John Papa Gros
"John “Papa” Gros is a bedrock New Orleans artist, a keyboardist, singer and songwriter who draws on funk, rhythm & blues and Americana songcraft; he also knows his way around the Mardi Gras music repertoire about as well as anyone."
“Sharing New Orleans with the world is my calling,” says pianist and organist John “Papa” Gros. “That's what I have been doing and that's what I’ll do with the rest of my life.”
For over three decades, Gros has brought his city’s celebratory culture to listeners around the globe. Gros mixes all the sounds of New Orleans - funk, trad jazz, brass band, blues - and makes it his own signature gumbo. His new solo album Central City, shows Gros capturing New Orleans’ distinct feel-good charm with help from some of its’ most renowned players.
Gros began playing gigs when he was just fifteen years old but didn’t truly kick off his career until after graduating from Loyola in 1989 with a degree in French Horn performance. During the seminal years that followed, the young man cut his teeth as a solo performer on Bourbon Street while also developing a reputation as a formidable sideman. He backed up some of the biggest names in the Crescent City, such as Meters bassist George Porter Jr. and guitarist Snooks Eaglin. Studying under mentors decades his senior, Gros absorbed a lifetime of lessons in only a few years and quickly became part of the direct lineage of New Orleans music.
Between 2000 and 2013, Gros began his transition into the spotlight by leading Papa Grows Funk, a highly revered group that mixed hard-hitting funk grooves with often unpredictable jazz spontaneity. The band released six critically-acclaimed studio albums, including Needle in the Groove, which was co-produced by New Orleans legend and Rock & Roll Hall of Fame inductee, Allen Toussaint. The group’s weekly gigs at the world-famous Maple Leaf became a staple for both locals and tourists alike, eventually leading to Gros touring in far off countries like Japan and Brazil.
Hurricane Katrina’s devastation in 2005 caused Gros to reanalyze his role in the world. “Before Katrina, I was simply a New Orleans musician, but after Katrina, I told my story of what New Orleans meant to me and why it is culturally significant to the world. It was at that point I became a New Orleans cultural ambassador, who happens to be a loudmouth, piano-playing, singer-songwriter.”
After Papa Grows Funk dissolved, Gros briefly returned to sideman work, playing organ for a series of all-star tributes to Dr. John and the Neville Brothers. The 2014 Dr. John tribute, The Music Mojo of Dr. John, was later released as a critically-acclaimed live album that featured Gros playing with Bruce Springsteen, Mavis Staples, Jason Isbell, and John Fogerty. More importantly for Gros, those tribute concerts allowed him to play alongside his two biggest influences: The Doctor and Art Neville, both of whom passed in 2019.
In 2016, Gros returned to the spotlight yet again with his second solo album River’s On Fire, the much anticipated follow up to his 2004 debut Day’s End. Co-produced by Gros and Tracy Freeman (Harry Connick Jr, Rebirth Brass Band, Bonerama), the album’s fiery funk rock showed how Gros had matured as both a songwriter and bandleader. It firmly established Gros’ identity as a solo force.
Now, Gros is preparing to release Central City, his third solo album. The album is a collection of classic New Orleans songs, both new and old, filtered through his decades of dedication to his craft. The album features Gros’ feel good originals alongside his takes on beloved songs by Allen Toussaint, Lloyd Price, and John Prine. Joining Gros on the album are a who’s who in the keepers of the New Orleans tradition, including singer Ivan Neville (Dumpstaphunk), drummer Herlin Riley (Wynton Marsalis), banjoist Don Vappie, guitarist Brian Stoltz (Neville Brothers), trumpeter Mark Braud (Harry Connick Jr.), trombonist Mark Mullins (Bonerama), clarinetist Tim Laughlin, and his former boss George Porter Jr. (Meters). Together, they perfectly exploit the similarities between New Orleans jazz and early rock 'n' roll on songs such as "Yeah Yeah Yeah" and "Personality." “I’m walking in the same path [as Dr. John, Allen Toussaint, and Art Neville,]” explains Gros. “I’ve been following them my whole life. Now, they’re no longer in front of me. They’ve gotten off the path but the path is still very clear.”