READ ABOUT MY LATEST DISCOVERIES
WHILE I DELVE IN THE CATACOMBS OF ROCK AND ROLL...
All texts written by Jetse de Jong and edited by Lotte Holterman
I guess everyone has this one special artist who for some magical reason just keeps on doing everything right. Dr. John has been that to me, being one of the first pianists I seriously started listening to and still do to this day. There's no other musician from which I stole more blueslicks, left-hand patterns or chord changes. More than once I've been stuck with my face to my computer screen just to see what the heck he was playing whenever I could not figure it out with my ears.
With a performing and recording career of over 50 years, the amount of treasures to discover is endless. From solo piano, small groups to lush orchestra arrangements, everything the good ol' Doc did is strongly rooted in New Orleans culture and comes with extra gumbo-flavoured fonk sauce.
When Dr. John — whose actual name was Mac Rebennack — left this world in june 2019, it saddened me deeply. Not only did we lose one of the funkiest cats on this planet, but also one of the biggest ambassadors of New Orleans culture. New Orleans, the Crescent City, honoured him with a grand second line parade, as is their custom.
A leader as well as a side man, he recorded around 40 albums and often appeared with artists such as BB King, the Black Keys, Canned Heat and Jools Holland. (And how about this one with Christina Aguilera?). I selected a few of my favourite Dr. John albums to serve you as an introduction to his great output.
This album showcases the R&B music of New Orleans, covering songs of fellow pianists Huey 'Piano' Smith and the 'Bach of Rock' Professor Longhair to rearranged traditionals such as Iko Iko and Stack-a-lee. Gumbo was recorded when Dr. John had enough of the psychedelica show he had been running during previous years. Gumbo stands out and is one of Dr. John's most well-known and accessible albums.
HOLLYWOOD BE THY NAME (1975)
This live record was actually recorded in a studio with an audience. It must have closely resembled the kind of stage show Dr. John was touring with in those years: large line-ups featuring horns and backing vocals, with songs drawn from his earlier Gris-Gris/psychedelica work mixed up with everything there is to find in New Orleans — gospel, blues and an unhealthy dose of rock 'n' roll. According to his autobiography 'Under a Hoodoo Moon', the voodoo priests down home in New Orleans weren't so pleased with him taking creative liberties with sacred prayers in the title track 'Hollywood be thy name', but I guess they forgave him because of the amount of gospel he put in the medley 'It's all right with me/Blue skies/Will the circle be unbroken' with outstanding vocals by Ronnie Baron and Alvin Robinson.
BRIGHTEST SMILE IN TOWN (1983)
Also known as Dr. John plays Mac Rebennack, Vol 2.. Just piano and vocals on this one. One of his most intimate and unadorned records which I also see in a way as a tribute to the New Orleans Piano tradition and the days of Storyville. In Storyville (the red light district) it was customary to have a piano player tickling away in every bar, barrelhouse, hotel and brothel — often solo. This provided so much work for pianists during that time (1897-1917), that the scene was thriving. For many years after, the New Orleans' pianists couldn't be surpassed in their broad knowledge of repertoire and technique.
TANGO PALACE (1979)
When Dr. John was still Mac Rebennack in the 50s/60s, he was very busy making a name for himself as a session musician and songwriter in New Orleans. Especially the latter aspect of his career is often overlooked. One of his most succesful songwriting collaborations occured in the late 70s/80s with a songwriter called Doc Pomus. Doc Pomus was a famous writer with many hit songs under his belt, performed by artists such as Ray Charles, Elvis Presley, B.B. King, Ben E. King and Big Joe Turner. Besides co-writers, Mac and Doc became close friends and the results of their collaboration is documented on Tango Palace as well as the album City Lights. I especially love Tango Palace for the beautiful lyrics and the happy feelings it evokes in me. PS: if you are a lover of that 80s sound, this is your record.
LOCKED DOWN (2012)
Sometimes it just takes your granddaughter to tell you to work with Dan Auerbach of the Black Keys and apparently, that's just what happened. To receive a Grammy award for the final result on the side must be nice as well, I guess. The album is fully drenched in the characteristic Dan Auerbach production sound and it is just great. All songs on this one are very concerned with politics and society. Dr. John's voice is more haunting than ever and what I like especially, is that this record takes us back to the beginning, evoking the moods and spirit of The Night Tripper from the late 60s (vintage organs included).
It seems to me that the path to Locked Down was carved out by Tribal. Featuring his touring band 'The Lower 911', Tribal feels to me as something they made just for their personal pleasure, which resulted in an awesome record full of swampy blues, gris-gris and uncut FONK. My favourite trombone solo ever can be heard on the song 'Them' by Mark Mullins. I bought this record after a live show in the Netherlands. Being 13 years old, I was by far the youngest amidst a crowd of dreadlocked local funk admirers doing their psychedelic dancing, grasping for things in the air only they could see. I stood right in front of the stage being mesmerized by Dr. John's piano playing, while my father stood in the back, overlooking the scene. The band noticed me and afterwards, I had a nice chat with John Fohl (guitar) and Herman Roscoe Ernest III (drums) who sadly passed away a year later.
It's now 10 years later, and my admiration for Dr. John hasn't slinked an inch.
The way he made records, each of them with distinct themes, in his own style, remains a big inspiration to me. I look forward to hearing the record he finished right before he died which remains unpublished to this day...
2. THEY CALLED IT DUDLOW JOE...
The first thing I like to do when I find myself in a foreign city is visiting the local record shops. A couple of weeks ago this was the case in Malmö. I had a few hours to kill and the record shop located closest to me was called Musik & Konst. To my surprise, this shop was completely dedicated to Blues, Soul and R&B, selling not only the rarest CD's and vinyls but also books on the history of these styles — for a bargain. As you can imagine, I felt like a kid in a candy store.
The book I picked up there, Karl Gert zur Heide’s Deep South Piano, proved to be a gem containing loads of information. It took me through the southern states of the USA while telling me the stories of its pianists, thanks to the recollections of pianist Little Brother Montgomery. I was surprised to discover that ‘Boogie Woogie’, as we've been calling this genre for 80+ years now, was actually known under different names back then. In the Mississippi state, they called it ‘Dudlow Joe’.
The birth of Boogie Woogie can be traced back to the beginning of the 20th century. Large areas of the Deep South were wooded and hosted a large lumbering, wood-processing and turpentine industry. Traces of this can still be found in the names of towns and villages: Lumberton, Kentwood, Woodville, …. The people who worked in these industries lived in camps. They could leave on weekends, but most of the time they stayed to enjoy themselves in so-called barrelhouses and honky-tonks where they would eat, drink, gamble and dance.
A large railroad system known as the Santa Fe provided transportation of industrial goods through the whole region. By hopping on the Santa Fe trains, piano players playing the barrelhouse circuit traveled their fixed routes from camp to camp.
I find music the most authentic and touching when it reflects and expresses the sentiment of the time it was created in. Boogie woogie is no difference in this case; listen closely to the left-hand figures and right-hand melodies and you´ll hear the sound of roaring and squeaking trains moving along the Santa Fe train tracks. Even though I was born decades later, I can't help feeling a little nostalgic when hearing Honky Tonk Train Blues or Pine Tops Boogie and thinking of the solitary pianists travelling the Deep South from camp to camp, only accompanied by the sound of the trains they rode.
The funny thing with boogie woogie is that for me, it functions as a secret weapon — let's say it's my nuclear rocket. Whether I find myself in a firefighter annual congress playing background music, an elderly home or a gynaecologist christmas buffet where everyone has their back turned to me, whenever I start that rumbling piano left hand for some reason it sends an electric shiver through the room and people suddenly start smiling and tapping their feet. When they turn their heads to me, I sheepishly smile back at them.
1. THE BALLAD OF ESQUERITA
Few have heard of piano player and singer Esquerita (1938-1986), one of the true unsung heroes in rock and roll history. I stumbled upon his name in ‘Rhythm and Blues in New Orleans’ by John Broven and when I looked up his music, a couple of things happened: my jaw dropped, I started dancing and the rest of the day I couldn’t stop smiling. Take for example his rendition of ‘Nobody wants you when you’re down and out’; there’s just too much soul in his groaning, foot-stomping, gospel piano playing and singing. Why on earth haven’t I heard of this guy before? Time for a bit of research.
Esquerita is mostly known for teaching Little Richard more than a thing or two on the delicate art of pounding the ivories. Little Richard, while recording in New Orleans at Cosimo Matassa’s, saw Esquerita perform ‘Tutti Frutti’ and recorded it — a cleaned-up version of the original. Little Richard was part of my first holy Trinity including Chuck Berry and Fats Domino. The raw energy displayed in his piano playing and singing enchanted me already at a young age.
Esquerita (actually called Eskew Reeder) recorded for multiple labels over the years, both as a solo artist as well as a session musician. His piano and organ playing, showing strong roots in gospel and blues, can be heard on recordings with Little Richard, Jimi Hendrix, Dr. John, John Hammond, Idris Muhammad and others.
His stage names included Magnificent Malochi, Estrelita, Eskew Reeder, and the Voola. Voola was the spirit that he believed to permeate his music. One of the most obscure and experimental singles from the rock and roll era is ‘Esquerita and the Voola’, released in 1958 by Capitol. Besides Esquerita’s thundering piano playing, he is singing in what he himself called ‘obligato’ voice — another style feature which Little Richard copied from him.
One of the many legends surrounding Esquerita says that Berry Gordy brought him to Detroit, along with a group of fellow New Orleans musicians, to record for Motown. Gordy wanted to infuse the sound of Motown with a stronger beat and groove, which at that time could only be found in New Orleans. They played all day — with the Motown crew taking notes, obviously — but due to conflicting contracts, the session had to be stopped and to this day the recordings remain unreleased.
The following decades, Esquerita continued to perform mostly in New York clubs, slowly disappearing and falling into obscurity. If it wouldn't be for Miriam Linna and Billy Miller from Norton Records discovering him there, we would have lost one of history's greatest rock ‘n’ rollers. A small but loyal group of admirers surrounded Esquerita in his last years. He was one of the many victims of the AIDS pandemic and died in 1986, after which he was buried in an unmarked grave.
Norton Records has done a great job at making Esquerita’s recordings available to a wider audience with their releases ‘Vintage Voola’ (1987) and ‘Sinner Man: The Lost Session’ (2012).
PS: They have T-shirts too!!
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