INTERVIEW: Celebrate Christmas in July with NOLA’s Benny Grunch

Benny Grunch and the Bunch are New Orleans music icons. Photo courtesy of Benny Grunch Facebook page.

Benny Grunch is a staple of the New Orleans music scene, especially in the month of December, when just about every day he and his band are booked for Christmastime gigs. The yuletide cheer for Benny Grunch and the Bunch is largely due to his holiday-themed parodies, which have been causing chuckles in the Crescent City for a quarter of a century.

Even though it’s July, the plans are afoot for another busy year for the man behind “The 12 Yats of Christmas.”

“Well, every Christmas I add to the Christmas CD at least one tune,” Grunch said in a phone interview earlier this year. “It has grown from four songs in 1990, which was a cassette, and then, of course, it went to CD right away. Now we’re up to about 27 songs on the CD. … Maybe if I can get to it, and I think I will, a whole Mardi Gras CD [will come out soon], which will be probably be 10 to 14 brand-new Mardi Gras songs.”

Those Mardi Gras tunes will join the mix of party tunes Grunch is already known for, including “Ain’t No Place to Be on Mardi Gras Day,” a local favorite in Louisiana.

For the singer, the original idea was to create a NOLA-inspired “12 Days of Christmas,” and he started with a few simple lyrics that included two red beans and three crab shells.

“The idea came to me very quickly to do what I call the numerical entendres,” he said. “All of this is real New Orleans stuff and well known to everyone in New Orleans, especially residents who have been here for a while. New Orleans is a little island in itself, like New York is a big island in itself. This is a little island in itself, and going down in numerical entendres for the ’12 Days of Christmas,’ or I call it the ’12 Yats of Christmas.’ A ‘yat’ is someone like me with a heavy New Orleans accent who says instead of ‘Hello’ or ‘Hey, how are you doing,’ we say, ‘Hey, where y’at.'”

The song references locations and treasures of New Orleans like the 17th street canal, Schwegmann’s Grocery Store and the Lower Ninth Ward. Of course, he also mentions fried onion rings (instead of “five golden rings”) and three French breads (no “French hens” here).

“It was October 1990 when I was finishing up the recording,” he said. “I was going to put it out as maybe a four-song cassette for the Christmas season 1991, so this was a bit late. However, where I was recording, Ultrasonic [Studios] in New Orleans — sort of a big-time studio at the time, all flooded out by [Hurricane] Katrina, all gone — used to put out a newsletter every couple of weeks, and they did. … And some other papers around the country picked it up: Miami Herald, Chicago Tribune and, of course, our local newspaper here, The Times-Picayune. So, well, I got to hurry up, so I printed my own little cards at a Kinko’s printing shop and had the cassettes made up quick in Nashville. And it came out, and they just started selling like crazy instantly. Got local big-time radio play on all the local rock Top-40 stations, and the rest is kind of history.”

Grunch still has the original manuscript for the song, even though it was damaged by Katrina. Since “12 Yats,” there have been numerous other local hits, including “Ain’t There No More” about stores in NOLA that are no longer around. This one became an anthem after Katrina. There was also “Santa and His Reindeer Used to Live Right Here” and the aforementioned “Ain’t No Place to Be on Mardi Gras Day.”

“So that’s four pretty solid [songs], really big still in New Orleans,” he said. “Plus I have lots of satellite hits that go along with the ’12 Yats of Christmas.'”

Because his repertoire leans toward Christmas fare, Grunch is a busy man in December. For example, in December 2016, he completed 27 gigs in that month alone. It doesn’t hurt that he has a dependable band.

“It’s just bass, guitar, drums and our original girl singer, Kathy Savoie, who I’ve known since 1965, and, you know, there’s different grades of a gig,” he said of their touring schedule. “You can call them a #10 all the way down to a #1. French Quarter Fest is terrific. All the equipment is there. It’s all set up like a big concert venue. … It’s in New Orleans’ most famous square, Jackson Square on the river right in front of St. Louis Cathedral, and that is a #9 or #10 every year when the weather is good. Of course, if it’s raining hard, it can get knocked down to a #7 or so.”

The concerts with hundreds of people are fun, but Grunch also enjoys the smaller gigs. He played a CYO-inspired reunion in 2001 at a local hall, charging 65 cents at the door.

“So that was a #10 even though it was very small, and I had to set up my own equipment and lights,” he said. “It just depends on the job. January 6 here is Kings Day. That’s the beginning of Mardi Gras, so at 7 a.m., I had a job at a little Italian restaurant in my neighborhood, Lakeview. And it was the introduction when they bring in these special King cakes locally. … The King cakes are super special. They arrive with a police escort, a limousine, a van, the whole deal, and that was like a #9 or #10 gig. And it was in this tiny little Italian restaurant, and we just moved all the chairs out of the way and moved everything out of the way, probably doesn’t hold more than 40 people. That was a #10 of a gig.”

He added: “Our repertoire is such that we know what to play for the people that come to see the band, so we have lots of like #8, #9, #10 gigs. And it’s usually the weather here that makes a gig not so great, especially if you’re outside. That’s what ruins a gig the fastest in New Orleans. We have some very changeable weather. It can be very, very hot. It can be very, very windy and cold and rainy, so that’s what makes a gig terrific or not so terrific.”

By John Soltes / Publisher / John@HollywoodSoapbox.com

Click here for more information on Benny Grunch and the Bunch.

John Soltes

John Soltes is an award-winning journalist. His writing has appeared in The New York Times, Earth Island Journal, The Hollywood Reporter, New Jersey Monthly and at Time.com, among other publications. E-mail him at john@hollywoodsoapbox.com

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