For more than 50 years New Orleans music icon Benny Grunch, along with his “Bunch,” has been playing the soundtrack of the city, from Kings Day all the way through the year to Christmas, and back again. His appearances on WWLTV’s morning show alongside Frank Davis drew viewers to tune in during the holidays for each new premier video.
His songs, such as “Nowhere to Pee on Mardi Gras Day,” “Nash Roberts was Our Weatherman,” and the crowd favorite “The 12 Yats of Christmas,” have been played in homes and to crowds of fans and families by the band as part of a year of holiday traditions. You may have even caught a glimpse of a Dixie Beer ad along 1-10 near the airport which quoted (with permission) the Yat’s famous line: “A Dix Pack of Sixie.”
New Orleans Magazine caught up with Grunch, who was preparing to rev up his vintage scooter and ride into another year’s line-up of December holiday gigs, including an exclusive Rose Garden display of the “12 Yats” in City Park, plus Holidays on Harrison in Lakeview, Harrah’s Casino and the annual Christmas Day concert at Mid City Lanes Rock ‘n Bowl (check out BennyGrunch.net for more dates and times).
Q: When and where did you start playing music?
It was as the Brown Door in Hammond. I was playing music with my band, The Dirty Versions, every Wednesday and Friday night. I put up posters around town with a [fake] quote from a fan, Grunch, recommending the band. Back then, you couldn’t advertise an event that was at a place that sold liquor. What did I know? I got called into the Dean’s office, who suspended me for three days, but on the way out, he pointed at the poster and said, “and we’re going to find that Grunch woman.” We joked about it in the band, and they started calling me Benny Grunch. It stuck.
Q: How did you get started writing songs about New Orleans?
Around October of ’67, I was travelling with Jimmy Vee, who was big at the Peppermint Lounge in New York, and another band, Everyday People from Chicago. We travelled all over. I cam home in ’73 and was back in New Orleans feeling very nostalgic (mind you I was all of 22 or so at the time). So I wrote “The Spirit of Smiling ??” about all the nightclubs. It was a big hit.
Q: What did your folks think about you playing music from such a young age?
I used to play at a club on Bourbon Street around ’63, ’64, ’65. My mother used to call me Ben, and people would ask her, “What’s Ben up to?” She’d say, “Ben’s trying to find himself,” she was so ashamed I was playing music on Bourbon Street. I used to play at Papa Joe’s Ringside. We wouldn’t start playing until a quarter to 3…A.M.
Q: What’s it like to be such a part of the sound of New Orleans?
When I was 16 or 17, I would have given any part of my body to have a big hit. Now, I take it all in stride. Our Christmas Day concert at Rock n’ Bowl has quite a crowd, from toddlers to people in their 90s. It’s most rewarding to look out while we are playing and see people mouthing the words…properly! That is quite rewarding.
Q: Why have you stayed away from politics and politicians for the most part in your music?
When people buy my stuff, they don’t want to think about real things. They just want to have fun. However, I am working on a new piece, “The Tricentennial of the Sewerage and Water Board” that should be interesting.
Q: What kind of music do you like to listen to at home?
I like rhythm and blues from before the rock and roll era, from the late 40s and early 50s. Young James Brown. Lewis Jordan and his Tipani 5. I also play harmonica, so I like Slim Harpo.
Q: Where did the “12 Yats of Christmas” come from?
Around 1990, a fellow band member’s wife suggested I do a New Orleans 12 days of Christmas. Well, we were at an event in Baton Rouge and I was watching our singer go up and down in a hot air balloon (which was something this event had for some reason). Every time I saw her go up and down, I thought of a different “yat.” Except I was stuck on “a crawfish he got in…” Gentilly? No. Metairie? No. I couldn’t get the right place for it. Then I was at the corner of Canal and Baronne and thinking about this. I look up and there’s an Arabi cab. I got it. It was right there in front of me.
Q: How was the “12 Yats of Christmas” received when it premiered?
I recorded it in 1990, although the video didn’t come out until Christmas 1992, and WWL released a press release about it. The lyrics were written up in the Los Angeles Times, the Miami Herald and the New York Times with the headline “Yats the Way it is in New Orleans.” The year it came out, the radio station B97 used to play the top 9 [hits] at nine. Well, this was the time that “The Bodyguard” soundtrack came out. Whitney Houston’s people must have thought, “what’s going on in New Orleans,” because we beat out Houston every night for some time.
I was kicked out of St. Dominic when I was in the sixth grade. They didn’t like my sense of humor. Ok, I wasn’t kicked out, but they told my mom not to bring me back at the end of the school year.
I have never drank, never cursed and never been in a Wal-Mart.
Born/raised: New Orleans.
High School: St. Aloysius.
Favorite Carnival parade/day: I live near City Park, so definitely Endymion.
Favorite King Cake: I like just the regular flavor.
Best place to watch live music: Rock n’Bowl.
Favorite restaurant: Well, it was Bud’s Broiler, but now that it’s gone, I like Lakeview Burgers and Seafood.