June Yamagishi and Papa Grows Funk

I remember exactly where I was when I first heard about Papa Grows Funk.

I was having a drink with a high school classmate at Train Bar in Roppongi in August 2002, my first visit to Japan, and he was telling me that our sixth grade science teacher, Mr. Allspach, had been a manager at the Maple Leaf Bar in our hometown New Orleans.

As much as I hate adding to the narrative of New Orleans exceptionalism, perhaps this is unique and characteristic of the city: New Orleans is the kind of place where your middle school science teacher, known for daily quizzes, dapper suits from the ‘70s, and for being very tall and strict, can also be a regular at a neighborhood dive bar that hosts some of the best bands in the city.

My friend said that Mr. Allspach recommended Papa Grows Funk and that they had a Japanese guitarist. I went to see them for the first time later that summer after I returned from Japan. It was a random Monday night in that dead space in the calendar when college students hadn’t returned to the city, but the bar was full.

Papa Grows Funk at the Maple Leaf for their third-to-last show in April 2013. Walter “Wolfman” Washington on stage with them in this photo.

I quickly became obsessed with the band and New Orleans funk, which all originates from the 1969 The Meters self-titled album (YouTube)(and probably some R&B that came before that). I even had a chance to see the band in Tokyo at Club Quattro in Shibuya when I was studying abroad in 2004.

So it was a thrill to profile the guitarist June Yamagishi for the Japan Times: “June Yamagishi: Hitting New Orleans with a suitcase and a guitar.”

I spoke with him when I was back home in February. He’s super friendly and open and fits right in in New Orleans, where he’s lived since 1995. He’s managed the city that whole time without a driver’s license, which feels like a miracle, but it seems like he’s been based out of the Lower Garden District neighborhood since he got to New Orleans. We were sitting outside Mojo Coffee on Magazine Street, and he could point to the house where he first lived and the house where he recorded a solo album before he moved to the city.

He’s basically a guitar legend in Japan as well. There’s an extended conversation between June and the guitarist Char on YouTube. This is the first part of that program:

I need to give it a watch.

And to give you a taste of June’s music, I recommend the song “Yakiniku”:

And here’s a clip of June from an upcoming documentary about Papa Grows Funk. He’s talking about how the band started gigging at Old Point Bar in Gretna:

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