Transcript: Transcript Groove Masters: George Porter Jr. and The Meters

Hello and welcome to the show. I hope you’ve enjoyed a terrific week. Today we’re heading to New Orleans to learn about one of the most important and underrated acts in the funk genre. The band is called the meters. They were formed in 1965 by the masterful keyboard player and vocalist, Art Neville.

Throughout the 60s and 70s, the Meters performed both their own music and served as backing players for musicians like Lee Dorsey and Robert Palmer amongst others. They didn’t have a whole lot of mainstream success, but their influence has been very far reaching, with them even being considered by many to be as equally influential in funk as the likes of James Brown. Their music has been sampled nearly 200 times by hip hop artists and many rock acts like the Grateful Dead and The Red Hot Chili Peppers of plating songs.

My guest today is George Porter Jr, a founding member of the Meters, George Porter, Jr. was recently honoured with a Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award. And he’s been a driving force in the world of funk, soul and r&b for more than five decades.

George Porter Jr. Thanks so much for joining us here on a breath of fresh air. What a pleasure to have you company.

Thank you very much for the invite. You want to walk us through your early life and we’ll lead up to what’s going on for you today.

Well, yeah, I know kind of recruited me into a new band that he was studying. At the time, it didn’t have a name. It was just Neverland, the band. And we were playing a club called a nightcap. And uptown New Orleans and this disc jockey, he would come and visit us on Saturday nights we used to play like Thursday, Friday or Saturday, but at this club. So this one particular Saturday night, this this Jackie came on stage and he wants to introduce the band, but a third set. And he came up on stage and he made a big speech that day. And you know, welcome to the stage, Neville and the Neville sound band. It was you know, it was a five piece band. And myself, we played that nightcap for a couple of years. I’m kinda foggy in my mind. What year we actually left the nightcap and went to the French quarters. And when we played in the band’s shrunk down to just four pieces, but I think it has to be somewhere like 6566 And that’s when the name change came along. Yeah, and at that point, we were the band was being called Neverland the boys at that time, because of the gentleman the people of piano pay used to play opposite to us on Bourbon Street. He would pay a solo piano and he but he was singing the song Bill Bailey, and he said why don’t you come home Ivan Neville? Why don’t you come home and bring your boys with you?

The DJ wasn’t the only one visiting the club to check out the new band on the scene. The renowned pianist producer songwriter and recording artists. Alan Toussaint was also on the prowl.

Alan would come down and up every now and then he would, you know, kind of park his Eldorado on the street and listen to us play. The door man would always tell us when he sees him and you bought your boy, your boy Alan to set was outside listening to you. And then one Saturday night the doorman told us that Alan wanted us to come down to his studio that Monday, you know, do some demos or audition. That’s what it was. And we went down on Monday did an audition for Alan. And basically, we were playing some Lee Dawson’s song the songs that was visually keynoted funny Dawson.

Well as a tracking ban for Alan Toussaint so you know, we got the job.

And you became his house fan? Yeah. We became his house band for several years.

George, how big was Alan to sound at that time? Well, he had a following. I would think he was not as large as he got, as he went on. But he was pretty well known. He was probably one of the most prolific recording songwriters in the city at the time. You know, record labels from all over  the world was sending their artists to him to record so you know, we recorded behind a lot of a lot of people, some of them that we did here were people like Dr. John and Paul McCartney. Lee Dorsey, as you mentioned, Earl King, Robert Palmer.

And of course you did play back up with Patti LaBelle on that number one hit Lady Marmalade didn’t you?

it was a wonderful session, and we went through three drummers to do that the gift test session because well, the difference between, you know, between the drummer and the drummer, and Alan, the session started as with original meters original four meters, Ziggy or myself. And I think just the air of three Catholicos has been in the same room trying to function over a few years as we have been doing. I guess that is does zig and Alan just wasn’t gelling anymore. So Zig kind of backed away from the session. And James Black was brought in another wonderful drummer from New Orleans. He was brought in but he and Alan didn’t tell at all but stopped. So as James was just in it, but then one day, maybe two tracks. And you know, Alan Clara, you know, took a break or lunch break and then the engineer would call in and say are we done for the day, gentlemen? That time tomorrow. The next day we came in and Harmon Ernest was the drummer and he’s the one who ended up finishing the record. Yeah.

What about Patti LaBelle? How was she to work with?

Well, we really didn’t have much contact, you know, with her the audits but the last day of the session, I think as I remember, I brought them to my mom’s house. A mom picks a dinner for us at Gumbo and stuff like that. And people you know, three of her and Sarah and, and Rufus the other guy’s name God, I can’t think of a name and I and I was in New York a couple of months ago in college it was all got that going on as we get on roughly 70.

How are you? You’re doing pretty well and making fabulous music. We’re going to talk about the new album shortly. But just going back to the meters at the outset, I mean, you became pretty well known during that time as house band for Alan. In fact, you did the song Cissy Strut came off your self titled 1969 album that became your greatest commercial hit, didn’t it?

That that was the one that climbed the charts better. Yeah, that was the biggest one.

I’d like two or three others that kind of opened the doors.

We have five songs that actually went into the charts, the Billboard charts, not just the r&b chart, but the popular choice which was for New Orleans as far as we would have pressed on New Orleans orders to do that that was pretty cool.

You guys, were really cutting the wave for funk at the time, weren’t you? You were known as one of the progenitors of funk along with Sly and the Family Stone and parliament. Funkadelic there wasn’t too much of that going on.

Yeah. Well, you know, then in my world, I never you know, I never thought of, of the music as being funk. But you know, I always used to tell a joke about it on that house with funk music came from wizards. That was one this one early morning. His kid wakes up on the sofa with a giant in his hand and you hear some music. And he leans over and say, oh, man, that’s funk music right?

What did you consider it before it was labeled funk?

Well, it was always labeled r&b. You know, we will label the r&b r&b bands. So you know, and then did your Sunday was blues. And then there was rhythm and blues and we will always consider the r&b band. You know, until, you know, until we moved. In fact, I think we got kind of started calling this a punk band when we are around 75 Mostly 75 Really and 76. When we did those two Rolling Stones tours, then the writers the writers start saying the Rolling Stones and the folk band on tour with them. You know, it was kind of more of an adjective than a noun. Yes, yes. And what were those tours like with the stones? That must have been an amazing experience?

Yeah, it was it was very, very unique. Very unique.

Come on. They were bad boys. Everybody was partying.

Very hard. I played hard, hard, hard myself. I mean, I would probably say 76 was the beginning of my really hard, hardcore cocaine use. I mean, I had been using cocaine prior to that and smoking pot since I was 16. But in 76, I really started doing large numbers of large amounts of cocaine. And I in fact, it almost ended Me and 76 at the end of that tour, I got home. I played a gig on that thing. It was like a Saturday night. And I went home and went to bed. And the next time I woke up was four days later and I was in the hospital. And my wife said that she called an ambulance for me because when she when she woke up, she looked over the side of the bed I had, I was like, I was pale, seriously pale, but no blood in my body. You should call her US hospital. And pretty much the doctor told my mom that I had double pneumonia. And it was funny but not funny. But he told he told my mind I said my mom found out that I was using cocaine. He told my mom that if it wasn’t for the cocaine, I probably would have been dead. So the I had double pneumonia but the code camp doing seven the cocaine was doing something in my head killing ourselves. You know, I don’t know how.

Did that experience curtail your usage?

For a few months? Yeah, but you must but it wasn’t until 88 that I got completely sober. I’ve been sober 34 years now.

You were lucky that you did actually because it could have really taken a terrible toll.

Yeah, it was it was the thought of actually losing my family that that got me into treatment centre and has kept me sober.

Congratulations. There’s a lot to be said for that.

The Meters were known for being down home and earthy. Even if in their private lives. They were going off the rails hanging. Lots more to come.

George Porter Jr. Grew up in New Orleans on the same street as future meters bandmate Josie peekaboo model aced. The two became friends when George was 10. And his teens they used to jam together. It came as no surprise to anyone that they both ended up in the same group. At one stage of your life, you consider joining the priesthood.

When I was 14 and 50, actually 13 and 14 that summer between my 14th birthday, we I went to a Catholic monastery and Mississippi, not far from my house. And you know, it was considering the priesthood. I guess it was called the silent retreat. But at three weeks we went out and there was no conversation. You know? I remember like, I think it was like two and a half weeks into it. I called my mom told us that.

Hey, you did well for two and a half weeks. It’s amazing. Imagine, imagine how different your life would have turned out if you’d go on that road?

Oh, yeah, right.

Gratefully, George chose music instead of the priesthood, and in the early 70s toured with the Meters coast to coast but he was also performing as a session musician on numerous hit records like this one from Robert Palmer.

Alan popped his head into our sessions, once or twice when we in the studio, you know, we don’t know what’s going on in the control room. Well, we found out years later that Alan had a line going up to his studio up to his office above the studio, that he knew he can monitor whatever’s going on in the spin in the control room. One of the things he never did. Well, this is how a quick story this this is how the Robert Palmer project songs got put together. We were downstairs working, working out the song. And we recorded all three songs. And then Alan came down and made a couple of suggestions. And then no, we recorded those, those three songs, and even certain era happening at the end of each one of those songs. And then he pieced those three songs together and made it run the way we did. But he did that because he was able to hear the session going while it was going down. It was cool.

In 1975. The Meters taught us the opening act to the Rolling Stones. George recalls the crowd in Paris started to boo them. Both Keith Richards and Mick Jagger came out in support of the band, telling the crowd to shut up and listen to the music. George says that moment kept the meters alive, at least for the time being. Because in 1977, the band broke up due to personal differences, both within the band and with Allen Toussaint, who apparently tried to claim the rights to the band’s name. Was there a big fallout with him at the time?

No. And that was absolutely not true. Alan never claimed the rights to the band, the name of the band actually was unprotected until I think it was probably late mid middle 80s or so.

Because you changed it in the 80s to the Funky Meters and why did you go through a yet another name change?

Because it was just odd myself performing and Leo was initially going to be a member of that funked up Funky Meters but he decided that he didn’t want to sign a contract he didn’t want to do you know who do you know cuz we was gonna go through the whole tax they really got creative tax credits, you know, stuff like that. And Leo wanted to be paid in cash and he you know, he just didn’t want to be he didn’t really want to be a part of a business then turned into a manage a slash partner with myself, Steve Egerton got us together, and the three of us incorporated the funky meters. And while the time he was creating that copyright and brand, we discovered that the original meet us was not even originally, but just the Meters was never ever protected. So the Funky Meters took and put the Meters under our umbrella, but forever you know, I think it was in some sense that a lot of people might have thought that Alan to set the marshal ceiling on the name the meters, but they never really did. It was never Alan to since then it was it was just part of the martial Seaholm was pretty much the Devo and any bad business of bad blood that happened between the band and the studio.

You must have been incredibly close to Art Neville for a long long time. What was he like?

He was a wonderful so we fought all the time because we were always together but no he was sort of like that father figure that I’ve never really had me and my father never was close and then the last three weeks of my while I was in a treatment centre my father came and visit me every Sunday and we plan to you know when I got out of treatment that you know, we will spend more time together and get the low each other and I got out on the on Halloween night and I got a call that told me that my father had passed away so we never really got you know, got to become friends. So it never was pretty much the friend the friend of that and Earl King.

Earl King was a highly respected songwriter and guitarist. He’d been a prime New Orleans r&b force for more than four decades. Neville had also been on the scene for years but hadn’t joined his siblings in the Neville Brothers just yet.

Well, the Neville Brothers I think started like in 1988 about the 1978 Traveling six eight months after he after the meet is pretty much just banded technically disbanded because it was like you know, it was It wasn’t like we sat down to discuss the band broke up, you know, because I left the band. His brother Cyril deployed at the band just before we were supposed to go on Saturday Night Live we had just did the record – the New Directions album with the record label one about us was really excited about and thought they had a couple of single releases in that record one being name up in lights and the other one being be my lady.

And they were really encouraged about this record. And they hooked us up with the Saturday Night Live production thing and, and everything and ended up neither one of the two Neville Brothers showed up for the gig, the three of us showed up with another, another keyboard player. And that didn’t go well with the performance. But well, but the record labels say, and they did drop us and the record didn’t really make any noise of that from that new direction album, which was which would have been, which should have been a big record for me, that’s the big commercial record.

And it’s a great album. Why did the Neville Brothers not show?

Well, I mean, I’ve left the band because there was a tour manager who had convinced us that the rest of the Meters didn’t sign the contract that he had given to for us to sign well if we didn’t sign that contract at all it should need to leave the band and go off and play with you know could we also have recorded that record while chapter tools album with the uncle

If they don’t want to play if they don’t want to sign the contract, maybe you should quit the band and play with your brothers. You know, that was something I’ve wanted to do. Anyway, odd had been trying to get the brothers to be in a meet us ban. But then it meters would have ceased to exist because it became the Neville Brothers some vocal band that instrumental band. And then you know, we had already given up pretty much the amount of space as far as being instrumental band because we were we were now pretty much a vocal band too, you know. So the net with the Neville Brothers being in the band that three other three musicians would have been lost. Change that was, yeah, that was something that we didn’t want to do. And or two hours thought I put the band on the airplane going home after we recorded the new directions album on their way home or put to bed. So Sarah was still considering staying in the band. But then I convinced him that he shouldn’t do the Saturday Night Live because it was going to make going to show a lack of loyalty to the brothers. You know, and so Cyril decided not to make the Saturday Night Live performance. So we went on the show with a keyboard player that’s from another local family. Betty’s brother’s family and David Bazzi senior, which 20 years later, his son Russell David Russell, Betty’s Jr. was a drummer in the Buccaneers, small world Small World.

After the Neville’s departure and with David Matisse senior now on keyboards, the guys brought in Willie West is the band’s lead singer. It wasn’t long before George Porter Jr. also left the group, and by 1980, the majors had officially broken up. None of them ever understood the influence they had exerted on the music scene.

read the meters, even all the way up to the point where they broke up and really realize how inspirational they were as a band. You know, I think that if they really had paid much attention to what they were doing, and know, at the time when they were doing it, you know, it would have been better. I think we would have waited probably lasted longer than we did as a band. But unfortunately, what fortunately, I say not unfortunately, but fortunately for us, that the music itself outlasted the band. And at this point, the music has, has allowed us individually to continue as a solo artist.

After the breakup, Ivan continued his career with the Neville Brothers. Ziggy started touring with Keith Richards and Ron Wood. Both Leo and George became in demand session player and formed new bands.

The Meters define New Orleans funk. Nearly all of their own recordings were instrumental in putting the emphasis on the complex rhythms. The gritty grooves created such distinctive sound that they earned a devoted cult following during the 70s from people like Paul McCartney and Robert Palmer, both of whom use the group as a backing band for recording. After the funky majors broke up, you went on to become a highly coveted session bassist, there’s something incredibly unique about the way you play and not being a musician. I can’t put that into words I’m hoping that you might be able to, but you’ve influenced people like the Red Hot Chili Peppers, like the Beastie Boys, Led Zeppelin, Bob Marley, Queen Latifah Run DMC, a roll out a whole lot of names. What is it about the way you play that’s captured the imagination of all these musicians that were coming up behind you?

You know, I, I can’t take the credit books alone. You know, I believe there was something that the meters did. And we did really well. We had them a space between, you know, the bass and drums, you know, was always very closely tangled together. So you know, there was always a nice space, and the music for other things to happen. And that was something that I learned. And personally, I think I say I learned from the session working with Alan two Saturdays, because he’s always say, it’s not what you play, it’s what you don’t play that make this groove happens. And I think I think that was what a lot of musicians caught on to.

It I have a kind of a self imposed, that I go there with my mind wide open in the first thing first is that, you know, I try and lock with the drummer. And so when I failed as a bass player, as close as I could get to the drummer, his pocket is going to pretty much dictate where the groove is in the pocket that I should climb into.

So that was their sacred ingredient. And it set the course for many bands to follow, paving the way for today’s Hip Hop sound, the idea of space be the kind of rule set and say this space is the place he was talking about.

But they certainly followed in your footsteps big time, didn’t they? And you then went on and did a whole bunch of sessions with people like David Byrne and Jimmy Buffett Tori Amos Taj Mahal until you started your own band called The Running Partners in 1990. What brought that about?

the needs of work you know, I’ve always wanted you know, in the meet us out of all those, you know, nine records I think I was I was only allowed to be able to record two of the songs that I wrote for The Man which Todd had been. What was the same old thing

And the other one I want to keep saying and you Leo may disagree with me because, you know, he claimed in real he had ruined everything. But I gotta I guess it’ll come back to him or let’s all about you know what  a lot of a lot of the majority of the Meters earlier years in this this this is when I was attempting to write music but a band was when we were doing the instruments and those first three records you know everything from cabbage added on I had you know, I had no input as far as writing music, I was writing songs but even though I presented them and they got ignored or pushed to the side, we were able to do this. So I wanted to start you know, doing I want to stop playing some music that I wrote and there was a kind of a survival thing to take the shot at you know, my own my own thing so you know, my little brother sent me a song that he that he’s the music to a song that eventually became the title track for my price album called Running Partners.  I wrote the lyrics for it my brother wrote music you know, and then I you know, of course I raised you know, I took my brother’s as a template and just added some little pieces in it and made it made it the title song for the for the very first record by the way you look at me – had several others after that and there are a few releases including font this in 2000 and can’t beat the funk in 2011 What was your favourite song from that from this period of time with the Running Partners?

I kinda like reworked the song cuz I get high and happy song Happy Song has kind of survived from before running forward is because it was ahead of LF and 98 I had put together a band called Joy Ride and what I didn’t put together the band it was like a combination of the guitar playing and Bruce MacDonald and myself. We were writing songs together that he said man this stuff is good. Maybe we should start a band. So that’s what happened in 1980 they actually late 79 We decided to just let’s just try and put a band together you know and we went with it and it lasted exactly one year that you know basically it was too much drugs and alcohol and the problem was is that we were all doing different drugs that the band couldn’t survive off of you know five guys playing different mindsets when I think all opinions are wrong because I’ve tried to sing single heavy So everywhere I go there will be more magic people delivering outcomes fans that make the most out of me in person and this guy I don’t let the badness get you don’t let the cigar hack whatever is it will all get better

These days you’ve got the band Running Partners still don’t you?

Yes, there’ll still a functioning band. Now. It’s a four-piece band. The keyboard player in this band has been in this band for 27 years.

And you’ve got a new album out?

That’s the new record that was recorded in four different studios. We all know we recorded the music and the cloud using Pro Tools Who’s that? No. And that was during the COVID thing. So we couldn’t see each other. So, but we discovered that we could still work together being in different places. And we did we did we did the record in four different studios. Yes.

Are you happy with it?

I’m very pleased with how it came out, unlike any of my previous recordings, that none of them made the choice. But um, you know, but you know, I got, I gotta say, I’m selling some records. It was self, that’s good.

And I guess the aim these days wouldn’t be to top the charts, that it’d be the satisfaction of putting out music that does obviously pay for itself. And where you can just continue to express yourself creatively.

Exactly. You know, my late wife, Swami. She said that Oh, to say, what you got to do, you know, if you know, just doesn’t work for you? No, no, no. And I say, Well, you know, six years ago, me and her had this conversation she passed away in November 28, three or four years ago, you know, she said, What are you going to do them, you know, if this just doesn’t pan out for you, because she say, you know, we usually just quit playing, you know, and just, you know, maybe start teaching, you know, because I would get a lot of requests to teach. And I just never, never took it home, because I just never thought I was that good. You know, I thought I knew I could play I could play but I didn’t think I was I was the kind of player that could teach. So, you know, that was up, there was something that has never, no. Second thought,

Are you the kind of player that could give up playing? Not yet? Not yet. I’m still enjoying it. You know, we just did a tour with Trombone Shorty. And they were all on tour buses and stuff, you know, and I was invited to, you know, to join onto the tour bus and travel with the guys, you know, I declined and took my Ford Transit, custom transit on tour enough, you know, we’d find the tour buses all most of the time, we were in front of the tour buses, and drove from the East Coast. We have from New Orleans, all we have to East Coast and all the way across California. Right now everybody wants, you know, everybody, most of the guys because I was like, I was an artist, with the dumpster funk band, performing the music of the meters, they all flew home. And there was, you know, the guys, you know, Tony Hall and the bass guitars bass player in that band, was it they taught you how to fly home and you’re like, let’s stay in that band for 37 hours. You know? I said various that’s what I do. I got it, I got it. I got it my band but like my keyboard player, Michael them drove you know, the majority of the driving and my girlfriend she came out and joined us in California and did the fight the last five days and he’s still love him.

Yeah, absolutely. I’m still you know, it’s still it’s still fun. I mean, like I said, December 26. I’ll be 75 years old and I’m still enjoying the road you know, I still enjoy playing when you know that played in for the audience’s that I hadn’t, you know, that I hadn’t done before. You know, we’re playing large numbers of people.

Which track on crime for hope it is the closest to your heart?

cry for hope. Is that a song you know, but I kinda like the instrumental thing. So there’s this one song on it called Spanish moon. I wrote that song for the guitar player to play the lead or song was wrote just me and my acoustic bass. I gave the the melody lip shot to Michael and Michael arranged it with impro tools. And then you know, sent him to Chris and I say, ask Chris I say Matt, can you play this melody? No. As written in it, say yes. So so basically what ended up being is he doubled my thought, but then I thought he was gonna take my phone away. And they both assisted No, that needs to stay. I haven’t played the song yet because I have to learn that bass. Is George Porter Jr Great to meet you. It’s so good that you’re still playing. Still touring still loving it and still putting out albums really appreciate your time today.

Take care of yourself. Meantime Funky Meters continue to play into the 2000s with the addition of Art Neville’s son Ian from 2007 to 11. The group continued to play a few festivals together until Art Neville announced his retirement from music in 2018. He’d battled a number of health issues, including complications from back surgery, and died in July 2019 at the age of 81. And so ends the story of the band he founded The Meters.  Thanks for your company today. I really hope you’ve enjoyed hearing the story of that incredible band. I’ve certainly learned a thing or two along the way to have fun, won’t you for the week coming up. I’ll look forward to being back in your company again same time next week. Bye now.