Of all the talented musicians hitting the stage for this weekend's debut "Sass-O-Jazz Festival" at Heritage Square downtown, few are as mysterious as Papa Grows Funk guitarist June Yamagishi. The Japanese-born axe-slinger is a bona fide star in his adopted hometown of New Orleans, where he seemingly jams with anybody and everybody. For five years now, this enigmatic figure has been one of the stars of The Wild Magnolias, the most popular (musical) Indian tribe in the city, whose outrageous stage get-ups and rock-solid jams are always crowd pleasers. And last year, he got together with Hammond player John Goss (George Porter Jr.), drummer Russell Batiste (Funky Meters, George Porter Jr., Batiste Brothers), saxophonist Jason Mingledorff (formerly of Galactic), and alternating bassists Marc Pero and Peter V to form rookie-sensation funk outfit Papa Grows Funk, which is taking the Crescent City by storm with its delicious debut "Doin' It" (think early Galactic).
But despite his ever-growing list of accomplishments and accolades -- in a town where outsiders normally fear to tread -- no one really knows much about this reticent master. During performances, Yamagishi can most likely be found in the back, modestly giving the spotlight to the other players until eventually people start craning their necks to view the pyrotechnics occurring at the rear of the stage.
The talented cat was introduced to the electric guitar by a junior-high pal. Yamagishi was so taken by the instrument that he saved up and bought his own guitar at the age of 12. Early influences included The Ventures and, of course, the almighty Beatles. But it wasn't until a friend brought over a Shuggie Otis album that he started listening to the blues. At first, he had trouble with some of the great ones.
"I bought B.B. King `"Live at Regal"`. I didn't understand him, or Elmore James. I was like, 'Shuggie Otis can play more than B.B. King.'"
He concentrated on British blues performers like Cream and John Mayall until a record-store owner convinced him to buy a Magic Sam album, and his entire perception of music changed. "After I heard Magic Sam, I went back to B.B. King and was like, 'This guy's a monster!'"
In 1972 , the 19-year-old Yamagishi started the West Road Blues Band, a traditional blues outfit that nabbed a slot opening for B.B. King. The gig went well, and during the encore B.B. asked Yamagishi and the rest of his band onstage to jam.
Two years later, Yamagishi took off to Los Angeles for a year of musical sponging. By another stroke of luck, some friends of his were close with funk group The Gap Band. Jimmy Macon, Gap's guitarist, was instrumental in showing Yamagishi the nuances of funk rhythms. Yamagishi fell in love not only with the sounds he was hearing, but also the '70s culture of L.A.
After his year of Americanization, Yamagishi returned to Japan where he formed an R&B/funk band called Chicken Shack, inspired by his travels in the States. He also became an in-demand session guitarist at that time, but wasn't too happy with the confines of the Japanese commercial-music environment. Yamagishi explains, "This record producer would call me up and say, 'Hey, we want you on our record. Can you play like Jimi Hendrix?' I mean, I love Jimi, but I have to play what I feel. The Japanese producers wanted me to copy the American records."
It was on a trip back from the Bahamas in 1987 that Yamagishi first got a sampling of the many temptations of New Orleans. He was only there for three days, but the city's multiple musical offerings and laid-back vibe seemed the perfect fit for him. He began searching out all things New Orleanian, including the recordings of his future band, The Wild Magnolias. "I saw this record with all these Indians on the cover and was like, 'What the hell is this?' ... I didn't have any money. So I made sure no one was looking, and I stole it!," he admits.
At about this time, Yamagishi recorded two solo blues albums in Japan. "My Pleasure" featured Bobby Womack and his first hero, Shuggie Otis, on guitar. "Jack of the Blues" displayed more of his affection for New Orleans, with Art Neville, John Mooney and even Dr. John as guest artists. In fact, Yamagishi's first meeting with Dr. John was a memorable one.
"In Japan, someone was introducing us; and he turns to me, shakes my hand and says `imitating in gravelly/ Japanese-inflected Dr. John accent`, 'Somebody keeps telling me I have to meet some Japanese motherfucker named Yamagishi Yamagoogoo. Have you heard of him?'"
It was also around this time that Yamagishi was asked to play on a B.B. King album titled "B.B. King & Sons" that was to be recorded live in Japan.
Yamagishi finally decided to move to New Orleans for good in the fall of 1995. Two days later, still without a permanent place to rest his head, he headed out to the famed Maple Leaf for an amateur-night blues jam. There he met Michael Ward, who immediately invited him to join his group Reward -- which also included Galactic singer Theryl "Houseman" De-Clouet.
Yamagishi played with Reward all the way up to Ward's death in 1999. It was Ward who recommended Yamagishi when The Wild Magnolias needed a guitar player.
In 1996, Yamagishi played his first gig with The Wild Magnolias. "I really surprised them, because I already knew all their songs. They were like, 'How does this Japanese guy know all our stuff?'" He has been a major ingredient in their performances ever since.
And now Yamagishi is making his case with the familiar-yet-fresh grooves of Papa Grows Funk, one of several talent-rich New Orleans-based bands on the "Sass-O-Jazz" bill. Also playing: Iris May Tango and the New Orleans All-Star Brass, in addition to local favorites Sam Rivers RivBea Orchestra, The Joint Chiefs and Skezag.
With all his success, it is no wonder that Yamagishi has no wishes to return to his native Japan. He plans on spending the rest of his days becoming a true New Orleanian and continuing to be that mysterious shredder in the back.This article originally appeared in the October issue of Offbeat Magazine.