Measuring influence in Funky Meters

by Philip Brasor

Funky Meters is a good name for any band. However, the band that actually calls itself Funky Meters contains two original members of the legendary New Orleans R&B quartet The Meters and basically plays the same repertoire. In that regard, affixing “funky” to Meters is like calling snow “cold.”

Some say The Meters invented funk. That’s arguable, but there was something earthier and more exotic about the Meters’ style of R&B than that of contemporaries like James Brown. George Porter, Jr., the Meters’ bass player, says it was a lucky accident.

“It had to do with the fact that each of us came from a musically different background,” Porter says over the phone from his home in New Orleans. “All this stuff combined into a gumbo — just throw it all in the pot and it comes out good.”

The salient feature of funk is the way the drums and the bass work together, and few batteries in the history of popular music are as influential as the team of Porter and drummer Joseph “Zigaboo” Modeliste, whose greasy syncopations sounded organic rather than constructed, as if all the elements were connected to a central nervous system. Though New Orleans had its distinctive jazz and R&B styles, The Meters added something new, and when you think of New Orleans R&B nowadays, you’re basically thinking of the Meters.

“I started out as a rhythm guitar player,” recalls Porter. “But in the early ’60s there were too many rhythm guitar players in New Orleans. And when the Vietnam War happened, there was a big shortage of electric bass players. I have a crooked spine, so that kept me out of the military. Being a classical guitar student, I learned how to play bass and guitar at the same time, so it was an easy jump from being strictly a rhythm guitar player to being strictly a bass player.”

One day, Porter was introduced to the organist Art Neville, who needed a guitar player for a gig. “It was at a bowling alley in East New Orleans. But I was a rhythm player and Art was expecting a lead player. I took some solos and he looked at me and said, ‘Man, you are a lousy guitar player.’ “

Porter assumed that was the last he’d hear from Neville, but a year later he was playing bass with the guitarist Ervin Bannister, a local luminary. Art Neville had just come off a tour supporting his brother, Aaron, who was riding the No. 1 R&B hit, “Tell It Like It Is,” and he was at Bannister’s show. He remembered Porter.

“Now that’s the instrument you should be playing,” Neville told the bassist afterward, and offered him a job with a new band he was putting together with Modeliste, guitarist Leo Nocentelli and Aaron and Charles Neville on vocals. Eventually, the instrumental quartet was hired by Allen Toussaint and Marshall Sehorn as the house band for their new record company, Sansu Enterprises. Porter credits Toussaint, as producer and arranger, with helping create the unique Meters sound.

“It was my job as a bass player to become one with the drummer,” explains Porter, “because the drummer is the guardian of the groove. Early in my career, my playing was busy. Eventually, you’ll notice more space around my notes, and I learned that from Allen Toussaint, who said it wasn’t what you played but what you didn’t play. When we did sessions with Lee Dorsey, I learned about space and how to get away from Zig’s snare drum. Whenever the snare drum came and you heard that pop, it should stand alone, there should be no bass on top of it.”

The Meters provided backing on a string of hits for Dorsey, Earl King, Chris Kenner, Betty Harris and Toussaint himself. The quartet released its own instrumental dance records and had R&B hits with “Sophisticated Cissy” and “Look-Ka Py Py.” By 1972, when they moved to Reprise Records, the Meters were a regional institution and had become a cult favorite among the larger rock culture in America and Europe. They played on records by Dr. John, Labelle and Robert Palmer. Mick Jagger, who once called the Meters the best band in America, invited them to open for the Rolling Stones on their 1975-76 world tour.

In 1976, the Meters dropped Toussaint and Sehorn as managers, and a year later Art left to form the Neville Brothers band with his siblings. By the late 80s, the Nevilles, plying the same basic sound, were more popular than the Meters had ever been.

The break was inevitable. “When I wasn’t gigging with the Meters I was out trying to pick up jazz gigs,” Porter says. “I wanted to be more of a rounded musician, and I knew the guys in the New Orleans jazz community thought, ‘We’re jazz musicians, and you guys play that other stuff.’ I wanted to make my mark in jazz and gain knowledge.”

The Meters reformed in 1989, but only for a little while. “Leo stayed in the band for 1 1/2 years. It was Leo, Art, (new drummer) Russell Batiste and myself. Leo wanted to be in L.A., and when he left the band, Art and me decided to incorporate Funky Meters as a name to continue on as a business, with Russell and (new guitarist) Brian Stoltz coming on as our employees.”

Stoltz gave Funky Meters more of a rock edge, but Porter says it was difficult for him. “He put in 10 years with the band and had not moved any closer to his personal dreams of being a headliner. He thought Funky Meters should be doing more, and we weren’t.” Porter still plays with Stoltz in a fusion trio that includes Batiste. The group was formed out of necessity when Art Neville had to undergo surgery and his recovery stretched out to two years.

“Four months down the road we were going, ‘We’d better start working if we’re gonna pay our bills.’ So we started Porter-Batiste-Stoltz and got beat up bad in the beginning. Everybody who wrote about us just described us as Funky Meters without Art. It wasn’t until we recorded a record that they got off our backs. The music we recorded was totally new, and that’s something Funky Meters needed to do as well.”

Art’s son has since taken over on guitar. “With Ian Neville on guitar, Funky Meters returned to being a kind of roots funk band,” says Porter. “He’s holding down the rhythm end of things really good, and his solos aren’t as aggressive as a rock guitarist’s might be.”

It’s obvious Funky Meters are — and always will be — Art Neville’s band, and Porter admits that over the years he and his partner have not always seen eye to eye. “Do we get on? It depends on the month,” he says with a laugh. “We’re both old, grumpy men, but he’s got 10 years on me, and that gives him the right to be a little grumpier.”

But Porter remains hopeful about the future of the band: “I said it before and I’ll say it now. If Funky Meters want to continue and become more successful, we have to make our own statement. As it is, Funky Meters is basically a Meters cover band.”

Of course, that’s what roots music lovers want, and even if Porter seems stifled by his impressive legacy, he isn’t going to give it up, especially now that he’s finally seeing some money from it.

“Until we settled our lawsuit,” says Porter, “whatever royalties Marshall was collecting for us he was keeping, claiming it was to pay old bills. So once our catalog moved to another publisher, we started getting paid. The first check I got was so big it scared me. I said to my wife, ‘This has got to be wrong. Somebody’s gonna call and say we made a mistake.’ But nobody called for three weeks and she said, ‘I’m gonna spend this money.’ “

Funky Meters headline the Field of Heaven on July 25 at the Fuji Rock Festival and play Shibuya-AX in Tokyo, July 23 at 7 p.m., ¥7,000 (03-3444-6751).