In The Right Place Dr. John

At only a little over half an hour long and his biggest selling album, ‘In The Right Place’ was arguably Dr. John’s third classic album of a long and influential career. A multi-Grammy Award winner and an inductee into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame in the same year as Alice Cooper, Neil Diamond, Darlene Love and Tom Waits, Dr. John’s influence has far often outshone his public recognition. Here we look at the moment he came closest to fame and reflect on how this album reflects the body of work that had such a significant influence on musical culture and history.

Originally recording as a solo artist as Dr. John, the Night Tripper, the man born in New Orleans, Louisiana, as Malcolm ‘Mac’ John Rebennack Jr. began his musical career as a sideman and session musician. With his early career in New Orleans interrupted by a stint in federal prison for narcotics charges, and having damaged a finger thanks to a gunshot and subsequently being forced to switch from guitar to piano, Mac Rebennack moved on to Los Angeles, CA where he found work as an in-demand session musician. Finding a place within the fabled Wrecking Crew as a first-call piano player, he appeared on a string of classic recordings, from ‘Freak Out!’ by The Mothers of Invention through ‘Young, Gifted and Black’ by Aretha Franklin to ‘Exile on Main St.’ by The Rolling Stones. In amongst these recordings, Dr. John crafted his own persona; one based on Louisiana Creole culture, New Orleans Voodoo, and the celebratory nature of Mardis Gras. Boiling these ingredients down, like all good Creole cooking, into an altogether more flavour-packed dish, Dr. John, the Night Tripper arrived with a Psychedelic Rock, Voodoo, and Blues fusion on his debut album ‘Gris-gris’ in 1968. Named after a spiritual object, either good or bad depending on the strain of Voodoo, the album was mostly ignored commercially upon release. Later recognised as a crucial alternative take of late 60s Psychedelia, the album is regularly acclaimed in lists of the most influential albums with the closing track ‘I Walk On Guilded Splinters’ having been covered by artists as diverse as Paul Weller and Jello Biafra.

While several albums followed in quick succession as Dr. John cemented his chaotic Voodoo-inspired persona, he would pivot with 1972’s ‘Dr. John’s Gumbo’, a collection of New Orleans classics in an R&B style. Itself a significant album for the history books due to its immortalising a disparate localised songbook into a cohesive package, it also features influential tracks including his version of ‘Iko Iko’.

Released in 1973, ‘In The Right Place’ was Dr. John’s sixth album. While he had played with artists including Mick Jagger and Eric Clapton and was recognised in musical circles as an influential player and songwriter, he had failed to break into the charts in a meaningful way. Never one to stay still and with a rich musical culture in New Orleans to draw from, Dr. John continued his journey away from his Psych origins with a pivot towards New Orleans Funk. Recorded with the backing of New Orleans Funk band The Meters, best known for their 1969 classic ‘Cissy Strut’, and produced by Allen Toussaint, the album opened with its title track. Opening with the distinctive sound of a Rock-si-chord electric piano, ‘Right Place Wrong Time’ soon expands into a grooving Funk number in which Dr. John recounts the myriad ways in which he has been in the right place at the wrong time. Rumours swirl that stars such as Bette Midler and Bob Dylan contributed lines to the track, while the line “just need a little brain salad surgery, I got to cure my insecurity” influenced the title of the 1973 Emerson, Lake and Palmer album ‘Brain Salad Surgery’. Built on a stomping beat, Dr. John’s lyrics hint at the scrambled confusion of life lived on the edge while the blisteringly short electric guitar solo creates a gripping break in the bass-heavy track. Released as a single, the track hit the top 10 on the Billboard Hot 100, becoming Dr. John’s biggest hit and a true crossover success.

Mixing electric piano with synthesizer and Funk bass, trap drums, and electric guitar, the album retains the swampy, hot and sticky sound of Dr. John’s previous albums. More Blues and R&B focused than his contemporaries The Family Stone and Parliament-Funkadelic, the album nonetheless leans into accessible and danceable grooves over psychedelic excursions. Tracks like ‘Traveling Mood’ are built on a louche swagger, ‘Peace Brother Peace’ hints at Curtis Mayfield, and the slow burn, jaunty weariness of ‘Such a Night’ captures the crash that comes post-exhilaration in moon-washed perfection. The latter track was performed as part of The Band’s ‘The Last Waltz’ concert in 1976 which was immortalised in Martin Scorsese’s concert film leading to increased recognition for Dr. John.

Capturing the distinct sound of New Orleans Funk, Dr. John became an ever more established musical figurehead of the Big Easy, all the while playing in styles that didn’t fully fit with the Dixieland Jazz most commonly associated with the city. Instead, his trademark vocals, which often sound as if they’re being projected across a raucous bar, and prodigious piano playing made him a favourite of musicians far and wide. Guesting on tracks, writing, and performing with a host of musical talent while releasing more than two dozen of his own albums, Dr. John became a central figure of the music industry while never reaching the heights of his one top 10 single. Unlike many, his influence only grew as the 1990s found him joining Spiritualized on ‘Cop Shoot Cop’ while Disney brought him in for a performance of ‘Cruella de Ville’ to close out ‘101 Dalmatians’ and again for ‘Down in New Orleans’ for ‘The Princess and the Frog’.

1973’s ‘In The Right Place’ made Dr. John a one-hit-wonder. Yet, its eleven tracks of bar room Funk stand the test of time as under-appreciated gold. While Mac Rebennack may sing that he was in the ‘Right Place Wrong Time’, the vast influence of his work suggests he was far more regularly in the right place incredibly often. That this album acted as a gateway for many to his vast output is all the better.

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