I wonder how many people, like me, loved the song “Right Place Wrong Time” when they first heard it on the radio, but had no idea it was Dr. John who wrote and sang it. I was only about 10 when it was released in the early 1970s, and to my untrained ear, it was just another cool tune to shake my pre-teen hips to—alone in my bedroom, of course. I couldn’t let anyone see me dance at that point in my life.
What I was learning at that time was that I liked funk and soul music, though I didn’t use those terms yet. Growing up in the suburbs of Philadelphia, and having first heard the song on local radio, I assumed the artist was local, too.
Philadelphia, after all, had its share of soul music, but it wasn’t until later that regional musical dialects began to come clear to me, and I realized that “Right Place Wrong Time” wasn’t from Philly at all, but from New Orleans, and from Mac Rebennack aka Dr. John.
What many of us know now is that the album on which that song was released—In the Right Place (1973)—stands out as Dr. John’s best-known and best-selling album, arriving as a commercial and artistic breakthrough after years of under-the-radar releases that ranged from the spooky psychedelic voodoo of his debut Gris Gris (1968) to the old-school New Orleans R&B sound of Dr. John’s Gumbo (1972).
With the release of In the Right Place, Dr. John was transformed from Crescent City eccentric to down-home funkster, although that label, like any other critics tried to place on him, slid off as smoothly as a gator swimming around a bayou swamp.
Rebennack (born on Nov. 20, 1941) grew up in New Orleans’s 3rd Ward, and started his career as a guitarist when he was barely into his teens. He was producing records by the time he was 16, and after he moved to Los Angeles, he started playing sessions as a keyboardist for artists like Frank Zappa and Sonny and Cher.
After Dr. John started releasing solo records, he landed sessions with artists ranging from jazz greats like Lee Morgan and Stanley Turrentine to stars like the Rolling Stones and B.B. King.
He was in his early 30s when he recorded In the Right Place, and already a music veteran, he could have hired just about anyone to join him on the sessions. He chose wisely, bringing in first-call New Orleans composer and pianist Allen Toussaint to produce, along with legendary locals, the Neville Brothers, to be his backing band.
All 11 tracks on the album are tremendous, but there are two that stand out for me.
There is, of course, the title track, which, heard years later, sounds initially like it could double for a decades-old detective TV show theme, but grooves so hard, thanks to the Meters and Toussaint’s horn arrangement, that it generated crossover appeal placing it in the U.S. Top Ten. And the self-effacing lyrics sung by Rebennack—about a man painfully aware of his personal failings—are simultaneously straightforward and clever. Never before had atonement ever sounded like so much fun.
The other song that became an instant classic was the second single from the album, “Such a Night.” Thematically, it’s a fitting companion to “Right Place Wrong Time,” as the untrustworthy narrator describes his strategy for stealing his best friend’s lover. The image of “sweet confusion under the moonlight” in the chorus—both specific and vague—remains a favorite all-time achievement in lyric writing.
I must admit that I’m not a fan of the song’s keyboard sound—it strikes me as a somewhat cheesy, toy organ patch—but it is somehow the right choice for what feels like an instant standard, one that any couple with a healthy sense of humor would enjoy dancing to. That said, I prefer subsequent live versions featuring Dr. John playing the part on acoustic piano.
When Dr. John was in his 60s or early 70s, I heard him play a club show in Boston, and, frankly, it wasn’t one of his best nights. There were some great moments, but it just didn’t feel like the hoodoo voodoo was fully kicking into gear.
Rebennack died in June 2019, leaving a legacy of great recordings and songs. One of Boston’s great local bands, the Giant Kings, often perform “Such a Night” in their live shows, and it is one of the best covers of the song that you’ll hear. Duke Levine replaces the Dr. John organ with his guitar, and vocalist Chris Cote not only sings it with guts and style every time, he provides a vocal trombone solo that underscores the song’s inherent sense of humor.
I’ll celebrate Dr. John’s birthday on my November 17, 2019 show with music from In the Right Place and other albums. Any day spent listening to the music of Mac Rebennack is one in which you know you’ll walk with some bounce in your step and a good feeling in your soul.