[Gris-gris is a mojo pouch traditionally carried in the left pocket - containing herbs, oils, stones, small bones, hair and nails, pieces of cloth soaked with perspiration and/or other personal items gathered under the directions of a god for the protection of and/or to bring good luck to the owner.]
Back in 1968, I heard “Walk on Guilded Splinters” off “Gris-gris” on the San Francisco underground radio station, KMPX, and the tune blew me away. I went down to Tower Records and bought the album.
Growing up in Tampa, Florida I was exposed to New Orleans Voodoo and Afro Cuban Santeria practices along with the local variations..
Then, there were tales of Marie Laveau, the infamous, New Orleans Voodoo Queen who snatched bad kids up in the dead of night and spirited off into into the swamps - never to be seen again.
I loved visiting the dimly lit root doctor shops. There was a smell about them, somewhat a mysterious and sinister quality of must and dried herbs. Shelves were lined with what appeared to be religious candles, but inherently, I knew everything in the shops had a double meaning. I got caught up in the mystery of it all. When I was a teenager. I even made forays to buy “Aunt Ida’s Pomade” especially blended to attract women, which did a better job of repelling mosquitoes than attracting women.
Rebennack’s music and lyrics on “Gris-gris” captured it all for me down to smell and sounds of the cypress swamps - musty smell of old cemeteries after a rain storm . I knew what he was talking about when he mentioned “goofer dust” and “black cat oil” in the lyrics - he was talking to me like a bonafide root doctor. He even adopted his title from Doctor John Montane/Montaigne, considered the father of New Orleans Voudou.
The original Dr John Montaigne/Bayou John was busted in the 1840s for practicing voodoo with Pauline Rebennack, who is purported to be a distant relative of Rebennack.
Shortly after I got the album, Rebennack opened for Thelonious Monk at sparsely attended concert at the Carousel Ballroom in 1968.
Monk was great, but pretty much what I expected, but Rebennack hit the stage in full, feathered Mardi Gras regalia along with two topless, Nubian backup singers. I was completely blown away by the scene, but more importantly by the music.
I saw him again that year at the Fillmore opening for Janis Joplin, but it was Rebennack’s
performance that was the indelible memory. I didn’t even remember seeing her until I did some research for another article.
Rebennack’s credentials as a musician date back the his childhood in 1950s New Orleans where he learned his piano licks from the greats. His most profound influence was Professor Longhair who trail blazed the New Orleans style of R&B.
In the late 1950s, he cofounded the mostly African-American cooperative “All For One (AFO) Records.” He went on to do a stent with the “Wrecking Crew” doing studio work in Los Angeles in the mid 1960s.
“Gris Gris” is listed in Rolling Stone Magazine's top 500 albums and rightfully so in my estimation. In 1968, Rebennack masterfully combined the musical elements of Jazz, Zydeco, African rhythms, Psychedelic Rock, and Blues to conjure a new style of New Orleans, Voudou music.
Ahmet Ertegun, cofounder of Atlantic Records, was initially reluctant to release Gris-Gris, exclaiming, according to Rebennack’s autobiography, Under a Hoodoo Moon, "How can we market this boogaloo crap?" One of the best albums of the Twentieth Century came close to collecting dust and rotting away in some archive.
Over the years, the more I listen to Dr John’s body of work, the more impressed I become. He’s been around the music scene since the the mid 1950s. He’s still performing, and commands the respect of his peers and audiences alike.
“Gris-gris” is one of those albums that every cut is brilliant, and the album is a great adventure - it gets better with every listen.