John “Papa” Gros Is Ready to Make You Smile with Tribute to New Orleans Music ‘Central City’ (INTERVIEW)

For more than a decade John “Papa” Gros was known as one of the funkiest organ players in New Orleans. With his aptly named band Papa Grows Funk, Gros brought the joyful grooves of the Hammond B3 organ to the world and his name became synonymous with the instrument. That’s why it may have seemed like an odd choice when he swapped out his Hammond for a Steinway to make his new album Central City. But for Gros, this move was a return to his roots and this latest solo album is the result of a lifelong dream to record a tribute to New Orleans piano music.

Composed of originals and covers from artists like Allen Toussaint, Lloyd Price, and even John Prine, Central City (REVIEW) is a loving salute to New Orleans R&B, soul and boogie woogie rock and roll. This is a party record through and through, with Gros enlisting heavy-hitters like George Porter Jr. (The Meters), drummer Herlin Riley (Wynton Marsalis) and trumpeter Mark Braud (Harry Connick Jr.) to help him stir up a catchy, feel-good sound aimed at making you dance. Music has always been medicinal for many of us, but in these difficult times that has never felt more true. Central City offers the kind of musical escapism many are seeking, a funky and soulful dose of the good stuff to cure any sadness you might be feeling. It is a fun musical reminder of the things that bring us together and a celebration of New Orleans culture.

Recently, we talked with John “Papa” Gros about how he is passing the time while stuck at home in New Orleans, the decision to embrace his love for New Orleans piano music on Central City, recording a Mardi Gras anthem and more.

How have you been passing the time?

I gotta tell ya, I was totally shell shocked when it all went down. I’ve been working on this album release for a good year and a half, getting the songs written, organizing the session, recording, mixing, working on the art, licensing. It took me a whole year and a half to get everything in a row and get to this stage of release. I spent all the money that I had to release it, booked tours to promote it, and the rest of the money that I had was all shelled out on merchandise to sell on the tour. I had three tours lined up including a two-week run in Japan, the Midwest, all of the festival dates at home in New Orleans – April is our busiest time of the year. So just at home by itself I think I had twenty-something dates between now and the first week of May. I had two tours right after that. All of that was just pulled right out from under me. What do I do? I’m all in and everything I have financially, emotionally, energy-wise, time-wise has all been taken away and it really just left me pretty blank. On top of that my wife is a nurse in the ER at the big hospital downtown so she has her own stresses and worries in dealing with it. Now we’re kind of self-quarantining because with every shift she has a threat of catching the virus.

You’ve always said it’s your calling to share New Orleans with the world. As one of the places currently hardest hit by the coronavirus, and one that could suffer especially due to economic loss, do you feel even stronger about that calling now?

I don’t think it will be much different than what happened after 9/11 when people stopped traveling. Then when Katrina hit we were devastated, we were pretty desolate in this town for a good year or more before people started showing up. It took another few years to get back on our feet, and then the whole BP oil spill took over after that, so we were all poised and then for whatever reason that caused a lot of tourism to get cancelled. The last five years have really been hopping and booming. So, I don’t expect it to be much worse than Katrina; the biggest difference is that Katrina affected New Orleans and the Gulf South whereas this affects the whole world. So everybody is going to be short on dollars and going to need to get their home life back in order financially. It’s going to take a long time before they can take vacations and travel, and whether they want to travel. I think for the tourism economy New Orleans is going to suffer but so will everywhere. Luckily we live in a great city and it will be one of the first places people want to visit. I think what will help us out is that, locally, eating and music are two very important things in our culture and our locals will support the town more than ever. That’s what we did after Katrina. It just won’t be big business. We’ve been through it before so if we can show people how it’s done then we can share it with the rest of the world.

What inspired the album title – does Central City of New Orleans have a special place in your heart or is there a larger metaphor in there?

Both. Central City in the song “Yeah Yeah Yeah” is pretty much a tribute song written for Huey “Piano” Smith, who is one of the great New Orleans rock and roll piano players and had a band called Huey Smith and the Clowns. He also wrote the great songs “Rockin’ Pneumonia and the Boogie Woogie Flu,” “Sea Cruise”, “High Blood Pressure” – just a bunch of New Orleans area hits in the 50s. He was born in Central City, Professor Longhair was born and lived in Central City and he’s our godfather of New Orleans piano. My biggest New Orleans music teacher George Porter Jr., and that’s where he was born and lived. So specifically, it really references a lot of the roots of where I come from musically. Then that leads to the metaphor and the larger picture, which is that this record is really my musical DNA, this is where I come from. I’ve released a lot of different records over the last 25 years and they’ve all been – I call them New Orleans music – but they’ve taken that music in different directions, away from the source. This record is the source, it’s the center of my musical purpose, being, DNA, and it’s my center city of who I am as a New Orleans musician.

Considering like you said that you’ve always put your own spin on New Orleans music but this is more rooted in New Orleans R&B, what inspired you to move towards this sound?

I always look to the masters for guidance. Dr. John in 1970 or 71 made the Gumbo record when he was living out in Los Angeles working as a studio musician. He and all of his New Orleans musicians were longing for home, so they got together and recorded an album of all the songs that Mac grew up listening to. That’s by far one of my favorite records of all time. I can identify with each one of those songs and connect them with a specific family gathering or a specific Mardi Gras parade, specific late night bar room debauchery with my buddies, and that music was a part of it. Professor Longhair had a record in the late 70s called Gumbo and it was also looking backwards at songs of his career that he redid to kind of acknowledge and say, “here I am.” Keeping with that theme, I’ve had rock bands, funk bands, Americana bands, lots of different things, and this is one that just says these are my roots, this is where I come from, I am here. We’ve lost our masters. They’re physically not with us anymore – Allen Toussaint, Fats Domino, Dr. John, Art Neville – so someone has to be here to carry on the music and that’s my job.

With so many of these masters passing, do you feel like this style of music is more overlooked in New Orleans these days?

That’s the great thing about music, it’s always evolving. When you have young bands like the Revivalists, Tank and the Bangas, Trombone Shorty, Hurray for the Riff Raff – these are all pop bands that have come out of New Orleans – no different than Fats Domino, Lloyd Price, Fats Domino, Irma Thomas and all these great artists from the 50s and 60s. So it’s great that we’re getting back to the popular ear. But I definitely noticed post-Katrina that a lot of the classic New Orleans sounds have taken a back seat. Maybe that’s ok in the evolutionary process, but I’m here to say it’s still alive and present. Part of being able to do that is to have an understanding of where it comes from, so it was very important to me that I highlighted how the traditional jazz sounds merged with the rock and roll sounds. That’s why there’s banjo on the record, lots of horns, and it’s all piano. I’m not playing hardly any organ at all, it’s definitely a New Orleans piano record.

Was it a change for you to swap out the B3 for a Steinway piano?

It was a relief. I’ve been playing piano my whole life. I started focusing on New Orleans piano hard in the mid 90s, but when I started playing with George Porter Jr. he really loved the organ sound when you’re playing a lot of the Meters kind of stuff. Art Neville was just a huge mentor and inspiration for me. So buying a Hammond organ and toting it around with George, and then again with Papa Grows Funk, really changed my life for the better. When you show up at a club and wheel in an organ people take notice. Piano players just kind of walk in the door, maybe they have a little backpack or something, and they just sit down and play on the piano that’s already there. But when you’re moving an organ across the country you get a lot of attention, so I just didn’t play as much attention. Papa Grows Funk was designed to be a band that featured the Hammond organ. Who’d have thought it would last 13 years and take us all around the world? But, because of that, people didn’t see me play piano. I’ve been playing piano for the last 45-50 years, so it’s a relief to show the public this is what I do. That’s why I started the new band where I can show piano as well as organ. It’s more of a balance.

You can’t make music without it if you’re taking that traditional route.

No. I mean Art Neville was a great organ player but he was also a great New Orleans piano player. James Booker was a great New Orleans pianist, but he played more sessions as a youngster on organ. Dr. John was an amazing Hammond organ player, he’s one of my favorites, but he’s known as a piano player. We all wear the hats.

You have a song called “Mardi Gras” and in New Orleans it’s a big move to try and record a Mardi Gras anthem. Where did this come from?

I was playing with Little Feat in Jamaica and there was a street band I heard playing rhythms. The melody just came to me and I started singing it and it just hit me, and I was like, “am I gonna write a Mardi Gras song?” You know how hard that is to write a Mardi Gras song that people are going to like? I had to really deal with that and as a songwriter it’s like do you want to take that risk but I was like, “let’s just try it.” When I tell George Porter Jr. or Don Vappie that we’re recording a Mardi Gras song, the fear is that they’ll be rolling their eyes and saying “all we need is another Mardi Gras song.” But they were like, “oh really, ok,” and then I played it for them and they said alright. It’s just a happy groove, it’s a toe tapper that makes people feel good. Those guys got exactly what I was dreaming up in my head. I was real nervous to put it out during Mardi Gras this year but I was so glad I did because it was well-received in town.

The album is filled with guest appearances. Can you talk about where and how you recorded it? What was the process like and how did you get so many great artists to step in?

It was really recorded like a traditional record, in the mode of 60s and 70s recording sessions. All the musicians were there in the studio at the same time. We were recording the songs on the spot, maybe two or three passes and then we’d have it. When I envisioned this record and this sound of traditional jazz meets rock and roll and really wanted to be committed to furthering the cause of what New Orleans music is all about, I would have to utilize the masters that are here. So I went to the top of the list and I started with George, Herlin Riley, and Don Vappie. Those guys understand the history of their instrument and how it evolved over the course of New Orleans music from street bands to clubs to concert halls to festivals. They live it every day, play it every day, and they don’t have to think about it. That’s the same with the horns – Mark Mullens and Mark Braud – same with Brian Stoltz on guitar. We all live with our culture everyday, and if I was really going to deliver essentially a New Orleans record I had to use the real guys who live it and breathe it. Luckily, there are a lot to choose from, so I started at the top of the list and I made phone calls. We went to Esplanade Studio here in New Orleans, which is our newest and biggest studio. Giving the guys something like that to record in really makes it comfortable and conveys the seriousness of the project. One of my favorite things George Porter always says is, “let’s go to work,” and that’s what we did.

Are these songs you can jam out in the live setting?

Absolutely. Every song that’s done in a New Orleans style leaves its open interpretation for intros, transitions, extended solo sections, extended endings. There’s all kinds of open doors and different roads of pass that can wind in and out of these songs. For the record part, I wanted it to be really concise, almost as if each song was a 45 single. But live, these songs will get blown up and totally decomposed.

Can you talk about some of the covers on the album? It seems like you chose some artists who were big inspirations to you.

I’ll start with the two Alex McMurray songs. Alex is a year or two younger than me. Of my generation he’s probably our strongest songwriter in town and I wanted to highlight his music. He does his own songs and has multiple records on his own, but his songs touch me in a way that I just love. I could’ve done some more classic songs, but Alex is writing songs that are just as strong so I really wanted to highlight his work. “Personality” by Lloyd Price is one of those songs that if you’ve heard it then it never leaves your body. It just sticks to you like glue and makes you feel good. As we tracked that song you could just see the energy and the spirit lift in the room because that song just makes people happy. [Most of] these cover songs I have been playing for a good twenty years. Allen Toussaint’s “It’s Raining in New Orleans”, he wrote it and it’s sung by a woman (Irma Thomas). It’s in the New Orleans canon as being the voice of a woman but it was written by a man and it’s a heartbreak song, it’s down and out. I wanted to give that song a voice from the male perspective. To be able to change the chordal structure and put it in a male voice was just something I wanted to do to give it a new interpretation, a new voice. Today is a good day to talk about John Prine. I played on Bourbon Street for twelve years at a place called the Tropical Isles and I played a lot of 70s soft rock, soft country tunes. The guitarist I played with introduced me to John Prine. One week we were learning songs and he added five John Prine songs and all of them floored me. Pretty much every where I go, I always thought that a lot of the traditional country songs of the 40s and 50s are very similar to what Fats Domino or Huey Piano Smith would sing, except the rhythms are different. “Please Don’t Bury Me” reminded me a lot of traditional New Orleans jazz songs, and being huge John Prine fan, I wanted to do it. I thought this would be a good one to put a twist on and make it special in the New Orleans way. But also what’s important to me is the message, and I would’ve loved to be able to ask John Prine if this was on his mind. I have four friends and two have had successful transplants and two are searching for organ donors for kidney transplants. It’s just a great song that’s humorous but serious about taking your organs to somebody else so they can carry on with their lives.

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