Dr. John 1941-2019: Looking Back At The Night Tripper’s Ten Best Albums (LIST)

Perhaps more than any other artist of the last 60 years Dr. John was the New Orleans sound, bringing it to the masses as Louis Armstrong did before him. With his recent passing Glide will take a look back into the Good Doctor’s past and rank/discuss his studio works.

A member of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, Dr. John (aka Mac Rebennack) is an artist who really made his reputation with via his live show, bringing the funky swampy jazzy voodoo laden tunes to people who never stepped one foot in Treme. From Nite Tripper to elder statesman, he helped bring the songs and style of Professor Longhair, Huey Smith, James Booker and countless other NOLA legends and lesser-knowns from the Big Easy barrooms to major stages, festivals and clubs around the world, but his studio albums can be just as vital.

This list will tackle his ten best studio albums over his long and varied career; he may no longer be with us, but his legacy, spirit, and music will always live on.

(Like all lists, this one is meant to start a discussion, not end one. They can be irritating for longtime fans and helpful for new arrivals to the artist, revealing places to begin when it comes to his large personal catalog)

10- City Lights –1979

Dr. John had fifteen lean years (about ‘75 to ‘90) where he was not at his best. Drugs, uninspired writing and shifting styles led to some disjointed records and live collections. City Lights is the best studio effort from that era, he moved to a new record label and cleaned up his sound via a slick 70’s jazz focus. Not the best use of his talents, but a cool addition to his catalog. Highlights include “Dance The Night Away With You” (one of two tracks written with Doc Pomus), the electro-groove of “Snake Eyes”  and the more organic “Wild Honey” which he created with the original swamp pop rocker, Bobby Charles.


9- Remedies –1970

The third of his four ‘Nite Tripper’ albums finds the Doctor going deep into the darkness. This album is noticeable for his seventeen plus minute workout titled “Angola Anthem” a track supposedly taken from inside one of the most notorious prisons in the USA. Other efforts run from classic New Orleans (“Mardi Gras Day”) to great rocking R&B (“Wash, Mama, Wash”), however it is the cryptic, long and experimental prison song that makes or breaks this full length for most listeners, we think it elevates it, earning a spot on this list.      

8- Desitively Bonnaroo-1974

What looks like a slam dunk of funk, turns out a bit underwhelming considering the players involved. With backing from The Meters and production from Allen Toussaint along with Dr. John coming off the biggest hit of his career you would think the formula would be fluid and grooving. While the playing is appropriately loose, the songs just don’t pack any punch; not one track truly sticks to the ribs. The best parts are the most natural, the horn runs of the energetic title track, “(Everybody wanna get rich) Rite Away” is a hoot while the players cover of Earl King’s “Let’s Make A Better World”, a perfect choice but never must hear. More of a tone record, perhaps the best thing to come from this album is the title of that little old festival in Tennessee.    


7- Ske-Dat-De-Dat: The Spirit of Satch – 2014

More recent Dr. John efforts have been some of the strongest/most consistent of his career, including this, his last full studio album. His album aged not just with ever-evolving guest spots, but innovative playing from the main man himself. This time the title says it all, notice it states “the spirit” not the songs; very few straight covers from the man who put New Orleans music on the map originally. While not all are successful, he doesn’t hold Satchmo’s songs as holy scripture, he updates, experiments and uses new techniques. Along with Co-Producer Sarah Morrow, Mac has created both a winning tribute to Louis Armstrong and an evolution of classic songs that traditionalists and new listeners can both enjoy: never an easy task.


6- Goin’ Back to New Orleans – 1992

Coming out of the rough 80’s we find Mac sober, with a cleaned up sound once again showcasing songs from his home city. This time the guests and supporting players grew exponentially to include a host of back up singers, the Neville Brothers and Pete Fountain on clarinet to name a few. Acting as a history lesson to the Crescent City, Mac dives deep and proves he belongs with the town’s all-time greats (Fats, Armstrong, Fess, et al). Tracks like the instantly fun “How Come My Dog Don’t Bark (When You Come Around)” written by Prince Partridge to the lazy take on Jelly Roll Morton’s “I Thought I Heard Buddy Bolden Say” to the hip-shaking title effort (that is impossible not to dance to), all prove the Dr. was in charge.

5- City That Care Forgot – 2008

Katrina will never be forgotten by the city of New Orleans, and it is crying fucking shame politicians, developers and others have already forgotten, capitalized or trivialized it. Dr. John’s statement was this album, political, personal and pissed off all in front of amazing musicianship; protest music you can’t help but dance to. What else would be expected of him? Partnering with his band the Lower 911 as well as high profile guests (Eric Clapton, Terence Blanchard, Willie Nelson) who make the pain purposeful time and again on this long runner. “My People Need A Second Line” weeps before Trombone Shorty blows it away, the cold truth of “Dream Warrior” and the title track hurt, then there is Slowhands excellent supporting work on “Time For A Change”, to name just a few of the highlights. Anger is behind the sweet sounds, something which the elder statesmen would carry over onto the #3 record on our list…but first…


4- In The Right Place – 1973

The man had left his Nite Tripper persona behind via an amazing New Orleans tribute (coming on the list soon) and moved more into a pop limelight. However, that stanky NOLA funk still clung to him as the title track (and the best song he ever wrote) kicks this off and still sounds glorious forty-three years later. “Such A Night” bubbles with vitality, as well as tickling ivories and heartstrings, The Meters are completely in the pocket here, perfectly blending with Dr John’s leads and Allen Toussaint’s crisp as hell horn arrangements and production. “Qualified” cooks, the title says it all as “The Shoo Fly Marches On” wildly and the whole thing ends on a gem of a rock number with “Cold Cold Cold”. The secret weapons are The Bonnaroo Horns who add a punch or sweet soul backing exactly when needed.


3- Locked Down – 2012

Sure, The Meters Fess and Toussaint are perfect matches for the Dr’s style, but who would have thought an indie rocker from Akron could have gotten one of the best albums of Mac’s career out of him in 2012? Dan Auerbach did just that with this surprisingly great effort from all parties involved. John still has the anger in him from The City That Care Forgot, but it is more general and worldly; he is upset about the whole situation, not just New Orleans. That pain flows out lyrically in tracks like “Ice Age” which also features Auerbach’s blazing guitar, the baritone funk of “Revolution” and the intoxicating bass of the title track. More rock than roll, but the Dr. adjusts and shines in this setting. Closing with the gospel-tinged  “God’s Sure Good” wraps it up on a positive vibe as Auerbach channels some Allman Brother’s love to finish one of the most surprising albums in Dr. John’s catalog, also one of his best.     


2- Dr. John’s Gumbo –1972

After the fourth “Nite Tripper” helmed album (the extremely disappointing The Sun Moon and Herbs), Mac needed to freshen up his sound. He turned to his consistent muse, his beloved city, and what bubbled up was this delicious album. Longtime friend and collaborator Harold Battiste played and arranged the brass while Alvin “Shine” Robinson’s electric guitar rings clean and true, however, the key to everything is Dr. John’s unique take on these New Orleans standards. He managed to bridge the gap between the psychedelica of the time and classic R&B-jazz from the birthplace of it all. His versions here of the cities staples, “Iko Iko”, “Big Chief”, “Stackalee” are all classic and some have become the definitive performances of the songs. This album proved what was old could be new again and allowed Dr. John to flourish from hoodoo hippy to musical great on his own terms.   

1- Gris-Gris -1968

Certain albums just have it. When you listen to any of Jimi Hendrix studio albums they still sound fresh, Chuck Berry’s “Johnny B. Goode” or the Ramones never lose their energy and vigor, same can be said about Dr. John’s debut album. When it spins you are instantly transported to an odd time and space where an on-the-run-from-the-law, drugged up hippie from New Orleans shacked up in L.A. crafted an alter ego “Dr. John Caruex” and delivered (with the help of session musicians, Harold Battiste and Duane Allman) a bizarre combo of psychedelic swamp boogaloo. From the moment his husky voice declares that he has his Gris-Gris in his hand the spooky magic unfolds. Tracks like “Mama Roux”, “Jump Sturdy“ and especially the glorious otherworldly closer “I Walk On Gilded Splinters “ stand out, but the overall success of this album is the complete bizarre environment  it created and still manages to convey over 50 years later; turn it up on a hot sweaty night and you can almost see the voodoo in front of you.


Agree? Disagree? Feel free to voice your opinion in the comments below but no matter what your opinion is, slap on your favorite record of Dr. John today and celebrate a great one who has passed on. No matter where Mac was or is at this moment he will always be a proud New Orleanian.  


Top photo by Leslie Michele Derrough

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3 Responses

  1. Nice article, and glad you framed it as a “discussion starter” – not a definitive guide.

    (I mean, whoah…The Sun, Moon, & Herbs “disappointing?” – I beg to differ!)

    What a loss for New Orleans, for America, for Music, for the World!
    The planet is just a little less colorful and interesting today….
    Dr. John is irreplaceable. He was one of a kind.

  2. Cool list….I would have to add Babylon to this list…an angry, righteous, funky, innovative album.

  3. Good list, mine would be slightly different…Anutha Zone would replace Remedies or City lights, but I the fact some of his later work is on the list..

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