Sometimes it's nice to be reminded of a particularly special body of work, if only to give it some loving reconsideration. I certainly don't take the music that Mac Rebennack (aka Dr. John) created during the late 60s and early 70s for granted—every time I hear one of his prime cuts I have to resist diving into a rabbit hole of his classic stuff. But a couple of weeks ago the folks at Omnivore released The Atco/Atlantic Singles 1968-1974, a handy 22-track compendium that rounds up a lot—but not all—of the killer material he crafted after he graduated from ace studio musician to singular solo artist. Dr. John grew up steeped in the rich gumbo of Crescent City music, but he developed a mad persona to put a fresh spin on the tradition, melding local R&B tropes with voodoo lore and psychedelic flourishes.
Rebennack followed producer Harold Battiste to LA in 1965, where the former continued to work as a studio player and formulated the Dr. John concept, which, according to the liner notes, was conceived with another singer in mind. Gene Sculatti quotes Rebennack from a Crawdaddy interview, "What spurred me on to actually sing was when I heard Bob Dylan and when I heard Sonny and Cher. I said, 'If that's singing, well, I sure can sing too!'" It's hard to imagine that Rebennack doubted his own abilities, because his soulful, jivey croak remains one of the most distinctive and ingratiating voices in pop-music history. On his first few albums he created a dazzling sound—dark and murky, with seductive female backing vocals, odd production flourishes, and lyrics that transplanted the ideas of Marie Laveau to the Sunset Strip—under the guise of the Night Tripper. The spooky crawl of today's 12 O'Clock Track is as weird and irresistible as anything he produced—it's the title track from his 1968 debut album Gris-Gris. The rest of the collection is pretty great, with a bunch of material from his brilliant 1972 homage to his hometown Dr. John's Gumbo and its hit follow-up In the Right Place, recorded with the Meters and produced by Allen Toussaint. Rebennack remains a living trove of New Orleans culture even if he never matched the creative streak captured here. A few years ago Dan Auerbach of the Black Keys did a pretty good job of trying to channel that vibe on the 2012 album Locked Down (Nonesuch), but the Atco/Atlantic material still can't be touched.