Born in New Orleans, John "Papa" Gros has spent more than a quarter-century championing the music of the Big Easy. He's played it all — New Orleans funk, rock & roll, jazz, blues, Americana, pop/rock — and he swirls those styles into a genre-bending gumbo that pays tribute to his influences while still pushing ahead into new territory. Like Allen Toussaint and Dr. John, Gros is a proud local who carries on the tradition of New Orleans music, both honoring its past and helping to shape its future.
After graduating in 1989 from Loyola University, where he majored in French Horn performance, Gros kicking off his career as an organist and pianist during the 1990s. He began on Bourbon Street, where he played folk-rock songs at the Tropical Isle, and later joined George Porter Jr.'s Runnin' Pardners. Porter, who had helped create the New Orleans funk sound as bass player of The Meters, became one of Gros' biggest mentors, showing him exactly what it meant to be a champion of New Orleans music. Loyola University may have taught Gros how to play music, but it was Porter who taught him how to live it.
It was the funk group Papa Grows Funk, though, that truly spread Gros' reputation across New Orleans and beyond. Formed in 2000, the band held down a weekly performance at the famous Maple Leaf Bar for 13 years, mixing the smooth sophistication of a jazz quintet with the wild, anything-goes spirit of Mardi Gras.
"We played all over the world," he says of Papa Grows Funk, "but when we played the Maple Leaf, it was a lot more relaxed. We'd try anything, including a lot of improvisational jams. We were more of a live band than a recording band, and were more at ease at the Maple Leaf than anywhere else. It was like playing in our living room."
Fans and tourists crowded the bar every Monday night, looking for Papa Grows Funk to dish out a greasy, groove-heavy serving of Big Easy funk. The band delivered, releasing six critically-acclaimed albums, including Needle in the Groove, which was co-produced by Nola legend Allen Toussaint. They toured around the world, too, carrying the torch of New Orleans' music scene to far-flung places. By the time they played their last Monday night in 2013 — an over-crowded, hometown gig on the tail end of Jazz Fest, all of which can be heard on the band's upcoming live album, The Last Leaf — Papa Grows Funk had grown into legends at home and abroad.
After Papa Grows Funk called it quits, Gros (pronounced "grow") kept playing music, landing work as a sideman for many Nola artists — including Better Than Ezra, Anders Osborne, The Metermen, Raw Oyster Cult, and Bonerama — and playing organ during a pair of all-star tributes to Dr. John and the Neville Brothers. Gros also began focusing once again on his solo career — which he'd kicked off in 2004 with Day's End, described by the Times-Picayune as "bits of Leon Russell, Dr. John, and Little Feat plus a whole lot of John Gros" — by prepping a second solo record that focused on the full range of his musical influences and abilities.
"I've spent the last two years being a sideman, playing everyone else's music," he says. "It was great to exercise the sideman side of me: to play all those different styles and be responsible for just one instrument. But the new solo album and musical direction is all about finding who I am, and starting to embrace all these different sides of me all over again."
He's been a sideman. A bandleader. A frontman. A solo artist. A singer. An instrumentalist. He's even been the singing voice of New Orleans' infamous "Come on over to Copeland's" commercial, which Copeland's Restaurants have been broadcasting for the last 25 years. The roles have been varied, but the goal remains the same: to honor the music he's been living his whole life, and to add his own page to New Orleans' history book.