The Class of 1971: Dr. John — ‘The Sun Moon & Herbs’

1971 marked the beginning of a transition for Mac Rebennack, who in 1968 was billing himself as Dr. John, the Night Tripper, with songwriting credits going to Dr. John Creaux. His first three albums: Gris-Gris (1968), Babylon (1969), and Remedies (1970) were all filled to overflowing with New Orleans R&B and psychedelia.

He was heading toward the 1972 album Dr. John’s Gumbo, piping hot with covers of a dozen New Orleans’ greatest hits. Along the way, he described for us in detail The Sun Moon & Herbs, an album recorded between July and October of 1970 and issued August 31, 1971, as ATCO SD-33-362. (ATCO was a subsidiary of Atlantic Records.) None of it, interestingly, was recorded in NOLA; rather, it was done at Trident Studios in London, Criteria Studios in Miami, and Dimension Recorders in Hollywood, California.

 

PERSONNEL

Core trio: 

Dr. John, vocals, piano, organ, guitar, vibes, percussion; Tommy Ferrone, rhythm guitar; and John Boudreaux, drums.

The Memphis Horns (1-2, 5): 

Andrew Love, tenor saxophone; Jack Hale, Sr., trombone; James Mitchell, baritone saxophone; Ed Logan, tenor saxophone; Roger Hopps, trumpet; and Wayne Jackson, trumpet, horn.

Guest musicians:

Eric Clapton, slide guitar; Ronnie Barron, keyboards (4); Graham Bond, alto saxophone (1); Steve York, acoustic bass (5-6); 

Jesse Boyce, bass (3), percussion (6); Carl Radle, Fender bass (2, 7); Ron Johnson, bass (4); Walter Davis Jr., piano (1, 3, 5); Jim Gordon, percussion, conga (7); Vic Brox, pocket trumpet & organ; Ray Draper, tuba, percussion & background vocals; Chris Mercer, saxophone (1-2, 7); Jerry Jumonville, saxophone (4); Bobby Keys, tenor saxophone (2, 7); Jim Price, trumpet (5, 7); Edward R. Hoerner, trumpet (4); Kenneth Terroade, flute (1, 3, 5-6); Calvin “Fuzzy” Samuels, percussion (5); Freeman Brown, percussion (3, 5-6); Freddie Staehle, trap drums; and Mick Jagger (2), Doris Troy, Shirley Goodman, Tami Lynn, P. P. Arnold, Bobby Whitlock, Joni Jonz, backing vocals.

Technical: 

Dr. John, producer, arranger; Charles Greene, producer; Roy Thomas Baker, engineer; Juddy Phillips, engineer (4); Albhy Galuten, Tom Dowd, remix engineers; Howard Albert, Karl Richardson, Ron Albert, overdub engineers; John Millerburg, design concept; and Gary Burgess, photography.

The cover art was excellent, and the inner sleeve contained the lyrics on one side and a distinctly Night Tripper photo on the other.

 

The Sun Moon & Herbs

SIDE ONE

Dr. John’s vocal style on ”Black John the Conqueror” (6:20) is pure NOLA gold, as is his piano-playing. The album’s title is referenced in the lyrics, and the backing vocals from Doris Troy et alii are soul-stirring. Throw in The Memphis Horns and four other players, and you’ve almost got a big band. Walter Davis Jr. on piano as well.

The Memphis Horns blare to open “Where Ya at Mule” (4:56), heading toward that Gumbo he would cook up next time ’round. Clapton’s slide guitar shines through here, and the backing vocals are once again A+ (Mick’s in there somewhere).

“Craney Crow” (6:40)  is a masterpiece [Ed. note: Rolling Stone hated this one]. The opening is so trippy, especially the horns, before the background singers take over; this digs down deep. When Dr. John enters, we hear this:

You know the lady was passin’ by, her mini skirt was really high
The wind was blowin’, you know she just kept goin’
Lord and I wonder she was knowin’
All she was showin’ while the wind was blowin’
She bent down to buckle her boot

That’s all I saw mama? that’s the truth
Run on home, tell your ma and your paw

Didn’t see nothin’ but kind day-rawers

The story spirals out of understanding but is simultaneously deliciously melodic. The percussion is mesmerizing, and Jesse Boyce’s bass is smokin’. More great slide from Slowhand as well. The song is based on a children’s melody that goes back at least to 1848 with the sing-song: “Chick-a-ma Chick-a-ma Chick-a-ma Chick-a-ma Chick-a-ma Craney Crow.”

 

SIDE TWO

“Familiar Reality (Opening)” [Rebennack, Jesse Hill] (5:25) is more straight-up NOLA funky goodness as he sings about familiar things: a face, a song. then there is a spoken word section over heavy percussion as he likens life to a river.

“Pots on Fiyo (Filé Gumbo) / Who I Got to Fall On (If the Pot Get Heavy)” (5:48) is a two-parter, the first a fanciful discuss about gumbo ingredients talking to each other, the second an accounting of various Cajun remedies. The Memphis Horns and backing vocals are dynamite, the percussion again front and center.

“Zu Zu Mamou” (7:57) sets such a mood with Ray Draper on tuba and Kenneth Terroade on flute. MORE searing backing vocals and Dr. John mostly spoken word again, conjuring up voodoo images, dark swamps, and otherworldly spirits. The whispered dialogue toward the end is… trippy.

Draper’s tuba yields to yet more spoken word from the good Dr. in “Familiar Reality (Reprise)” [Rebennack, Jesse Hill] (1:53). 

 

The album was included in a five-DC Original Albums Series.

It was also the subject of a 50th anniversary page and a Record Store Day release.

Sometimes you’re just in the mood for The Sun Moon & Herbs.

 

 

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