The greatness of Mac Rebennack, alias, Dr. John, also known as John Crieux, rests on his command of the musical use of idiomatic expression. Not a technically well-endowed singer, nor a great songwriter, he leaves his mark through the discipline and control he exerts over all that he touches. Every note seems in retrospect the product of a decision, the result of a selection based on an intuitive feeling for what works and what doesn’t, what is right and what is wrong, what is finally the correct way to play the song.
In the Right Place, possibly his best album, is an example of regional art. In the six years since he started recording under the name Dr. John, he has tried a lot of things once, confusing casual listeners (including me) in the process. I mistook all that early gris-gris-voodoo for L.A.-psychedelic exploitation, especially because the early albums bore the imprimatur of Charlie Greene, the man largely responsible for the early commercial success of Sonny and Cher. I didn’t realize then that many of the most important people on the Sonny and Cher records (which I enjoyed) were refugees from the dying New Orleans studio scene, headed west in search of better pay and more work.
Harold Battiste, Jr. was the most prominent of these. Famed as an arranger and keyboard man, he was rumored to be the driving force behind Sonny and Cher’s string of successful singles. He eventually showed up as producer on some of John’s albums but by then I was beginning to realize that although he recorded in L.A. and seemed crazy enough to have wandered right in off the Strip, everything he did was part of his New Orleans background.
When the Doctor recently returned to straight-ahead rock & roll on Gumbo he wasn’t renouncing his past and returning to his roots; rather, he was choosing to emphasize a different part of his past — the one that included musical encounters with Huey Smith, Amos Milburn, Professor Longhair and Allen Toussaint. Toussaint is perhaps the last of the New Orleans production heavies. He was the author and producer of all the great Lee Dorsey records (including “Get Out of My Life Woman”) and the force behind the greatest R&B studio band since Booker T. and the MGs, the Meters. It is unsurprising that he finally turned up as John’s producer on In the Right Place, and brought the Meters along for backup. The only thing that seems out of synch is the site of the recording, Miami, Florida. Not that Criteria isn’t the finest studio in the South (it probably is), but it feels like the album should have been cut in New Orleans. It probably wasn’t because there are no modern recording studios left in the most influential city in the country’s musical history — a sad and sorry fact of life.
I first saw the Doctor perform at the Boston Tea Party in the summer of 1968. His warmup act was the then unrecorded and untested Allman Brothers Band. They blasted their way through a lot of what was to become their stock and trade and played with the concentrated energy that was to characterize all their later performances. But if they looked like they were on the threshold, John looked ready for the doghouse.
His recording career had gone sour, he was in the middle of a financial disagreement with manager Charlie Greene that resulted in their separation, and his personal health was in a questionable state. Bizarre rumors of eccentric behavior had preceded his appearance and he seemed so lethargic and ridiculous as he stood on the stage in full costume, barely playing the guitar he had slung over his shoulder, that I couldn’t stand to watch. Right all along, I thought to myself, just another down-and-outer from L.A.
The Doctor is over some of his personal trials and tribulations and on both Gumbo and In the Right Place he seems enthusiastic, optimistic and completely alive. “Peace, brother, peace, the doctor’s comin’…” he sings at the end of side one, after reminding us that “… I ain’t no politician, I’m just worried ’bout the world condition.” The cut is typical of the album. The vocal is clear, distinct, witty and powerful when it needs to be. The rhythm is syncopated just enough to keep the traditional chord progression sounding fresh. The band plays some very detailed bass figures and the horns are used more for percussion than melody. The voice and response chorus reverses its normal order — the girls come first and are then answered by John’s lead. And just as we get used to this bit of business, John’s part is replaced by a saxophone break that sizzles.
Not all the 11 cuts have that much to recommend them, but they all have something. “In the Right Place” is a near classic pile-driver that builds. But instead of the normal mid-song device of introducing some fresh melody lines, Toussaint and John alter the rhythm. The band smoothly shifts gears and moves from emphasizing the second and fourth beat to emphasizing the first. John, the voices and the band eat up the middle stretch and then gracefully return to the two-four pattern, as if it was all in a day’s work.
On the album’s ballad, a beauty called “Just The Same,” there is no need for variations because the song and performance speak so completely for themselves. Hence, John and the band do things as simply as possible, with his vocal embellished by a classically restrained horn part and a nice sax flourish on the last note. Even in such a controlled setting, the ear continues to pick up on the little things, like the way genius drummer Joseph “Zigaboo” Modiliste drives the song with more power than we have any right to expect.
John’s deadpan sense of humor is given greater play than on any of his previous records on “Traveling Mood” and “Such A Night.” The former’s tune and arrangement sound like a children’s song and the horns poke in just where you would expect kids to clap or sing along. In lesser hands it would have turned into burlesque. The latter is a gem with little more bite to it. Musically it sounds like a down-home version of “Moonlight Bay,” but one soon realizes that the Doctor is singing about stealing his best friend’s girl and his philosophy rests on the premise that “If I don’t do it, someone else will.” It’s mellow but it stings.
Allen Toussaint’s own song “Life” makes the best use of voices — all male and with a rich folk style aura to them. And “Cold, Cold, Cold” (which goes on to add, “the way you wreck my soul”) contains almost every element of what has made the entire album a success: the subtle use of rhythm in a traditional setting, the imaginative band patterns and use of horns and percussion, the occasional flashes of beauty and poetry in John’s singing, the intelligent use of familiar language to philosophize, comment and express what is intended to be felt.
In the Right Place will not overwhelm most listeners. It is, in fact, just short of great rock & roll. Perhaps the very things — discipline, control and intelligence — that explain so much of what is good in it are also the explanation for why it isn’t slightly more compelling. John lacks the final bit of inspiration that can make us forget that we admire the artist because we are too completely involved with what he is doing.
I prefer this to Gumbo if only because in retrospect the latter seemed a little too academic. It was great hearing John pay homage to his idols and the people who contributed to his style. But In the Right Place is more unvarnished and contemporary than its predecessor, and somehow seems more real. It is good enough to make a believer out of anyone who takes the time to listen. And if the good Doctor keeps growing his next will be good enough to make followers out of the believers.