“Walk through the fire, fly through the smoke…
See my enemy at the end of their rope.
Walk on pins and neeedles, see what they can do.
Walk on guilded splinters with the King of the Zulu.”
It is nearly impossible today to find an artist who is the genuine article. Someone is who not only talented, but was actually a part of the innovations in their genre. While British blues is at times staggering and filled with emotion, it is common knowledge that the blues from the Mississippi delta and, later, Chicago, was the genuine article. Our links to this original music are fading fast. Dr. John, known to some as Mac Rebennack, is an artist who represents the traditions and spirit of New Orleans. Whether he is quoting his background through Dixieland jazz or blues, New Orleans bleeds through the speakers whenever he performs. At 69, the Nite Tripper has been ensconced in his musical environment long enough to have defined the past, but also helped carry on traditions into our future.
‘I Walk on Guilded Splinters’ was the epic masterpiece from his 1968 debut on Atlantic-owned Atco Records, “Gris Gris”. Throughout the fifties and early sixties, Dr. John worked as a session musician, producer and A&R man until he began his prolific solo career. He was already established as a key ingredient in the New Orleans music scene when he began putting on elaborate stage shows showcasing his cultural heritage. The massive productions were highlighted by elaborate costumes with headdresses that recalled the Mardi Gras parade attire for those of Creole heritage. Underneath the stunning visuals was an undercurrent of the voodoo practices New Orleans was also known for. By pairing this showmanship with music representing both the musical and cultural values of the Crescent City, Dr. John had effectively created a new genre of music that helped put Creole music back on the map.
The song cycle on “Gris Gris” is best experienced in LP format, from start to finish with additional tracks like ‘Mama Roux’ adding much to the proceedings. You can hear, however, in ‘I Walk…’ how intense and involved Dr. John’s live shows were in the late sixties. The song boils his persona down to an essence, giving the listener a true feeling of what the backbone of New Orleans traditions really are. Mixing influences from Screamin’ Jay Hawkins and Professor Longhair, a history of New Orleans is contained within the seven minute epic. This reverence crystallized on the 1972 Atco release “Gumbo”. This album, his fifth solo release, became his calling card, mixing standards with self penned tracks to great effect. His own songs mix so well with the classic New Orleans based covers that you are hard pressed to tell a difference between the old and the new.
Dr. John has gone on to great success with many different types of music. His standard Jazz albums have become his best known work, with the collections “In A Sentimental Mood” and “Duke Elegant” becoming best sellers in the genre. He also revisits his Nite Tripper persona from time to time, as well as the traditional New Orleans stylings on albums “Goin Back to New Orleans” and “Anutha Zone”. While he continues to perform, his shows are now a mixture of the old and the new, the taboo and the mainstream. To see him perform is to experience a century’s worth of music most of us have no reference for. Listen to the albums to read the map he has left the rest of us to go and seek out this classic music of the American south.