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Dr. John’s Gumbo

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Dr John's Gumbo45 years ago Dr. John released his iconic tribute to New Orleans music, Dr. John’s Gumbo. This fifth album by this artist is a collection of covers of classic tunes associated with his native city. The resulting sound falls somewhere between the earliest rock n’ roll and the contemporary sounds of the early seventies, all while remaining musically true to the New Orleans R&B sound.

Dr. John was born Malcolm John “Mac” Rebennack with French lineage in New Orleans dating back to the early 1800s. His earliest influences were King Oliver and Louis Armstrong, while as a teen he was present at some of the earliest recordings of Little Richard. At age 16, Rebennack gained employment as a producer at Ace Records while playing guitar in local clubs through the late 1950s. After deciding to concentrate on piano and adopting the stage persona “Dr. John”, he migrated to Los Angeles to join the booming session musician scene and became part of the famous “wrecking crew”. Here, he played on albums ranging from Sonny & Cher to Frank Zappa and the Mothers of Invention.

In the late 1960s, Dr. John struck out as a solo artist, at first combining his core New Orleans-style with psychedelic rock tilted towards his fascination of voodoo religious ceremonies. His acclaimed debut album Gris-Gris was released in 1968 followed by the subsequent yearly releases Babylon, Remedies and The Sun, Moon, and Herbs, which all worked to build Dr. John’s cult following.

Co-produced by Harold Battiste and Jerry Wexler, Dr. John’s Gumbo was the first studio album to significantly change musical direction. He later wrote that this album was, “both a tribute to and my interpretation of the music I had grown up with in New Orleans in the late 1940s and 1950s.”

Roots Rock Review logoDr. John’s Gumbo by Dr. John
Released: April 20, 1972
Produced by: Harold Battiste & Jerry Wexler
Track Listing Primary Musicians
Iko Iko
Blow Wind Blow
Big Chief
Somebody Changed the Lock
Mess Around
Let the Good Times Roll
Junko Partner
Stack-A-Lee
Tipitina
Those Lonely Lonely Nights
Huey Smith Medley
Little Liza Jane
Dr. John
Lead Vocals, Piano, Guitars
Harold Battiste
Clarinet, Saxophone, Horn Arrangements
Sidney George
Harmonica, Saxophone
Jimmy Calhoun
Bass
Fred Staehle
Drums, Percussion

 

Dr. John’s Gumbo starts with its most significant hit, “Iko Iko”, originally composed by James “Sugar Boy” Crawford in the 1950s and telling the story of a parade collision between two tribes of Mardi Gras Indians. Musically, the choppy rhythms are accented by scratchy lead vocals, responsive backing vocals and just the right amount of boogie-woogie piano and brass sections, nicely setting the pace for the album. “Blow Wind Blow” the first of several Huey “Piano” Smith songs, works its way in from the ending of “Iko Iko” in medley-like fashion and offers another fine upbeat and entertaining rock boogie.

Earl King‘s “Big Chief” is built on a cool electric organ arpeggio, offering a spooky-cool groove upon which to build – other elements including a growling sax and more call and response backing vocals. “Somebody Changed the Lock” leans the most towards New Orleans jazz, especially through the various iconic horns throughout above the now standard boogie piano. Next, (Ahmet Ertegün) – here Dr. John puts a a Dixieland spin on the Ray Charles classic, “Mess Around” (written by Atlantic Records founder Ahmet Ertegün), with this version offering not too much in terms of substance but plenty of pure musical fun.

Dr John

“Let the Good Times Roll”, another song originally by King, stays within the original blues structure of the song, with much a capella vocals in between the musical chops during the verses. “Junko Partner” is built upon a consistent, shuffling drum beat before the fine piano-led blues verses. This song persists in its methodical rhythms throughout, even having a bridge which is purely vocals over drum shuffle. “Stack-A-Lee” follows with as good a version of this much covered staple (usually titled “Stagger Lee”), featuring a frantic piano and contrasting growling vocals, while Professor Longhair‘s “Tipitina” is recorded much more low-fi, almost sounding like it was recorded live in a club or even during a rehearsal.

The final stretch of the album starts with “Those Lonely Lonely Nights”, rapid piano over steady rhythms in Fats Domino-like fashion. Next is a seamless tribute to Huey “Piano” Smith, with a medley of three tunes (“High Blood Pressure”, “Don’t You Just Know It”, and “Well I’ll Be John Brown”) are offered over steady boogie rock, never breaking out of key or rhythm. The album wraps with “Little Liza Jane”, featuring a good sax lead and rich harmonies.

Dr. John’s Gumbo commenced a very successful phase in Dr. John’s career and set the stage for the follow-up 1973 album, In the Right Place, which became his most commercially successful album ever.
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Chuck Berry in the 1950s

This past week the world lost an original music legend and rock pioneer when Chuck Berry passed away at age 90. A native of St. Louis, Berry began performing at a young age and would have various stages of his musical career with differing levels of success. Some of these stages met their terminal end as Berry spent one of several stints in prison throughout his adult life. Good and bad, Chuck Berry was original and inspirational for about the final seven decades of his life.

During these many decades now (and probably for many decades to come), the exact point of origin of rock n’ roll has been disputed. Whatever the exact place in time, it is clear that the decade of the 1950s saw the fusion of traditional styles along with the adoption of new technologies to make new weird and wonderful sounds which would soon converge under the umbrella of this new popular genre. With this, there is little dispute about Berry’s role in developing this new sound.

Entering the decade, Berry was a young husband and father who played in bands around St. Louis to earn an extra source of income to supplement his full-time industrial work. Berry gained much influence from blues musicians like T-Bone Walker and Ira Harris and soon entered into a long time collaboration with piano player Johnnie Johnson of the Johnnie Johnson trio. Here, Berry got his first exposure to country music, which he fused with his blues background to the extent that some referred to him as the “black hillbilly”. To this end, Berry drew influence from country artists like Jimmie Rodgers and, on top of this unique musical mixture, Berry began to develop a distinct stage persona by incorporating unique dance moves, which helped accelerate his live popularity.

In 1955, Chuck Berry migrated to Chicago and struck up a professional relationship with blues legend Muddy Waters. In turn, Waters referred him to Leonard Chess of Chess Records as Berry prepared to be the next blues star at Chess, but was surprised when Chess was more interested in a traditional country fiddle tune called “Ida Red”, which Berry had adapted. In the recording session, Berry recorded the song with new lyrics and the title “Maybellene”. The result was a million selling mainstream pop song, which sparked Berry’s career and initiated the his most commercially successful era.

During the year 1956 Berry released several more singles, with the most successful being the song “Roll Over Beethoven”, as well as contributed several songs to the soundtrack for the film Rock Rock Rock. Then in 1957, Berry finally released his debut album After School Session which included twelve tracks completely written by Berry himself, a very rare accomplishment for rock artists of the era. By this time, Berry was on national tours with top artists like Buddy Holly, Fats Domino, Carl Perkins and the Everly Brothers, which brought him exposure in multiple markets as well as on television. One Dozen Berrys was his second all-original LP, released in 1958, and then he released on called Chuck Berry Is On Top, an apt title for Berry’s position at the end of 1950s.

However, the next of several legal downfalls had a crippling effect on Berry’s career trajectory. He was convicted for transporting a teenage girl across state lines and eventually served a year and a half in prison in 1962 and 1963. Through most of the decade of the 1960s, Berry was more successful as an influence (to popular rock/pop groups like the Beatles, Rolling Stones and the Beach Boys) than as a first-person musical artist. Although he did return to slight commercial success in the early seventies, Berry would spend the long expanse of the rest of his life mainly as an undisputed rock legend.

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History of the Blues, Part 2

In the second and final part of the series, we look at American blues as it fanned out into several sub-genres and had notable influence on rock n roll in the second half of the 20th century. This is done in conjunction with the below video, which is part 2 of a 2-part 2013 BBC Documentary called Blues America: Woke Up This Morning, with commentary by Keith Richards, Taj Mahal, Blind Boy Paxton, Buddy Guy and Billy Boy Arnold among others.

With the industrialization of cotton picking and the post-war boom of northern American cities, there was a mass migration from rural to urban areas, especially among the African American population. With this, the style and meaning of blues music continued to change as attitudes about the music evolved within the younger members of the African American community.

In 1950, the new electric blues was “every black person’s party music” as the acoustic, agrawal sound of the recent past was quickly left behind. Founded and run by Polish immigrant brothers Leonard and Phil Chess who also handled most of the music production, Chicago’s Chess Records became the epicenter of this new sound. Mississippi migrant Muddy Waters was the first real “star” of Chess, with a perfectly framed voice and harmonica played above sparse but potent musical arrangements. Waters’ first hit, “I Can’t Be Satisfied” in 1948, was the perfect bridge between the country and city sound as one of the earliest examples of an electrified take on down-home blues.

The Chess brothers began an association with Sam Phillips and his Memphis-based Sun Records in 1951, closing the talent circuit between the Delta and Chicago blues talent pools. Phillips discovered Howlin Wolf (born Chester Aurthur) and referred to Chess, resulting in the 1951 hit “How Many More Years”, an original song delivered with a powerful voice and strong commercial sensibility. Phillips also released early music by the legendary B.B. King, launching an incredibly long and fruitful career.

Of course, it was Phillips’ discovery of Elvis Presley, starting with a cover of Arthur Crudup’s “That’s Alright Mama” where the young white performer “sounded black”. From here, rock n’ roll became the great melting pot of musical genres, sneaking across an invisible racial barrier and acting as a tectonic shift in American culture. In a reversal of the Elvis model, guitarist Chuck Berry went to Chess Records and converted a country/hillbilly song into the hit “Maybelline”, where the young black performer “sounded white”.

By the end of the 1950s, young black Americans had begun to move towards the sound of Motown/soul and away from the blues that they deemed  “slave music”, “plantation music” and/or “old folks music”. But just as the hits dried up for even the most famous blues artists, a new white audience began to celebrate the traditional blues and re-frame this music as an art of “struggle and strife”. With this, the careers of older artists such as John Estes, Son House and Skip James found new life up north as these old masters performed to new white audiences. Adding to the appeal and curiosity, the “crossroads legend” combined with the 1961 compilation album, King of the Delta Blues Artists added to the legend and mystery of Robert Johnson and increased his influenced on the coming wave of (mostly) British classic rock bands such as the Yardbirds, the Rolling Stones, Cream and Led Zeppelin.

In the coming decades, artists like BB King, who played uptown, electric blues with class and dignity, kept the blues tradition alive in mainstream music with a fresh wave of blues-based rock artists, such as Stevie Ray Vaughn, George Thorogood and Robert Cray coming in the 1980s. In 1990, a 72-year-old John Lee Hooker, who had migrated to Detroit from Mississippi, to perform his famed boogie chillin’ style, had an incredible career revival with the album The Healer, proving that the blues style would live on into the future.

History of the Blues, Part 1

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