City Lights
"DR John"

Blues Wax 8
Reader Rating 8

Lights Burn Bright, (10/07/08)

It's long been out of print having made its vinyl debut in 1978 (LP copies selling for over $20 and the import edition of the CD sells for in excess of $10), but now you can own a 2008 brand new re-mastered edition (no bonus tracks) of Dr. John's City Lights, courtesy of Verve Records. The legendary producer Tommy LiPuma has been steadily re-releasing vintage 1970's recordings that he either produced or enjoyed, like many of the Blue Thumb and Stewart Levin's Chisa label albums by the Crusaders, Gabor Szabo, Hugh Masekela, Roy Ayers, and others, thus this LiPuma-produced recording is another welcome addition to the Verve reissue catalog.

City Lights is arguably one of Dr. John's most overlooked recordings, which is hard to imagine as the quality of session players are the crème de la crème of the then New York City recording scene. On drums is the great Steve Gadd, co-producer Hugh McCracken on guitar, guitarist John Tropea (whose credits include superlative work with Deodato, as well as his own solo efforts), bassist Will Lee certainly needs no introduction, and the sorely missed Richard Tee on keyboards. The horn section features Ronnie Cuber and David Sanborn, who takes several solos throughout, and background vocalists George Jones, Tammy Lynn, and Alvin Robinson shine. Man, why don't they make records like this anymore? This fine album is kind of New York City meets the Big Easy; sumptuously funky, somewhat slick, but superbly tight. LiPuma's top-notch production values never interfere with the artistic intent and Dr. John fits the groove like a glove. Dr. John is totally in charge and teaches his New York City session playing pupils multiple Crescent City tricks.

Eight songs are included, each and everyone written by Dr. John, one co-written by Bobby Charles ("Wild Honey"), another co-authored by Alvin Robinson ("Fire of Love"), and three by Dr. John and his old buddy and New York City roommate, the legendary Doc Pomus. The many highlights include the opening Pomus/Rebenack "Dance the Night Away With You" with its second-line horn section firmly in place. On Dr. John's "Street Side" we get to hear Dr. John and Tee blend keyboards to perfection, as they never get in each other's way and man does Sanborn wail on this one, plus Will Lee and Gadd just punch the groove! "Wild Honey" is right in the pocket too; listen to Will Lee kick the bottom in the pants from beginning to end on this extremely funky affair, where the background vocalists ever so slightly add so much to the roux. Even Claus Ogerman's gorgeous strings lay a perfect backdrop to Dr. John's "Rain" where Sanborn once again sets sail. "Snake Eyes" is near brilliant, with it's reptile-like twists and turns, fueled by the Dr.'s excellent vocals and lyric, plus John Tropea's guitar solo is the precise vehicle that builds this outstanding track to its final intensity, as well as Dr. John's and McCraken's smart horn arrangements. "Fire of Love," co-written by Alvin Robinson, definitely could have easily been covered by the group Stuff, mainly due to the presence of keyboardist Richard Tee, as it has that classic band sound and feel. The last two tracks are co-authored by the two Doc's (Pomus and John). The first one, "Sonata" (where Dr. John's piano introduces the theme) segues into "He's a Hero." Once again check out the nifty horn charts and the tight rhythm section. Dr. John takes this one out (similarly as the "Sonata" intro) with a cool piano solo and duets with one of the horn players; it's an extremely tasty segment. The finale and title track is a ballad that is introduced by Ogerman's strings, Dr. John's fine vocals, Tropea's sweet guitar licks, and Tee's signature keyboards.

I don't know if you kept count, but the highlights I just wrote about include all eight tracks on City Lights. Obviously a lot went into the making of this unique Dr. John recording. Even with all the non-Big Easy involvement by the producer and musicians, this album still has that Crescent City vibe, which is a testament to Dr. John, as all of the flavors blend so sweetly. Hats off to Verve's Tommy LiPuma for re-releasing this almost forgotten album! Now let's hope LiPuma also re-releases the follow-up to City Lights (which pretty much has the same assembled crew), that being 1979's Tango Palace, which similarly made its appearance on vinyl on the same A&M subsidiary, Horizon. Enjoy!

Bob Putignano: