recreate the previous versions, relying on the nostalgic power “High Blood Pressure” will carry for those who heard it before. Turn the record over before you get discouraged (but after you’ve waited for the nice Lee Allen sax solo on “Little Liza Jane”).
At the time of writing this, “Iko Iko” is at 75 on the singles charts, so maybe you’ve heard it on the radio by now. Dr. John has gone back past the Dixie Cups’ hit to the original recording of the song by Sugar Boy and the Canecutters, who called it “Jackamo.” Once again, Dr. John infuses more life and variety into it than the originator, and it must sound great coming onto the radio after Cat Stevens and the New Seekers. But there are quite a few better things on the album.
“Blow Wind Blow” is another slow song that would need a mellower voice than Dr. John’s to carry it, but is a nice introduction to the next track, “Big Chief,” another Professor Longhair song which features an intriguing organ riff (played by Ronnie Barron), some neat whistling, a nice strutting vocal in a peculiar pidgin-Indian patois from Dr. John, and some lovely soft sax.
You might want to skip “Somebody Changed the Lock,” because its Dixieland cornet and clarinet are too unfamiliar to get close to, and because the next track, “Mess Around,” is such a knockout. Dr. John takes a running jump into the piano opening, helped by a hustling drummer, and then plays every note he can find, never missing a one despite the breakneck pace and all the shouting he’s doing meanwhile. I couldn’t tell you what kind of dancing you’d want to do to this, but you surely won’t be able to stay sitting down. It would be hard to follow that without losing our concentration, and the last track on this side doesn’t really work, crying out for a stronger, more melodic voice than Dr. John’s, which no amount of chorus shouting can compensate for. Still, the final tally for the album is six great tracks, three that get by as ‘interesting,’ especially when listened to after reading the sleeve notes, and only three that don’t make it either as music or as education.
Like most recent new musical directions, the autobiography in music could be said to have started with a Dylan record, in his interpretations of other people’s songs on Self Portrait. But whereas Dylan, and more recently Laura Nyro in It’s Gonna Take a Miracle and Ry Cooder in Into The Purple Valley, used songs that were heard on record players and over the radio, Dr. John is here singing songs that he was much closer to than that, local hits that he used to play in live gigs around New Orleans, or standards that, like “Tipitina,” he heard live a hundred times by their composers. Some of the musicians on Gumbo played on the original recordings, and were able for most of the time to avoid the two traps of simply repeating the original arrangement or altering it just to be different. The result is a record that is a delight both for people who never heard any of the previous versions of the songs, and for those who remember them well.
For enabling the record to be made, a lot of credit must go to the co-producers Jerry Wexler and Harold Battiste, without whom, as the cliche goes, it never would have happened. It was partly Harold’s idea, a few years ago, for the former New Orleans session musician, Mac Rebennack, to assume the persona of a mysterious voodoo character Dr. John, and it was Harold who collected the musicians together to concoct the gris-gris sound. But it was Jerry who talked Dr. John into returning to the music of his previous career, and it was the two of them together who made sure this album did not degenerate into a nostalgic anachronism, but instead became a lively contribution to our current experience. Maybe the follow-up will be credited to Mac Rebennack, and the circle will be complete.