Songs In The Key Of… New Orleans

John “Papa” Gros
John “Papa” Gros on New Orleans

John “Papa” Gros: “I am representing New Orleans culture and adding to legacy laid before me.” Photo: Zack Smith

Take in the scent of magnolia as John “Papa” Gros takes us on a musical adventure through The Easy City

When it comes to musical cities, New Orleans is right up there alongside Nashville, Austin and Detroit. With its unique blend of jazz, brass and R&B, not to mention its world-famous Mardi Gras celebration, The Big Easy attracts lovers of good times and great tunes from across the world. The home of legendary musicians such as Louis Armstrong and Allen Toussaint, artists like Quick and Hurray For The Riff Raff continue New Orleans’ traditions of embracing the past while looking forward.

John “Papa” Gros is another songwriter synonymous with his hometown, so much so that his latest release, Central City, featuring party songs both old and new, is a tribute to New Orleans’ diverse musical legacy. Gros career started as the organist/pianist for George Porter Jr’s Runnin’ Pardners before he established his own group, Papa Grows Funk, and then went on to become a successful solo artist. As Gros says, “I am representing New Orleans culture and adding to legacy laid before me.” All of which makes him the perfect guide to take us on a musical tour through his city…

To listen to all 10 tracks in one go, check out the ‘Songs In The Key Of… New Orleans’ Spotify playlist.

Written and recorded by Professor Longhair (Henry Roeland Byrd AKA “Fess”) in 1953, this blues anthem tells the tale of a lying, cheating, drinking woman expressed through Fess’s field-holler vocal. Tipitina is ground zero for all New Orleans pianists. By blending boogie-woogie piano with a rolling rhumba rhythm, he changed New Orleans piano and music forever. Fess’s piano style is the foundation for all who followed after him including Dr. John, Art Neville, Allen Toussaint, and me.
Written by Earl King and recorded by many New Orleans artists including James Booker, John Boutté, The Subdudes and me (on my first solo record, Days End). I’m including Dr. John’s version here with The Meters as the backing band and Allen Toussaint’s arrangement and production. This song was written in the 60s but every word rings true today. The joy exuding from singing the chorus is contagious. “Everybody let’s sing, sing, sing. Let’s all pitch in, do our thing, and make a better world to live in.”
Written by my good friend Anders, this song describes exactly what New Orleans feels like during the steamy summer months of July and August and why we love it so much. “The garbage truck just passed you up and that potent smell of seafood shells, and that sweet bloom of magnolia trees, that’s summertime in New Orleans.”
From their Daniel Lanois-produced seminal recording, Yellow Moon, this is a track that marries the sounds of New Orleans funk, Mardi Gras Indians and a street brass band, courtesy of The Dirty Dozen Brass Band, all wrapped around Art “Poppa Funk” Neville’s powerful vocal. The horns and percussion propel the relentless groove. This is The Neville Brothers at their best.
You Do It is my most recent single and is inspired and informed by Allen Toussaint’s songs from the early 70s. It’s a New Orleans love song that references my musical and cultural hero, Dr. John, the funkiest drummer on the planet, Joseph “Zigaboo” Modeliste of The Meters, the Mississippi River and Marie Laveau all in one catchy chorus. And for lagniappe, New Orleans legends George Porter Jr. and Herlin Riley are the rhythm section.

John “Papa” Gros on New Orleans

John “Papa” Gros: There is a reason Allen Toussaint’s name is mentioned throughout this playlist. He is as important to the sound of New Orleans as the music itself. Photo: Zack Smith

A band fronted by three amazing trombonists can only exist in New Orleans. Their funk/brass/rock style encapsulates the history of New Orleans music in everything they play. Empty World pays homage to our musical hero, Allen Toussaint. Allen passed away in 2015 and News Orleans has never been the same. Guest vocalist Michael McDonald of Doobie Brothers fame slays the lead vocal.
The culmination of when The Meters, the four funkiest musicians on the planet, align with the heavens. This song has it all, a story, interesting chordal progression, incredible vocals and the sickest interweaving syncopating rhythms ever recorded. If this don’t make you move, I don’t know what will.
Originally written by Allen Toussaint for the Scottish soul singer, Frankie Miller in 1973, this version is from Aaron Neville’s Linda Ronstadt-produced, Warm Your Heart. Allen knew how to write songs for singers. The way Aaron’s delivers the rise and fall of the melody and the lyric realizes the true meaning of loving another human being… Beautiful.
There is a reason Allen Toussaint’s name is mentioned throughout this playlist. He is as important to the sound of New Orleans as the music itself. He hears the city and finds ways to incorporate it into song. He had his hand (songwriting, producing, arranging and/or as an artist) on more hit records than any other New Orleans musician since Fats Domino. I could choose literally any song he wrote and recorded, his work is that profound, but I choose Last Train. Lyrically, the singer is caught up in the rat race of life like a runaway train. You can hear it in the propulsion of the bass line and the train calls in the horns. Every nuance in this song helps convey the motion of being out of control.
Roll Away was written for my paternal grandfather, Alton Gros. He was the hardest working man I ever knew, working in the shipyards and then, upon retirement, as a school custodian. His love for the outdoors, especially fishing, was surpassed only by his love for his family. He spent his entire life by the banks of the Mississippi River. This song was a gift, just like Paw Paw, and practically wrote itself.
Tank took New Orleans by storm five years ago then won the Tiny Desk talent search and never looked back. This year they were nominated for a Grammy award for Best New Artist, although Lizzo eventually won. Quick was the song that fuelled the fire with a great story, wordplay and powerful synth blasts. They are pop, hip hop, spoken word, funk and the future of New Orleans music.
This party track kicks off similarly to Fats Domino’s I’m Walking but soon lifts off into the stratosphere. Galactic has a reputation for late night, high energy live shows and this foot-stomper and hand-clapper will raise the roof. Dig it!

Central City is out now, for tour dates and further news head over to

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