Song: "Gris-Gris Gumbo Ya Ya"
Album: Gris Gris
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Often times, it can take a musician a fair amount of time before they completely develop or "find" their own sound. This "discovery" can be the result of a traumatic incident, or simply being in the right place at the right time, and hearing music in a new and exciting way. However, one would think that after a decade "in the business," one would have found their own unique style, and found any success that they will at any given point. Yet this is precisely the opposite of the history that gave the world one of its most unique musical voices: Dr. John. Though he had already spent the better part of a decade as a session keyboard player throughout New Orleans, it was the tail-end of the 1960’s that would provide the ideal environment for him to completely re-write the books on musical expectations. Fusing together dark blues music with a psychedelic madness, and topping it off with what can only be described as “voodoo soul,” there has simply never been another musician that created sounds quite like Dr. John, and one can see his influence across countless artists that followed. While he would find greater commercial success with later singles, it was his 1968 debut, Gris-Gris, that displays the unique genius of his music, and one can easily see the album as the pivot from his days as a boogie-style pianist to the true musical mastermind that he remains to this day. The entire album overflows with deep moods and completely captivating arrangements, and there is no other song in history that can compare to the records’ stunning lead track, “Gris-Gris Gumbo Ya Ya.”
The track opens with a whispery, almost haunting saxophone line from Plas Johnson, and one cannot help but compare the tone and soul within to that of the great Pharoah Sanders. The mood that this short solo sets is nothing short of perfect, and one is quickly transported to a humid night, deep in the bayou, and one can almost feel and see a campfire burning through the trees. As the rest of the band drops in, there is an almost surprisingly sensual swing to the music, as the rhythm section of bassist Harold Battiste and drummer John Bordreaux intertwine to form a simple, yet amazingly deep groove. The echo from the drums only adds to the atmosphere of the song, and it is in this element that “Gris-Gris Gumbo Ya Ya” takes on a bit of a dangerous tenor. The guitars and mandolin that play lightly in the background reinforce this uneasy, almost menacing feel, and one would be hard pressed to find a song from any genre that achieves this level of emotion. It is the way in which all of the sounds combine together where one can sense that the musicians have moved beyond simply “playing” and are truly invoking a musical spirit. Whether it is the sometimes oddly placed drum beats, or where the other instruments “wander” within the arrangement, one cannot help but feel that there is something “larger” that is dictating the paths of the players. The tension the group creates, as well as the way in which the sound pans between the channels serves as the element that pushes “Gris-Gris Gumbo Ya Ya” into a category all its own, and there are few songs where firsthand experience is more necessary for proper understanding of this unique genius.
Yet even though his own addition of keyboards to the song cannot be overlooked, it is the unmistakable vocal work of Dr. John that makes “Gris-Gris Gumbo Ya Ya” the legendary musical work that it remains more than four decades after its first release. Within seconds of the vocals beginning, one can never forget the sound of Dr. John’s voice, and it is in these moments that the vocal inspiration for everyone from Tom Waits to Jim Morrison can be heard. Beyond raspy, the vocals that Dr. John brings to this song border on creepy, and yet there is a sense of allure and mystery within his performance that completely envelop the listener. It is also the persona that Dr. John creates for himself that is so intriguing, and this is the more literal transition into the main phase of his career. With the opening lines of, “…they call me Dr. John, The Night Tripper, got my sizzling gris-gris in my hand…,” Dr. John has turned himself into a voodoo Medicine Man, and it is this personality that becomes the ideal finishing touch to the song. Even without this literal reference, one can easily interpret his position and intensions through the tone of his voice, as one can picture his wild eyes across the campfire, as he speaks of his abilities to help and heal. Yet even when he is singing these words, one can sense an underlying sense of malice within his singing, and the grin with which the words must have been delivered is completely clear. However, the true “magic” of Dr. John’s vocal performance is the fact that even after hearing it countless times, the impact remains just as strong, and this is the key reason why “Gris-Gris Gumbo Ya Ya” stands as such a distinctive and absolutely breathtaking moment in music history.
Though many artists have attempted to create dark, mysterious, often ethereal sounds in their music, once one hears “Gris-Gris Gumbo Ya Ya,” it becomes obvious that these others are all simply trying to achieve the levels on this song. In short, it is a song that knows no peer, and its presence completely re-defined what was possible within studio recordings. One can find countless links and remnants to other genres within the song, as many progressions sound like jazz structures, and yet there is a deep sense of blues, as well as more straightforward soul than one can find almost anywhere. The way in which all of these sounds blend together under a psychedelic sheen is in itself rather representative of the culture from which the sound was birthed, and it can also be seen as a culmination of everything that Dr. John had learned in his time as a session musician. Yet legend says that the Gris-Gris album itself was one of the most hastily recorded albums in history, rumored to have been recorded during “left over” time from a session originally paid for by Sonny and Cher. The fact that such complex and deep sounds could be conceived in such a rush only adds to the brilliance of the album as a whole, and especially on the entrancing lead track. Though he has spent his career living slightly under the radar, there is no way that one can overstate the impact and importance of Dr. John and his musical creations. One can argue that almost every musician that followed has borrowed from his sound in one way or another, and one can quickly understand why he is held in such regard by experiencing the true musical masterpiece that is Dr. John’s 1968 song, “Gris-Gris Gumbo Ya Ya.”