Catching Up With Benny Grunch
The man behind the "12 Yats of Christmas” talks about his latest music and more.
Singer and bassist, Benny Grunch
GREG MILES PHOTOGRAPH
Before the days of viral videos, New Orleans had its own video hit: Benny Grunch and the Bunch’s the “12 Yats of Christmas,” a locals-humor take on the “12 Days of Christmas” that first aired on WWL-TV as part of Frank Davis’ Naturally N’Awlins series. More than two decades after that video first aired, the song is solidified in the canon of New Orleans holiday traditions alongside Mr. Bingle and Celebration in the Oaks. These days the band’s 68-year-old front man, whose real name is Benny Antin, is slowed down by rheumatoid arthritis, but he still writes and performs. This year’s incarnation of the 12 Yats of Christmas CD – which includes other local holiday hits “Ain’t Dere No More” and “Santa & His Reindeer” – features two new songs, the New Orleans rhythm and blues second-line “Down the Road Santee Claus” and “Santa’s Got Your Personal Information,” a surf-rock tune that marks Antin’s first foray into national satire. I talked to him at his Lakeview home, where he lives with his girlfriend and in his spare time works on European cars and motorcycles. Despite his arthritis, when he visits his daughter in Denver he rides one of his bikes all the way.
You must be busy right now. People actually start having holiday parties in September. So it kind of starts right around then and then at the end of September, and it gets busier and busier right through pretty much New Year’s Eve. And then I get a little spurt around Mardi Gras too [because of the song] “Ain’t No Place to Pee on a Mardi Gras Day.”
I probably make more of a living from the sale of the 12 Yats of Christmas CD than I do from performances because they’re in all the local Walgreens, Barnes & Nobles and independent music stores like Louisiana Music Factory. I always say it’s a big hit from the East Coast to the West Coast – from Pass Christian to LaPlace.
How did you start playing music? I started taking guitar lessons in 1956. Mother said she didn’t know what the heck to do with me.
My first job with a band was at a bar on Airline Highway. They didn’t care how old you were in those days. All bars that catered to young people had a policeman in the bar. So you knew where your kids were – they were safe in a bar.
I did that through high school and a little bit through college – I didn’t finish college; I went to Southeastern for about three years. I played there at The Brown Door with a band called the Dirty Virgins. The Dean of Men didn’t like that name. I had some posters and advertised with little flyers on campus … and [the dean] had all the flyers on his desk and one of the flyers had a name I made up: “Lena Grunch loves the Dirty Virgins, you will too every Wednesday at the Brown Door.” I think I got suspended for a couple of days. As I was walking out, the dean pointed to one of those flyers and said, “You know what, we’re gonna find out who this Grunch woman is.”
The next time we played I changed the name of the band to “Lena Grunch’s Bunch,” and by the end of the night everyone was calling it “Benny Grunch’s Bunch” and the drummer, Wade, was calling me Benny Grunch. So by the end of the night it was Benny Grunch and the Bunch.
How did “12 Yats of Christmas” come to be? In 1990, someone said you oughta do a 12 Days of Christmas about New Orleans. We were playing a gig one night and it all came to me there – “Yes, 12 Yats of Christmas” – and do what I call a numerical entendre for each one. That is – six pack of Dixie. A dozen Manuel’s Tamales. Tujaque’s recipe. Ate by ya mama’s. Lower 9th Ward. Not everyone gets that I’m doing a numerical entendre. Everyone says, I have some great lyrics for you, and they’re just “two City Park kiddie rides. Four Uptown street corners.”
At that time in 1990 when I first did the “12 Yats” and it really took off, it was on all the Top 40 stations and one of the stations, I guess it was maybe B97, they had the “Top 9 at 9” every night. And I know Whitney Houston’s manager was saying, “Who the heck is Benny Grunch?” because she was never the top through the holidays, I was.
Are you surprised that the song took off the way it did? Not only am I surprised, my guy in Tennessee who [packages the CDs] for me said, “Man, you’ve gotten more mileage out of one song than most country artists get in a lifetime.”
What do people who aren’t from here think about your music? It takes them about three years before they come over. It makes no sense at all at first. And after about three years – it’s usually three to seven years – they can’t get enough.
What is your favorite place that ain’t dere no more? Pontchartrain Beach, like almost anyone would tell you. Of course I miss all the neighborhood shows [movie theaters]. That was a phenomenon all over the country, especially since they had air conditioning. For just 25 cents you go to movies and be cool all night.
True Confession: I’m really not from St. Bernard Parish – I’m from Lakeview.
At a Glance
Profession: Singer and bassist, Benny Grunch and the Bunch
Family: Partner, Becky. One daughter and two grandchildren.
Education: St. Aloysius, Southeastern Louisiana University
Favorite movie: Woody Allen’s Zelig and What’s Up, Tiger Lily
Favorite band/musician: Huey “Piano” Smith
Favorite restaurant: Bud’s Broiler, especially the City Park Avenue location
Favorite hobby: Working on European Motorcycles and cars
Favorite Vacation Spot: “I like to go where there are car and motorcycle events.
My favorite is in Birmingham, Ala.: Barber Vintage Festival. Another favorite spot is Daytona Beach for Bike Week. I’m not a Harley guy but they have a lot of European-style events, too.”