Dr. John - Mos' Scocious (ATCO 6957)
If you're a regular over here at the B side, one thing you might have noticed is that the name "Rebennack" is all over this music like, well... white on rice.
Mac Rebennack spent his childhood sneakin' into places like The Brass Rail and The Dew Drop Inn just soakin' up the incredible R&B scene that was New Orleans in the 1950's. He took guitar lessons from the likes of Papoose Nelson and Roy Montrell. At 15, he got himself kicked out of High school so he could spend more time playing gigs with his band.
It was also around this time that he began to hang around Cosimo's studio with his runnin' partner James Booker.They were there for sessions that produced amazing records like "Tutti-Frutti", and eventually became part of the scene. It was there at Cosimo's that "Max", as they used to call him, learned his chops as a producer and arranger.
He was writing songs for people like Art Neville and Larry Williams over at Specialty Records before he turned 18, and had a regional hit of his own with "Storm Warning", released on Cosimo's Rex label in 1959. Johnny Vincent used him as the creative force behind his ACE records of the period, and eventually Mac had his own small office at Cosimo's studio.
When Joe Ruffino formed his RIC and RON labels in 1959, he made Rebennack the "president and A&R man", which basically meant that he was songwriter, producer, talent scout, arranger, and back-up musician for the fledgling company. It was here that he worked (and played) on such amazing records as Irma Thomas' "You Can Have My Husband", Johnny Adams' "Losing Battle", Professor Longhair's "Go to the Mardi Gras", and on and on. Although he wasn't making much money, he was doing what he loved, being part of the music.
In addition to all this success, he also managed to become a full-fledged junkie by the time he was 20 years old. In those days, it kinda went with the territory. When he almost lost a finger trying to wrestle a gun away from some guy in Mississippi, he thought it was all over. James Booker picked him up and taught him how to play the Hammond Organ, so he could keep on working.
A combination of union squabbles and over-zealous DA Jim Garrison's efforts to "clean up" the town began to put the squeeze on work for musicians in the Crescent City. Small record labels went under. National acts that had begun recording in New Orleans in an effort to capture "that sound" now looked elsewhere. When Harold Battiste shut down AFO (a venture Max truly believed in) and moved west, he took a piece of Rebennack's heart with him.
It wasn't long before Max was set-up, busted on a heroin possession charge, and shipped off to Federal Prison in Fort Worth, Texas. As a condition of his release in 1965, he was forbidden to go "to or through" New Orleans. This was when he joined Battiste in Los Angeles.
Harold got him jobs as a studio musician, working on everything from Phil Spector's "wall of sound" recordings, to sessions with Iron Butterfly and Buffalo Springfield ("lames", as he called them). This only served to make the bond between the relocated NOLA musicians out there stronger, and they began to plot and scheme a way to recapture the essence of their old hometwown.
What they came up with, on borrowed Sonny and Cher studio time, is one of the truly classic albums of all time; Gris-Gris. People like Battiste, Jessie Hill, Alvin Robinson, John Boudreaux, Shirley Goodman, Ronnie Barron, and Plas Johnson joined together to create a strange and spooky Voodoo Gumbo that would, much to Atlantic Records' surprise, go on to capture the imagination of a generation.
I remember being in 9th grade, laying in bed listening to Rosko playing "Walk On Gilded Splinters" on WNEW, and feeling like maybe there really was an "underground", man. It was cool.
With his new "Dr John" persona (a mantle which Ronnie Barron declined) in place, Mac began touring with his "Night-Trippers". They put on incredible stage shows complete with Mardi Gras Indian costumes, snake charmers, and fire eaters... a definite trip! Three more albums would follow in the same vein (with people like Eric Clapton and Mick Jagger joining the party), but none would be able to capture that same elusive vibe.
Jerry Wexler at Atlantic convinced Rebennack to get back to his R&B roots, and produced the classic Dr John's Gumbo album in 1972. In addition to the usual suspects, they brought in people like Lee Allen and Melvin and David Lastie from the Cosimo's studio days and came up with a great record. Mac continued on with this hometown "fonk" concept, hooking up with Allen Toussaint and The Meters to record the incredible In The Right Place, with two singles off the record hitting the top ten in 1973.
This week's offering comes from the follow-up, Desitively Bonnaroo, a record some people refer to as The Meters' second best album (after, of course, Rejuvenation which was recorded the same year). Mos' Scocious (the flip side of "(Everybody Wanna Get Rich) Rite Away", which topped out at 92 on the pop charts) is one of my all-time faves. Dig that Toussaint 'hercules goes latin' production, the '74 Meters stone groove, the spacy background vocals by Jessie Hill and former Ikette Robbie Montgomery... da bomb, y'all!
Max would go on to corroborate with Doc Pomus on City Lights and Tango Palace in the late seventies, and record a few more, mostly solo, albums before winning a grammy for his work with Rickie Lee Jones on In A Sentimental Mood in 1989. This was also the year that he entered re-hab for real. Goin' Back To New Orleans, his 1992 roots revival just rocks da house! He continues to churn out quality records (highlighted by the great Creole Moon in 2001) to this day.
The Dr John band has, over the years, been like a veritable who's who of New Orleans musicians, a tradition that is still alive. We saw him in Lowell, Massachusetts this past August, about two weeks before Katrina hit. His band, "The Lower 911", included Crescent City veterans David Barard on bass and Herman Ernest on drums. Da Fonk was In Da House!
After the flood, Dr John was quoted as saying that his beloved New Orleans was a victim of cold-blooded murder! He recorded a benefit album, Sippiana Hericane, with The Lower 911 shortly thereafter.
As pointed out by Dan Phillips a couple of weeks ago, Mac Rebennack turned 65 last month. In addition to being a walking history lesson, he is (along with Allen Toussaint) heir-apparent to people like Tuts Washington, Professor Longhair, and Huey "Piano" Smith.
Read his excellent autobiography Under A Hoodoo Moon.
He's the Real Deal.