Weekend Songs: Dr. John, ‘(Everybody Wanna Get Rich) Rite Away’
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Classic rock is about heavy hooks, power chords and tight harmonies. But it’s also about letting loose and enjoying the good times. And there’s no better time for that than Friday evening, when we pick up our paycheck, punch out of work and enjoy a couple days of much-needed rest and relaxation.
It can be a struggle to earn that week’s pay, and plenty of us often wish there were a few more zeroes at the end of the amount we’re taking home. Sometimes it’s hard not to pine for a windfall — a sentiment funkily expressed by the legendary Dr. John in this week’s Weekend Song, ‘(Everybody Wanna Get Rich) Rite Away.’ Recorded for his 1974 ‘Desitively Bonnaroo’ LP, the song caught our good doctor at a moment when he finally understood what it meant to gather a lot of wealth in a hurry; the previous year, he’d scored his first big hit with ‘Right Place Wrong Time,’ and rather than grinding it out in the trenches for another album, he entered the studio for the ‘Bonnaroo’ sessions as a name artist.
Dr. John’s pop success had been a long time coming, and he came close to missing the brass ring on a number of occasions. Introduced to illegal narcotics during his New Orleans youth, he was hooked on heroin before he even reached his 20s, and he spent years engaged in a number of unsavory activities — including selling drugs and playing in a whorehouse — before starting his solo career in earnest with 1968’s classic ‘Gris-Gris’ LP. Although he fell into the frontman life almost by accident (as he later told Bomb Magazine, “The idea of that was always kinda repulsive to me, ‘cause I hated frontmen. I liked doin’ a gig, dry up and do another one”), his signature blend of rock, R&B and New Orleans-flavored funk proved alluring to a growing fanbase, and by 1974, he seemed poised for a string of major mainstream hits.
In an attempt to capitalize on the success of ‘Right Place Wrong Time,’ Dr. John continued his collaboration with Allen Toussaint, who had produced the ‘In the Right Place’ album. Back in the studio with Toussaint and employing the Meters as his backing band, he emerged with ‘Desitively Bonnaroo,’ which extended the ‘Right Place’ template with another dozen cuts of swampy funk — including ‘(Everybody Wanna Get Rich) Rite Away,’ which eschewed mindless pursuit of material gain while bouncing behind one of Dr. John’s most radio-ready arrangements.
Unfortunately, lightning failed to strike twice for Dr. John with ‘Bonnaroo,’ and he spent large portions of the ’70s, ’80s and ’90s on the commercial fringes. But while his cult status may have slowed his path to riches, it couldn’t stop him from putting together a prolific string of eclectic albums that found him wandering all over the musical map, from the carnival-style R&B of his best-known works to standards sets like 1993’s ‘In a Sentimental Mood.’ By the late ’90s, he’d hung around long enough to be cool again, and the 21st century has brought a string of late-period classic records, including the scathing, Hurricane Katrina-inspired ‘The City That Care Forgot’ and 2012’s ‘Locked Down,’ produced by Dan Auerbach of the Black Keys.
You’ve got to be funky enough to draw your own conclusions from the Dr. John story, but one of many possible morals is the accrued wisdom that comes with taking the long road to success. So think of the Night Tripper while you’re counting out your post-payday pennies — pinching them might not be any fun, but with tracks like ‘(Everybody Wanna Get Rich) Rite Away’ for a soundtrack, at least you can dance while you’re doing it.