For over 13 years on a Monday night at the Maple Leaf Bar in New Orleans, you could find John Papa Gros and his band, Papa Grows Funk mixing hard-hitting grooves and heavy funk beats along with the complexity of jazz improvisation. Over the course of those years, Papa Grows Funk has built a legacy as one of the greatest funk bands around.
Gros grew up in Baton Rouge, Louisiana. He was always around music, not only growing up on New Orleans music and 1970s pop radio, but he also had his father, jazz musician Don Gros, help influence and guide him. After he earned a degree in French Horn from Loyola University, he moved to New Orleans to start his musical journey.
While playing at bars on Bourbon Street as a solo singer-pianist, and after the midnight set when most tourists were gone, Gros would slip some of his original songs in with the cover songs he was hired to play. Soon, word got out about him and his music and he was asked to back up some of the biggest names in New Orleans music like George Porter Jr., and Snooks Eaglin. Playing behind these two legendary musicians, who became his mentors, became an education in New Orleans music that you can’t get anywhere else.
In 1995, Gros joined George Porter Jr.’s band, Runnin’ Pardners. Not only known as being respected, seasoned, and talented musicians, the Runnin’ Pardners were also known as a quintessential New Orleans band where they mixed rock, funk, R&B, and more for a unique sound.
Gros slowly made the transition from jamming with friends on the side to forming Papa Grows Funk, and after five years with Porter Jr., Gros put his attention on his band. Over the course of the 13 years they were together, they toured the world and released 6 critically acclaimed albums. Each of the members was in such high demand for more lucrative gigs that it became a difficult juggle between the group and side projects that ultimately led to the band folding.
This gave Gros the time to fully focus on his solo career. In April 2020 he released his third solo project, ‘Central City‘. The album is a love letter to New Orleans and its music and is a collection of classic songs along with some new originals.
Gros said this on his website: “Sharing New Orleans with the world is my calling. That’s what I have been doing and that’s what I’ll do the rest of my life.”
He truly is a proud local who carries on the tradition of New Orleans music and not only honors the past but also helps to shape its future. Just spend a little time on his Facebook page, watching one of his live online concerts, or talking with him, you’ll understand that he has not only become an ambassador to the music of New Orleans but an ambassador for all of New Orleans.
“How has New Orleans music saved my soul? It’s given me a purpose. There’s such a tradition of New Orleans music. I’m just carrying on and trying to uphold this legendary, historic tradition that changed the world.
Louis Armstrong changed the world with his trumpet and his singing. Fats Domino changed the world with his piano and his voice. That’s a lot to live up to with those guys. Trying to walk in those shoes and carry on that lineage or pass it on to someone else, that’s become my purpose.”
-John “Papa” Gros
Who makes the best red beans and rice?
My Maw Maw made the best pot of red beans, simple and traditional.
When did you learn to make red beans and rice?
I hated beans growing up. I remember my Dad was on a low carb, high protein diet and he made red beans twice a week for 6 months. The whole house smelled like red beans and it drove me crazy. It was in college where I learned to love red beans. My Maw Maw had passed and I don’t know if I was missing her or her cooking (still miss both) and had to learn how to make them.
What do red beans and rice mean to you?
Red beans are a New Orleans cultural tradition. The history behind “wash day” and the smell of my Maw Maw’s house. Every New Orleanian has their version of this tradition. It’s what unites us while making each family unique.
Are there any special memories that are brought up when you think back on it?
Luckily, I’m forever flooded with loving memories of my Maw Maw. She was full of love and shared a lot of it through her cooking.
Do you only eat red beans and rice on a Monday?
I will only cook and eat a pot of beans on a Monday but will enjoy the leftovers throughout the week.
What’s your process for cooking a pot of red beans?
I think the best recipe for red beans is written on the back of the Camelia beans package. I have a couple of things I change and/or add based on my tastes, but it’s tried and true. Soak the beans overnight. Chop trinity. Sauté meats: could be ham, sausage, Tasso, or whatever you have. then Sauté the trinity. Throw it in the pot with some seasonings, bring to a boil, then cook on medium for a little while, then simmer for a few hours until the consistency and texture are right.
What do you serve with your red beans and rice?
On Monday, Cornbread if anything. By the end of the week, it’s a side dish and can accompany anything.
Did you have any new projects that you’d like to pass along?
My current record is called Central City and I’m still actively promoting it, especially the seasonally appropriate song, Mardi Gras. Here are a few quotes describing it. Central City was a year-long documentation of a lifelong journey in New Orleans music.
For more information on John “Papa” Gros, please go to his website https://johnpapagros.com. There you can find up-to-date info on online live events, tours, his online store, and more.
“I wanted Central City to be the soundtrack to any New Orleans party from Carnival Ball to Crawfish Boil.”
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Eric Olsson is the food blogger of RedBeansAndEric.com. He publishes new recipes and interviews weekly. He has developed recipes and written articles for the famous Camellia brand in New Orleans, Louisiana. He has been mentioned in Louisiana Cookin‘ magazine and has had recipes featured in Taste of Home magazine – with his Creole Turkey recipe being runner up in their annual Thanksgiving recipe contest. He lives outside of Detroit, Michigan, with his wife and four children.