In 2019, we mourned the loss of two larger-than-life figures in the New Orleans music world: famed singer/pianist Dr. John and the Meters/Neville Brothers co-founder Art Neville. George Porter Jr. smiles as he recalls his friend, Mac Rebennack, aboard Jam Cruise 18.
“My relationship with Dr. John probably came after the Meters,” he notes, looking off into the distance. “[The Meters] were Allen Toussaint‘s house band, and I don’t remember what year it was that we did the “Right Place, Wrong Time” album [In The Right Place] with Dr. John. That was the beginning of my personal relationship with Mac. And we kind of kept in touch with each other over the next 40-some-odd-plus years.”
Of course, for George Porter Jr., Art Neville is a much deeper topic than Dr. John. George (bass) and Art (keys), along with drummer Zigaboo Modeliste and guitarist Leo Nocentelli, formed the Meters in the late 1960s. Together they helped to define the groove of funk music—and, in turn, hip-hop—putting a global microphone on the unique sound of New Orleans.
The Meters were like brothers—they fought, resentments flared, feelings got hurt—but nobody could deny the creative chemistry that flowed from this group of musicians. This was a job, however, and they had to put food on the table. While Meters records rarely garnered mainstream commercial success, the band members became recognized as the best session players around by those in the know. By the time the ’80s came around, the Meters had fizzled out. Each of the members moved on to new pastures of varying shades of green. Their greatness as a band and their eventual influence on the decades worth of music that followed were almost an afterthought.
“I think the band broke up just because we were seeing bands that were opening for us get hit records and move onto bigger things and get out of Mercury station wagons and into a tour bus, stuff like that,” George reflects with a laugh. “We weren’t doing that, so I think that was disheartening to a lot of the players, or to a few of the players. And so, our cohesive, four-piece mind broke up into pieces and everybody just started looking out for their personal self.”
Porter is just as active as ever today, touring alongside Zigaboo with their Meters spinoff act, Foundation of Funk, as well as a pair of side projects, George Porter Jr. & The Runnin’ Pardners and the George Porter Trio. He’s an elder statesman, an undeniable presence on any stage he graces.
George seems at peace on this sunny morning, genuinely happy to be on the boat gigging and sharing his gift. You can, however, still detect a hint of wistfulness in his eyes as he reflects on the old days.
Knowing now how revered their work would become—how foundational their sound would be—it’s not difficult to understand why. For one of history’s most influential bands, the Meters’ run was relatively short and woefully underappreciated by the world at large. Casual music fans across the globe can hum you “Cissy Strut” but can’t name the band that wrote it. A song like “Uptown Funk” can win multiple Grammys while funk’s founding fathers continue to perform in relative obscurity.
Funk music has expanded and evolved over the years, rubbing off on mainstream and underground genres alike. You can find elements of the grooves the Meters originated all across today’s stylistic spectrum. The funk has endured, even if its architects didn’t manage the same fate.
“I think if we’d have knew then what we kind of know now, we rethink going our separate ways,” Porter poses. “I always said that if the Meters had a clue of the longevity of the music, that they probably would’ve reconsidered breaking up.”
George Porter Jr was still a teenager when he met Art Neville. As George explains, “I believe I was 16, maybe going on 17, when a gentleman named Herbert Wing sent me as a sub to play a gig with Art as a guitar player because, at that time, I was more a guitar player than a bass player.”
“And it was kind of an embarrassing thing,” he reminisces with a laugh, “Because Art wanted a lead guitar player, somebody who can take the solos, and I was a rhythm guitar player. I had no idea how to take a solo! Every time he would turn to me and tell me to take a solo, I’d say ‘uh-uh!’ So at the end of the night, he told me, ‘Bruh, you’re the worst guitar player.’ A year or so later, when he saw me again, I was playing with a guy named Irvin Bannister. I was playing bass and he told me, he said, ‘Now, that‘s the instrument you should be playing. You want a gig? [laughs]’ That was pretty much the beginning of the band.
By that point, Art had already recorded a successful Carnival anthem with the Hawketts in “Mardi Gras Mambo” and was starting to make a name for himself in New Orleans. The gig he had offered to George was as part of his new project which, according to George, was drunkenly christened the Neville Sound Band by radio DJ George Vinette when he introduced them one Sunday night at the Nite Cap.
“At the time,” explains George, “There was only one Neville in the band [Art’s brother, vocalist/percussionist Cyril Neville, eventually joined, as well]. Aaron [Neville] used to pop over every now and then and sing a few songs, but he wasn’t in the band. Aaron was playing with a guy named Sam Henry. Actually, that gig we were playing at the Nite Cap was originally Sam Henry’s gig, and Art kind of hijacked Sam’s gig [laughs], and went in with an unproven band with just the fact that he was Art Neville.”
“And actually,” Porter recalls with amusement, “Art didn’t just take Sam’s gig—he took Sam’s organ, too [laughs]! Sam left his organ there for a while… and Zig [Modeliste] wasn’t the original drummer. There was another young man named Glen. I can’t never remember what Glen’s last name was, but the band was Glen on drums, a saxophone player named Gary Brown, Art, and myself. We did that gig, and it was probably five to six months into that gig when Glen had to go in for minor surgery and was gone for about 10 days or something like that, and Zig came in to sub, played on Glen’s drums. We were told this by the club owner, that [Glen] came in and saw Zig playing the gig and he said, ‘Bro, I’m not gonna get this gig back’ [laughs]. And on Monday, he came and took his drums and we never seen him again.”
It’s difficult to measure just how prolific the Meters were in the studio. During an eight-year span in the late ’60s and early ’70s, they released eight official studio albums. During that same window—and even further back as the Neville Sounds—they also served as the most in-demand backing band in New Orleans, most notably as the musicians in residence at Allen Toussaint’s Sansu Enterprises.
“Allen had started watching us when we were up at the Nite Cap, years before we got on Bourbon Street,” George recalls. “He used to come and drive—back then, in ’67, ’68, you could drive down Bourbon Street. So Allen used to come with his El Dorado and park in front of the Ivanhoe and listen to the band. The doorman would tell us when we’d go on our breaks, ‘Oh yeah, your boy was here in his yellow El Dorado.’ After we moved to Bourbon Street is when Art Neville got the call that Allen wanted us to come down and audition to do some session work. We went in and it wasn’t really an audition because Allen knew what we did.”
In Art, George, Leo, and Zigaboo, Toussaint saw the basis of a widely-applicable new sound. With them as the foundation, he set out to forge a new path with the artists he brought in. The Meters’ session resume includes notable records by Dr. John, Patti Labelle, Lee Dorsey, Robert Palmer, and countless others—in theory, anyway. In most cases, the band was not originally credited on the records despite their integral contributions.
While they churned out successful recordings for featured artists, the Meters were not encouraged by those around them to lay down anything of their own. George explains, “I think it probably goes back to the way rhythm sections or studio musicians were treated in the 60s and early 70s. The house band guys were never made popular, mostly because they wanted to keep you as the house band. Last thing they want is a house band to happen like Booker T. & the M.G.’s. They got… boom! And they start saying, ‘Oh, you got to start paying us more money,’ [laughs] you know?”
“Well, that sort of started happening with the Meters,” he continues. “It was after a Lee Dorsey session, I believe, that [then manager] Marshall Sehorn came into the studio and to us said, ‘You guys oughta lay down a few tracks. Lay something down, put something down.’ And we laid down four tracks, like pew, pew pew, right quick, you know?”
“We didn’t even title the songs, it was just ‘Meter One’, ‘Meter Two’, ‘Meter Three’, ‘Meter Four’. Then, Marshall Sehorn named the tracks, and those four tracks was ‘Cissy Strut’, ‘Sophisticated Cissy’, ‘Here Comes the Meter Man’, and ‘Sehorn’s Farm’. He released them through a record label, I think it was named Josie Records. Or maybe, he might’ve released them on Sansu Records and Josie Records distributed them, I can’t remember exactly. That ‘intertwangling’ thing was the way to keep us from getting paid [laughs], that’s all I could see it was.”
“But the ‘Sophisticated Cissy’ was the first track, and it [blast-off sound] ran up the R&B charts and made its way over to the top Pop 100 chart. And it was at that point Sehorn saw, ‘Oh, income,’ [laughs] so he released the other one, ‘Cissy Strut’. And ‘Cissy Strut’ did the same thing—landed on both charts.”
“So at that point, he kind of opened the door to us becoming the new Booker T. & the M.G.’s, to some degree. I think everything after we did that wasn’t treated in the same formula as those first two 45s because Marshall didn’t want us to get big.”
From suppressive management and record labels to intra-band tensions and disagreements, there always seemed to be some cosmic force working against the success of the Meters. Cracks began to form as early as 1969 when Art Neville briefly quit the band due to disputes over his assumed leadership role.
“This was in late ’69, middle of ’69,” explains Porter. “Art always believed it was his band, and that he should control that seat. He was a little dismayed at some point when, after we became the Meters, we became a unit of full voices having some input and kind of voted Art to not be the bandleader anymore.”
“We were playing other music, but we had lost two things [when Art quit]: a B3 player that was a piano player that played B3 like a piano player—which is a unique thing in itself—and Art Neville’s voice, we lost that. So, the guy who we got to play keyboards was more of a Jimmy Smith/Jimmy McGriff-type keyboard player. He had chops out the wahoo but he couldn’t sing and he couldn’t play piano. … It was one of the things about Art that nobody else really had, that he was a piano player first and went to organ.”
“Before the time that it came around to do the Cabbage Alley record, [manager] Marshall [Sehorn] came back to us with the idea that we were going to move from Josie Records to a bigger label, Warner Brothers (Reprise Records)… that the label’s interested, but Art has to be in the band. For the band, it was a good move [to bring Art back in]. We’re getting ready to go to a better label, get a better budget for recording and stuff. We didn’t fire Art, he quit [laughs]! It wasn’t our idea. He thought that he was getting thrown out of his own band. I understand that.”
Even with Art back in the fold, problems continued to arise within the ranks of the Meters. While their output made it increasingly clear that these players shined brightest as a creative unit, their personal rapport continued to disintegrate as they tried to make their way.
George takes a beat before addressing the notion that the Meters as a unit were greater than the sum of their parts despite their frequent disagreements. “I think that was the original idea,” he offers. “It wasn’t until management separated us mentally [that tensions arose]. I think, individually, we would go to management and get favors that other guys weren’t getting. I know I was. Leo [Nocentelli] and I started doing other sessions within the same period of time the Meters were still recording.”
“After Zig and Allen kind of separated mentally on the Patti Labelle Lady Marmalade (1974) record, Art kind of backed away from the sessions. So, it was just me and Leo still doing sessions for Allen. By that time, by that period, we were starting to get really not as cohesive amongst the guys. But, you divide and conquer, you know?”
Eventually, the “divide” portion of that strategy began to eclipse the “conquer.” Art and Cyril left the group in 1977 to form the Neville Brothers. Porter split before the end of that year. The Meters had officially broken up by 1980.
Despite their proven abilities as a band, the players that comprised the Meters were ready to let that ship sail. “We were told that we were just an uncontrollable band—’this band is volatile,’ you know? ‘You don’t want to invest too much into this,'” Porter explains.
“Something I always say is, ‘I never say never,'” George adds. “But I kind of saw that things were getting done and said that [there] was just no way of repairing, and that still remains to this day. There’s certain things that are just unrepairable.”
While members of the Meters reconnected sporadically in the years that followed—most notably as the funky Meters featuring Art, George, and Leo—the band never recorded together again.
After the breakup, the Meters’ negative experiences with record labels and aversions to being cheated continued to guide their hands as they embarked on their respective solo careers—sometimes, at the expense of their own success.
As George recounts, “I used to take a band called A Taste of New Orleans to Europe. The promoter one year was a big fan of Art Neville and he was a big fan of the music that Art did with Specialty Records. So, I approached Art and his manager at the time and his manager said, ‘Well, he said yes, you should do this.'”
“I had rehearsed the band and everything, had all that ready. A week out, [Art] decided he had a memory of how he was treated with that record label and he decided he didn’t want to go do it because he didn’t want to make the record label any money. I called Aaron [Neville] and I said, ‘Man, I don’t know what to do here. We leave in a week and Art don’t want to go [laughs]! I don’t know what to do with this.’ So Aaron talked to him and kind of made him aware that the record label is not going to make [any more] money on that record ’cause it’s not for sale anymore, but you’re going to get paid for going to perform this music. So then he called me that night and said, ‘Okay, I’ll be at the airport in the morning.’ So we went over and he killed it, and outside of the one rehearsal that we had, he had never played any of those songs.”
“I don’t have a problem with playing any music that the Meters recorded,” George asserts, “Because I believe the music is a testament to the band, not a testament against a manager or a record label.”
Art Neville’s death in 2019 effectively closed the book on any future Meters reunions.
“It’s better off just [retaining] whatever friendship we got, and leave it alone. It’s no sense in rocking the boat,” George explains with a tone of acceptance. “Everybody should die off happy [laughs]. I mean, I think we could make more money if we were together. But, I say all the time, most of the gigs I’m playing, it’s not about the money. It’s about I still like playing. At the end of the day, when I pay all my bills and pay everybody in the band, my check is small, so if it wasn’t for the 40 years of music that I have out there in the world that sends me mailbox money, I probably would be a bank robber [laughs].”
With those 40 years worth of music—and band discord—in mind, George earnestly considers whether the Meters were able to create such a prolific, groundbreaking catalog because of or in spite of their “volatile,” sibling-like relationship. “Wow. I never thought about it that way. I would kind of think maybe in spite of it,” he decides, “Because like I said, I don’t believe we knew what that was. We were just writing pieces of music and just playing off of each other.”
While Leo still performs from time to time and Zigaboo plays drums with Porter in Foundation of Funk, George Porter Jr. is by far the most active Meter today. With Art gone, the notion that he’s now the de facto figurehead of that legacy is not lost on him.
“I think about it, yeah. I think about it from the point of just trying to stay healthy,” Porter explains. “Zig has chosen not to do it because … he’s had some health issues over the last few years, so he don’t want to push himself as hard anymore. Leo, on the other hand, I really don’t know how his health is.”
“But, I think, Leo’s 73, I’m 72, Zig’s 71. I don’t think either of those two guys are having as much fun as I’m having playing. I have two solo bands—my Runnin’ Pardners band and my Porter Trio—and for the most part, playing the music in both of those bands, I’m finding very satisfying.”
“And we still get to enjoy that and feel connected to the roots of all this music that we’ve come to love and has come to be this whole thing. The fact that I’ve been embraced by the Dead—my Dead family, the Grateful Dead people, and their fan base, I have a good time with that as well.”
“When I lost my wife in 2017, I think the whole idea of longevity came to me because I watched her deteriorate for a year and a half, going from a 180-pound woman to 60-some-odd pounds. She died at home, I was there with her. So, I understand that there’s certain things that I need to do to keep me healthy, so I can continue doing the things that I like to do.”
“I’m still enjoying being a musician,” George surmises. “I still like being… well… thinking that I’m young [laughs]. So at this point, I’m not encouraged to retire. I’m still having fun.”