There's a great deal of unresolved musical business. That's definitely a part of it. Financially, it's a pretty good gig, but if there were a single reason for us still playing together, it's that it was just never resolved."
George Porter Jr. squints behind his glasses in the afternoon sunlight. After nearly thirty years of grudges, litigation, and backbiting, the original four members of New Orleans funk legends the Meters guitarist Leo Nocentelli, keysman Art Neville, drummer Joseph "Zigaboo" Modeliste, and Porter Jr. on bass are back together making music and entertaining the idea of recording their first album since the late '70s. Reuniting for the first time in 2000 at the Warfield at the behest of some wealthy fans, the band headlined the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival in both 2005 and 2006 and has since toured sporadically, including two shows at the Fillmore this week.
"The band never really ended it; other people did," he says. "We're out to write the last chapters of the Meters now."
The first chapters of the Meters' story goes something like this: Famed producer Allen Toussaint first heard the band at the Ivanhoe bar in New Orleans' French Quarter and hired the group, then known as Art Neville and the Sounds, as the house band for his New Orleans-based record label Sansu Enterprises, dubbing them the Meters. While at Sansu, the Meters backed artists including Earl King, Lee Dorsey, and Betty Harris, all the while learning to play together and perfecting their unique polyrhythmic sound. As a result, from 1967 to 1969, the band recorded four consecutive Top 10 R&B singles of their own: "Sophisticated Cissy," "Cissy Strut," "Ease Back," and "Look a Py Py."
"Playing with other people and backing them up on their music, we learned early on how to use our ears and listen to what we were playing," Porter explains. "Allen didn't like to do sessions with musicians who just read what he wrote and played it; he wanted musicians to interpret his ideas and add to them. That's what we did. The Meters were great musical interpreters."
In 1972, Toussaint and manager Marshall Sehorn signed the group to Warner Bros.' Reprise label, while retaining all rights to the band. As their reputation grew, artists from around the world took notice and the band backed the likes of Dr. John ("Right Place Wrong Time," 1973), Patti LaBelle ("Lady Marmalade," 1974), and Robert Palmer ("Sneakin' Sally Through the Alley," 1974) on a string of hit records. In '74, Paul McCartney invited the Meters to play at the release party for his Venus and Mars album aboard the Queen Mary in Long Beach. Guest Mick Jagger was so impressed, he invited the band to open for the Stones' American and European tours in 1975 and 1976. Despite the respect of their peers, the Meters never experienced the commercial success of the musicians who were their fans. Frustrated, the group split from Toussaint and Sehorn in 1977 and released New Directions, but their former producer and manager sued, claiming rights to the band's name. Rather than fight the claim in court, the band broke up and one of the pioneers of funk music and most influential bands in American music history was finished.
But the Meters' legacy didn't end with the breakup of the band. As rap and hip-hop music grew in popularity in the '80s and '90s, countless artists from Public Enemy to NWA, Queen Latifah to Salt-N-Pepa, Run-DMC to the Beastie Boys, and Ice T to Ice Cube used rhythms, drum breaks, and bass lines from the band's music as the foundation for their songs, some without paying a dime to Porter, Nocentelli, Neville, or Modeliste.
"If anybody listened to the Meters and heard tracks by any of those artists, they would have known it was us," Porter said with a slightly melancholy smile. "We're pretty recognizable. We had a great ability to play syncopated music and worked off of one another really well. The fact that music we did 35 years ago is so alive and well appreciated today can only be attributed to that fact that it was real and came from a real place."
As those words leave Porter's lips, the distinctive bass line of "Cissy Strut" erupts from the legendary bass player's cell phone, sounding just as rumpshakin' funky as it did the day of its release in 1969. Nodding his head to the groove, Porter glances over his glasses and laughs. "See what I mean?"
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