Meter Man | Music | Style Weekly

If you were building a Mount Rushmore of funk, the list of potential stone heads would be fairly short.

You might start with James Brown and his drummer, Clyde Stubblefield, then maybe Lee Dorsey, Sly Stone, George Clinton and bassist Bootsy Collins. And how about a little love for the rhythm section of New Orleans’ own, The Meters?

That would be George Porter Jr. on bass and Joseph “Zigaboo” Modeliste on drums, childhood friends who grew up to form The Meters in 1965 with keyboardist Art Neville and guitarist Leo Nocentelli. Their mostly instrumental music combined melodic, hook-drenched grooves with New Orleans’ own joyous second-line rhythms. Together, the members backed some of the Big Easy’s all-time musical greats, including Lee Dorsey, Allen Toussaint and Dr. John, playing on his 1973 hit song, “Right Place Wrong Time”.

The original Meters broke up around 1980 when Porter left the group, but various reincarnations, such as the Funky Meters and the Original Meters, have toured over the past 40 years (I can recall seeing the former play with Bio Ritmo at the old Flood Zone in the early ’90s). Co-founder Neville died in 2019.

Classic Meters songs have been heavily sampled by major hip-hop artists and used in movie soundtracks such as Quentin Tarantino’s “Jackie Brown.” In 2018, the group was presented a lifetime achievement award by the Grammys; and they’ve been nominated for the Rock-and-Roll Hall of Fame four times so far.

Porter, however, is still very active and playing out with several of his own groups, including The Porter Trio and his touring group, Runnin’ Pardners, which will be performing at River City Roll in Richmond on Wednesday, Sept. 14.

When I spoke with the bassist, who just got back from a month-long tour with Trombone Shorty, he was about to carry out his duties that weekend as the King of the Midsummer Mardi Gras for The Krewe of Outrageous and Kinky (OAK). “I’m the longest reigning king for the Krewe of OAK,” he says proudly, noting that the pandemic extended his reign. “It’s an honor. They have members that’s not even in the city – but mostly, it’s people we see all the time.”

Style Weekly: So how has your pandemic been? Have you been making a lot of music?

George Porter Jr.: Yeah, we started recording a new project in June or July of last year using Pro Tools and the Cloud for our studio. We did the session from four different studios in personal homes. That record, “Crying for Hope” is out now. Also, during that time, myself and Mike Lemmler, the keyboard player, and Terry Houston, my drummer, recorded as a trio. So I have two working bands right now – the Porter Trio and the Runnin Pardners, which is the long-term working band; [it] actually gets to work a lot more than the Trio. The Parders is Michael Lemmler on keyboards and vocals, Chris Adkins on guitar and vocals, and Terrence Houston on drums, and myself.

Do you like using Pro Tools to record?

I like that we could get things done. At almost 75, there are some frequencies that I don’t hear anymore. Those things that people say, that the digital world is not so warm, I don’t hear it. I can’t really tell if this is warm and this isn’t, you know? I listen for what’s clean, what isn’t distorted, how bright something is. “Crying for Hope” was done digitally, mastered digitally, and I’m pleased with the recording.

The title track for this new album, “Crying Out For Hope” feels like it’s in that Meters tradition of socially conscious music. What did those lyrics mean to you?

At the time when the music got wrote, it was just a groove that later turned into a song with lyrics. What I was trying to say [is] about what I was seeing on TV just about everyday, that young Black men were dying and all the people were getting was it’s their own fault. I am not sure I was trying to send a message. Just singing what I saw.

Early on, The Meters had a residency at a small club in New Orleans called the Nite Cap on the corner of Carondolet Street and Louisiana Avenue. Is that where the group found its groove, in the years before you went over to Bourbon Street?

Well, I believe at the Nite Cap we weren’t experimenting as much as we did in the French Quarters, because in the French Quarters we were playing to seriously drunk people [laughs]. We probably were allowed stretchin’ more than normal.

At the Nite Cap, we was strictly an R&B cover band. We did anything from the Fifth Dimensions to Wes Montgomery and everything in between; pretty much all the New Orleans music that we played. The guys in the band rarely brought songs to the table, it was mostly what Art Neville wanted to do at the time, because he was the front guy, he was the leader. We were playing the music that [he] wanted, which also covered a lot of doo-wop stuff.

I read that the great Allen Toussaint helped teach you that it was more about what you don’t play that makes that pocket strong.

Yeah, Allen used to tell me that all the time, more than anybody else. I think because, at the time as a bass player, I was a little busy. You can probably hear that in the very first album versus the next two albums, when I had toned down my thing.

By the time we got to the “Look-Ka Py Py” [1969] album and “Struttin’” [1970] album, we had already been in the studio with Allen and the Lee Dorsey projects, and a couple other artists. We were recording with Allen not knowing who the audience was going to be. It was songs that he was shopping to audiences across the country.

Playing those sessions, Allen would always tell me, “You know Porter, its not what you play, its what you don’t play that is going to make this music happen” you know? Because they got music that you don’t hear, [but] I’m hearing all this cause I got the whole thing in my head … You leave that space, so other parts can get played.

That’s when you started following the bass drum more than the snare.

Yeah, exactly.

Where do you feel like your own musical influences come from?

Well, I think both my parents – my mom’s music was the Catholic Church, she was in the choir. They were still pretty Roman Catholic. In the ‘80s, they kind of crossed over into that Baptist world and the churches. You know, it was Catholic gospel in my mom’s world, I heard that music and understood it. My mom was a fan of Jimmy Smith until she got to meet him [laughs]. My dad was big on tenor saxophone players, he was into Dexter Gordon, and he liked that outside stuff, Archie Shepp I believe was his name. Stanley Turrentine.

You and Bootsy Collins are two of the funkiest bass players that I’ve ever seen live. How did The Meters feel about the JBs back then?

Well, I didn’t pay much attention. Zig and Leo paid a lot more attention to everybody else. I was kinda homing in on New Orleans music. I was really into Earl King, Eddie Bo, as songwriters, and Allen Toussaint. I was liking where they were coming from when they started R&B crossover, which kinda took on the modern sounds of New Orleans. The Meters kind of took it to that next level.

Did you guys play on the song “Little Ba-by” (1968) by Lee Dorsey?

I don’t know, hmm. That’s not ringing a bell. Here’s the truth: We did like three or four albums worth of music for Lee Dorsey. I believe three actually came out. There was probably another 20-30 songs recorded during that period of time that, you know, that I don’t know where it’s at – probably in some cans somewhere, missing in action. Or it got sent to other artists. Some of those things we did with King Biscuit Boy, some of those songs were recorded earlier with Lee Dorsey.

So many artists have covered Meters songs. I feel like “Cissy Strut” may have been covered the most. Do you have a favorite cover of your work?

You know, I thought it was “Cardova” … Maybe not, no I’m wrong because I’m using the wrong terminology. “Covered” meaning re-recorded. “Cissy Strut” may have been the most recorded. “Cardova” may have been the most sampled by the hip-hop community.

My two favorite recordings I have of “Cissy” – one is by Ravi and the Prophets, and the guy is using a sitar. The other is by the Trinidad Steel Band, you know that one?

Oh, yeah? You got that recording!? Man, those guys. We played with those guys in Bermuda. It was the funniest thing. We did like five, maybe six days at a little hotel that had a music room attached to it. We would play every day and these guys would open for us. And they was getting great house, you know? We’d be playing and those steel drum band guys was like “ahhhhh.” They was crazy about what we were doing. But the audience was kinda like, “When the steel drum band gonna play again?” [Laughs]

On the very last night of the run of dates, the steel drum band came out and they played “Cissy Strut.” And it was like, it blew us away, you know? So we did one of the songs that they did, called “Ride the Donkey.” And when we got home, Art came up with “Soul Island” [from 1972 album “Cabbage Alley”] and it was kinda based off that. Yeah, the very last night they opened the gig, so when we came out we played “Ride the Donkey.” It was hilarious.

Man, you got an mp3 of that? I would love to hear it.

Sure thing, I’ll get that to you. Also I was curious about the lyrics to another song, “He Bite Me,” is the dragon in that a metaphor for something? How did that track come about?

Well, that was mental stuff that Zigaboo was about. You remember the murders out on the West Coast, the Zydeco Killer or something? Originally, that song was going to be a take on the Zydeco — or Zodiac [killer]! Excuse me. And Allen Toussaint took Zig aside and told him, that’s probably taboo. So off the top of Zig’s head, he came up with “He Bite Me” … No, it’s not that drug reference [chasing the dragon], not with the Meters [laughs].

Do you have any musical connections here or memories of playing in Virginia?

Not that comes to me, immediately. I don’t remember any of the venues we may have played back in the 1960s … the Go-Go scene, I do remember that was near there. We did open a show one night for Chuck Brown.

Were you surprised about the lost Leo Nocentelli album, “Another Side” (1971), that was put out recently on Light in the Attic? I know it sold out quickly here.

Absolutely. It was found in a garage sale. I’m playing on most of that project; there was several players, Zig on a few, James Black maybe on a few. Once again, at the time we were doing that stuff, we were recording songs to present to artists. It was never intended to be a Leo Nocentelli record. But Leo had done all the scratch vocals because he was sending it off to different people just to hear. But that 2-track master got dropped in a box that was in a vault out there somewhere in California.

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Do you think there is a lot more lost material out there that could resurface? I know some original stuff was likely damaged during the Katrina disaster.

Well, I know for a fact that there is some Meter music. There’s another Meters album out there. I don’t know where the masters at. Up until recently, I had a cassette of those songs, but my cassette player ate the tape. I found the cassette that said, “Meters Master” and stuck it in there, and the damn machine ate it. Well, it didn’t eat it terribly, there are probably 5-6 minutes messed up really bad on both sides. I just haven’t had time to send it to my friend on the East Coast that restores tapes like that.

But there are some Meters tracks that we recorded with a kid named Willie West – because that was when Art was out of the group – that are some pretty good tracks. There was no official name for it. It was some songs that Leo and Zig was co-writing for Willie West to sing and there is some good stuff in there. I liked what I was listening to [on my tape], and I remembered the track. Then the machine started eating it. I was like, “Oh no!” [laughs]

[Laughs] Oh, man, that is awful. Hopefully your friend can fix that up … What, if anything, stands out for you from the 1975 tour with the Rolling Stones? I think that was the first year for Ronnie Wood with them. Did any of those shows get recorded?

Hm, you know I don’t believe … no, no, no there was a recording from the ’75 tour, it was done in California at the Cow Palace, I believe it was. That night, the Stones recorded the show and after the gig, we all went up to the Record Plant in Sausalito, I believe, and we stayed up all night. Listening to their gig first, then after their gig, they stuck on our multi-track and we listened to our gig. I never knew whatever happened to those masters. There are also master recordings from the 76 tour in Europe. I think we did two nights in Germany, but I can’t think of the name of the city. For awhile, I had a cassette of those two shows, but I haven’t seen those cassettes in awhile. And right now, I wouldn’t stick them in any machines around my house [both of us laugh].

You’ve played with so many great musicians, it’s really remarkable when you look back at the list … I used to go see John Medeski and his trio at a tiny-ass little bar here in Richmond, the Hole in the Wall, and he was pretty funky on that clavinet and B3.

Oh, I love playin’ with John. Love it, we have fun. He’s done a couple gigs with Zig and myself and the Foundation of Funk band.

So at this stage in your career, what part of all this do you most look forward to doing?

Moving forward, I would like to be able to spend more time in the studio. But I’m still having fun onstage. The process of learning how to write music, I’m still working on. I’m very proud of the “Crying for Hope” record, and I think I did some decent writing there, and I thank the three young ladies, actually four, that helped me with lyrics. Because my lyric writing is horrifying [laughs] and they would take my lyric concepts and write real words for them. Ms. Mia Borders, Susan Cowsill, Leslie Smith and Denise Sullivan, all of them contributed vocals – and also Mia and Susan contributed lyrics to The Porter Trio recording. I’m hoping we’ll have time coming up soon to get back into the studio. Go record those songs live. We like to go outside a lot with the Trio.

Is Denise your partner now in life, too?

Yeah, she’s sort of like my girlfriend, yes. We been shackin’ up [laughs].

Have you ever been in a relationship like that with somebody you play music with?

You know, I’ve never been in a relationship with someone that’s in the music industry before. Me and my wife was together for 51 years before she passed away. There wasn’t no other people that got close enough to me.

Sorry to hear about your wife, that’s gotta be tough, but I’m happy for your new thing … Well, it’s been an honor talking with you, someone who has made such amazing, lifelong contributions to New Orleans music history. I’m always especially impressed by music I loved as a kid, that I still honestly enjoy decades later and not simply for nostalgic reasons. The Meters are enduring that way, you know?

Oh yeah, man. You know, the funny part for me: We play “Cissy Strut” in the Runnin Pardners band, but we call it “Cissy Got the Blues” because I take the song, flip it around and turn it into a 12-bar blues. But you know, people hear that lick and they still respond immediately to it. Then they respond because they start hearing something different. But just the fact that 55-plus years later, that song still grabs your attention! The Meters catalogue is still very viable out there in the community. I find that very satisfying.

George Porter Jr. and his Runnin’ Pardners perform at River City Roll on Wednesday, Sept. 14. Live music starts with special guest Atom East at 8 p.m. with the headliner at 9:30 p.m. Tickets are $25.

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