Dr. John's weird New Orleans psych music

Years ago, I got turned on to the psychedelic New Orleans "voodoo" vibe of Dr. John (aka Mac Rebennack, Jr.). His 1968 debut Gris-Gris is a fantastically weird amalgam of R&B, dark psych rock, and NOLA culture. I'd never seen footage of the Night Tripper, as Dr. John is also known, until today. Quite a spectacle. From music critic Richie Unterberger's liner notes for a reissue of Gris-Gris:

 Wikipedia En 3 35 Drjohnnighttripper Gris-Gris was the first record credited to Dr. John, and to most listeners he seemed to have dropped out of nowhere with his mystical R&B psychedelia and Mardi Gras Indian costumes.  The album, however, was actually the culmination of about 15 years of professional experience, during which Dr. John -- born Mac Rebennack in New Orleans -- had absorbed the wealth of musical influences for which the Crescent City is famed.  Gris-Gris's roots reach back well beyond the dawn of the twentieth century, even as the album took in cutting-edge influences such as 1960s progressive jazz, and pushed into territory that no popular musician had ever explored in quite the same fashion.

"Gris-Gris" itself is a New Orleans term for voodoo, and the name Dr. John taken from a New Orleans root doctor of the 1840s and 1850s.  Also known as John Montaigne and Bayou John, he was busted in the 1840s for practicing voodoo with Pauline Rebennack, who may or may not have been a distant relative of our man Mac.  One of Mac's grandfathers sang in a minstrel show, and the latter-day Dr. John adapted one of grandpa's favorite tunes, "Jump Sturdy," into the track on Gris-Gris of the same name.  His onstage costumes and feathered headdresses, the source of shock and delight to audiences since the late 1960s, are similarly adapted from those worn by Mardi Gras Indians in New Orleans, famed for the infectious tribal percussive rhythms and chants they perform in local parades.

"Gris-Gris" by Dr. John, The Night Tripper (Amazon)


  1. It’s nice that you’re talking about him, but is this news to anyone? I thought he got pretty popular having performed at The Band’s “The Last Waltz”. No? Hasn’t everyone heard him?

  2. I first heard the unique sound of New Orleans in the movie ‘The Big Easy’ starring the beeutiful Dennis Quaid,then married to Meg Ryan and a Southern boy himself. The soundtrack is priceless stuff, with the Neville Bros and others of Southern origin. I first heard the term Gris Gris in a song from that track called “My grandma and Your Grandma a sittin by the fire” and the chorus goes ‘Gris Gris’.. I thought “Grey Grey’???? but now know and it can be dark but also sooo rythmic. I’m hooked.

  3. Another entry point into the Doctor’s oeuvre is Paul Weller. About a decade and a half ago he covered I Walk On Guilded Splinters. I know that is what made me go deep into DrJ’s discography as opposed to just treating him like a boring old mofo that makes boomer music (obviously, i am aware i was wrong).

    The Weller version of the track was used on the Wire i believe.


  4. First heard any New Orleans music in the soundtrack of ‘The Big Easy’, starring Denis Quaid, then married to MegRyan. I remember particularly “Iko Iko’ and the back chorus of the words ‘Gris Gris” and
    I thought ‘Grey Grey’ WHAT??? It rocks along and I don’t really like this new one by Dr.John.. too dark. Don’t think that the Neville Bros and their ilk in The Big Easy draw so much from this too dark side of ‘Voodoo’ music.

  5. @Anonymous #1, Fortunately, I don’t have to worry whether everyone’s heard of him or not. I dig his music, and this video was interesting to me, and “interesting to me” is the only impetus I need to post something!

    @Anonymous #2, Agreed. Headphones for sure.

  6. Is he one of those artists who ends up more famous in the UK than his native US?

    He certainly pops up on telly over here fairly often, whether in live performance or in archive footage on documentaries (perhaps due to his Rolling Stones and Eric Clapton associations?).

    Anyway, I remember finding Gris Gris in my parents’ record collection twenty-odd years ago and I’m still recovering!

  7. This is a great post about a great and very atypical American musician. But it’s only his early years that are really psych-and-voodoo-tinged. The majority of his work leans toward New Orleans jazz, R&B, rock, and old-time style. Not to say there aren’t elements still there from his early work..

    Also check out Professor Longhair if you like the piano styles.

    1. @keletoncityrepeater, Yes, love me some Professor Longhair. But my *favorite* NOLA piano wizard is James Booker who played, well, like a spider on the keys. Back in 2001, I posted about him here!

  8. If you like this then definitely also check out Captain Beefheart and the Magic Band: Safe as Milk. Delta Blues fused with all manner of psychadelic and folk influences and plenty of NOLA spice. For example this.

  9. I was fortunate enough to have grown up in a home in which Dr. John was given regular airplay. I was very pleased when, in the early-mid 90’s, I saw Dr. John guest star on SCTV. The episode was called “Polynesiatown” and was amazing. Side pop-culture aside, Dr. John’s music, including Walkin’ on Guilded Splinters, Mama Roux, Such a Night… is sweetly mind-altering and very pleasing.

  10. I got turned onto the Gris Gris album when I was about 15, from my parents. I put “Walk on Gilded Splinters” on all my favorite playlists(now)/ mixtapes(then).
    I’d love to find more stuff like this album, but have never really been able to.
    I’ll check out some of the suggestions here.

  11. Dr. John has more lives than a cat and most of them are pretty interesting. His first few albums, of which this is one, sound like they dropped in from an alternate reality. His second, The Sun, Moon and Herbs, is also pretty interesting in the same groove.

    But he always had this underground reputation for being the best NO jazz piano player in creation, and in the mid 80’s we got a chance to hear that. He put away the headdresses and produced two albums, Dr. John Plays Mac Rebennack, and The Brightest Smile in Town that are just him and a piano. They are two of the greatest boogie woogie and stride piano albums ever recorded.

    Then there was the Dr. John who resurrected NO jazz tunes from the turn of the century on Live and Montreaux and Goin Back to New Orleans.

    He’s definitely never boring.

  12. His autobiography, “Under a Hoodoo Moon: The Life of Dr. John the Night Tripper” is pretty amazing, assuming it’s all true. My favorite part is when he goes to visit a voodoo priestess he knew from his childhood. She says she had just seen a friend of theirs who Dr. John had heard had overdosed. He writes that it was frustrating, because it would be insulting to ask her if the friend was alive or dead; because the priestess’ see both equally.

    1. I’ll second that. It’s one of the most raw and honest music autobiographies I’ve read, and fun to boot!

  13. “I saw Dr. John guest star on SCTV.”

    Classic episode.

    “Forgeddit, Johnny, it’s Polynesiatown!”

  14. I remember there was a Dr.John the Nighttripper concert on Dutch television (VPRO), I don’t know if there is footage of that show saved. Th VPRO Picknick series include also shows by Ike & Tina Turner and Frank Zappa, and if i remember correctly also a concert by the English pub rock band Brinsley Schwartz , featuring Nick Lowe

  15. If you’re in New Orleans on January 30th, you can see him as King of Krewe du Vieux, the only large, crazy krewe to walk through the Marigny and French Quarter with hand- and mule-drawn floats. He has chosen as his queen Mother Miriam Chamani of the Voodoo Spiritual Temple. All hail our King Dr. John and Queen Mother Miriam!

  16. It’s so great to see Dr John get a mention on these pages.

    I saw him play live in Warwick in the UK a few years back – it’s like watching Father Christmas on acid!

    Next step if for me to see him play in New Orleans


  17. If you live in New Orleans, like I do, Dr John can get a little old because his music is ubiquitous here, but “Gris-Gris” is one I never get tired of. BTW, just to clarify, the term “gris-gris” is used for a Voodoo amulet, talisman, or physical spell focus, not for the Voodoo religion itself (cuz I’m anal like that).

  18. Hah, I was at that gig as well @carolinebeavon – if you mean at the University of Warwick in England, not Rhode Island! Absolutely stunning, one of my favourite ever gigs!

  19. I would like to make a correction to this. Gris gris is not the New Orleans term for voodoo. Voodoo is the New Orleans term for voodoo. Gris gris is a charm that you make, it can be good or bad. I live in Louisiana, and this is common knowledge.

  20. I have this memory that Gris Gris was recorded during down time in the studio where he was music-directing a Sonny & Cher record.

Comments are closed.