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Best of the Beat Lifetime Achievement in Music Award: George Porter, Jr.

George Porter, Jr. with The Meters

In George Porter, Jr.’s attic studio, he has a laminated, yellowed page from the 1970s with a story on the Meters from a British music magazine hanging on his wall. He has an ad that Warner Brothers Records bought in Rolling Stone congratulating the Meters for being America’s Best Instrumental Band, and a cassette rack nailed to the wall that holds tapes with such titles as “John Mooney, Geo. Porter Jr. & Fingers Taylor, 1987” and “Traub Music Demos 1999.” Porter says he has a cassette copy of everything he’s recorded, whether as a Meter, as part of the studio band for Allen Toussaint’s productions, or from his life after the Meters—2,000 to 3,000 cassettes, he thinks. For a while, he taped Runnin’ Pardners and PBS shows with his mobile recording unit. “When we’re in the van running up and down the highway, I’ll have recorded the gig from the night before, and I’ll plug it into the dashboard and really listen to it,” Porter says. “The band likes listening to the whole gig. In all of our solos, there’s the basis for new songs.” He stopped that practice, though, because it became too time-consuming to set up and break down the rig.

The halls in Porter’s house document his 50-year musical history— photos of him with different incarnations of the Runnin’ Pardners, a shot of him onstage with David Byrne, and one wall of his living room is covered with more photos of him playing live with musical friends. There’s a crayon-drawn message from a fan in Japan, and the only open wall space in his house is behind the door in his bedroom. Other people have photos of family and friends in their homes, and he does too, only his come from life in music.

 

“I was pretty much the first roadie in New Orleans,” Porter says at home in his living room. “I helped Herb tear down and set all his gear up.” “Herb” was Herbert Wing, who led the Royal Knights in the early 1960s. “A majority of the gigs they played were fraternity parties. If anybody had to part for any special reason, I would play that instrument. Back in those days, you played a four-hour gig. Over the course of the first hour, we played swing and jazz and bebop, and then it started easing toward the Ninth Ward with Fats Domino and Huey Smith and the Clowns kind of stuff. Then the last set of the gig would be the early ‘Hey Pocky Way’ and the more hardcore Earl King and Benny Spellman and Ernie K-Doe kind of music. That’s what I grew up on, you know, Chris Kenner and all that stuff.

“I learned to play jazz with Frank Moten and Walter Washington and the Lastie Brothers, David and Walter Lastie. There was another set of brothers, a saxophone player and a drummer, they were from the Ninth Ward also—What were their names?—those two guys were great. There was a bass player named Ervin Charles, and Ervin Charles’ daddy played guitar with those guys. I had to play bass with those guys when I was 15, 16 years old. They were more of a swing band, and that’s how I learned to play music.”

George Porter, Jr. Photo by Elsa Hahne.

Photo by Elsa Hahne.

Porter has made an effort to keep jazz as an element of his music, particularly with the Runnin’ Pardners, which had its roots as a jazz band. Jazz keyboard player Phil Parnell had a solo piano gig in a restaurant on Tchoupitoulas, and when the owner suggested he expand the band, he brought in Porter and a drummer—“I think it might have been Bunchy Johnson”—and the owner liked it enough to want it to continue, going so far as to suggest a band name: George Porter and Friends.

“I could see it in Phil’s eyes, he wasn’t happy about that,” Porter says. “I said, ‘Let’s name it Runnin’ Pardners.’ It started as a trio, and it was pretty much almost a jazz gig. I’m a frustrated jazz musician. The music that I played when I was a kid had jazz in it; it was a part of the growth for me.”

Years of including jazz players in the Runnin’ Pardners has affected not only his own music but the way he plays Meters songs. During a rehearsal for the 2005 reunion in San Francisco, guitarist Leo Nocentelli stopped them in the middle of “Cissy Strut.”

“‘No brah, that’s not right, brah,’” Porter remembers him saying. “I said, ‘Okay Leo you’re right.’ I had been playing it that way for years—dum duh da da dad um—which was the wrong way. The jazz musicians were the ones who added those extra notes.”

 

The Meters emerged in the early 1960s when Art Neville formed a band to play with him and brothers Aaron and Cyril. Porter, Leo Nocentelli and later Zigaboo Modeliste would join them to play the Nitecap on Louisiana Avenue, then the Ivanhoe on Bourbon Street. It was through these regular gigs that Allen Toussaint approached them about working on sessions. In 1997, Porter told OffBeat’s Alex Oliver, “Working with Allen, if you paid attention, you learned something…. I took a very strong posture of an observer, watching the stuff that was going on in the studio, how Cosimo [Matassa] made things work in the studio. I learned the operational side of that studio. I’m a roadie by heart, so I learned the business from the technical point. To me, that meant more than just being a musician, I wanted to know how this was applied. I was in school.”

Porter cut three albums with Lee Dorsey and sessions with Johnny Adams, Earl King and Betty Harris to name a few. He cut an album with Frankie Ford that has never been released, though he’s not sure if Toussaint or Wardell Quezergue produced it. He was on the sessions for Labelle’s 1974 Nightbirds album, which included the single “Lady Marmalade.” During the sessions, Toussaint and Zigaboo Modeliste had a falling out, so Modeliste and Herman Ernest both played drums on the sessions, and they both played on versions of “Lady Marmalade.” Porter can’t tell who’s on the final version since Toussaint wrote the drum part.

George Porter, Jr. Photo by Golden Richard III.

Photo by Golden Richard III.

“I remember the day we recorded Herman’s version because after we finished the session that day, we all ended up back at my mom’s house eating gumbo,” Porter says. “Patti and everybody came up to the house.”

He remembers recording Robert Palmer’s 1974 album Sneakin’ Sally Through the Alley, but for less positive reasons. “The Robert Palmer session stands out because we were ignored,” Porter says. “That record came out and there was no mention of us anywhere. I love the music; I hated the record.”

To make matters worse, Porter recalls seeing Palmer claim to have played all the parts in an interview with a British magazine. For a long time, he’d have nothing to do with any of the songs until Runnin’ Pardner guitarist Brint Anderson suggested they play the title song. “I said, ‘You sing it.’’” It became part of a medley with one of his own songs, “Odiferous.” After a year, Anderson suggested that they add “Sailing Shoes”, which opened the album, and it joined the medley. The popularity of the album is such that at a recent festival, fans came up to Porter and asked when he was going to add “Hey Julia”.

 

As a result of his studio experience, Porter became an in-demand studio bass player starting in the early 1990s, not only playing on local sessions but with national artists such as David Byrne (1992’s Uh-Oh) and Tori Amos (1992’s Little Earthquakes, 1994’s Under the Pink, 1996’s Boys for Pele). He explained the process of recording with Amos to Alex Oliver in 1997.

“We overdubbed all of our parts to Tori’s existing, completed tracks,” Porter said. “Myself, the drummer and the guitar player were the last guys to come in. I let the drummer put his parts on first, and then I would come in and just play from start to finish by myself. Then she’d come in and we’d go through it and find parts that fit with what she was hearing. We’d kind of go through it a verse at a time and find out what worked and what didn’t work.”

Porter didn’t make Amos funky, though, nor did he funkify Mo’ Beauty by Clap Your Hands Say Yeah’s Alec Ounsworth. “Just because Stan [Stanton Moore] and George and Robert [Walter] have done certain projects—have certain tendencies that people categorize—that doesn’t mean that they can’t do whatever the hell they want,” Ounsworth said in 2009.

“I consider myself a musician’s musician,” Porter told Oliver. “I don’t just play funk. Hey, if they’ve got a country and western session out there, I’ll play it, and not only that, I’ll know how to play it.”

George Porter, Jr. at the drums. Photo by Elsa Hahne.

Photo by Elsa Hahne.

He admits that he loves the studio and the control over the creative process, but that doesn’t mean things always go the way he thinks they should. On one recent session, he thought the rhythm section could have completed its parts in a day, though he was on the clock for significantly longer. But he understands. “With producers, you’ve got to give them space because they’re paid to do a job,” he says. “They’re paid to put the artist in a certain light.”

In the last year or so, he recorded Eden Brent’s 2010 album Ain’t Got No Troubles, Marianne Faithfull’s 2010 album Horses and High Heels, and Ruthie Foster’s upcoming album, Let it Burn, all recorded at Piety Street Studios. “Eden, being a musician, was more hands-on,” he says. When the Ruthie Foster sessions turned from covers to her original material, they hit a high point for Porter: “She said, ‘Enough, this is what I want to do.’ We went after doing some of her stuff, and that made me feel really good. ‘Yeahhhh, that’s just Ruthie now!’”

Marianne Faithfull? “She liked me. She said, ‘We’re taking you on the road with us.’” So far, that invitation hasn’t come, but if it did, Porter’s not sure he could go. He’s playing in five bands right now: The Meters, the funky Meters, the Runnin’ Pardners, the Trio, and 7 Walkers.

As for the finished albums? “I haven’t heard any of them.”

 

The tracks on the first Meters albums were short, intricate, clockwork-like funk machines. For years, people who knew the Meters through those recordings have wondered where the lengthy jam versions came from. Porter takes some of the credit.

“I’ve always been a part of that,” he says. “There might have been one song [on the Josie albums] that was four minutes. When we first left and went on the road, we had an album of two-minute songs. For our gigs, every one of those songs got stretched.

“I don’t think anybody wants to come see a two-minute song anymore. I think people want to see how distorted, or how disfigured you can make it. See how far away from the track you can get, and if you can get back to it. That’s the secret to the stretching. It’s about whether or not you come back to the song. When I was playing with PBS, we would take songs so far out that it would be nonsense to try to go back. Then we would go somewhere else. The funky Meters have done that. We start the gig and when we stop playing, the gig is over. We just go from song to song to song. We might play 16, 17 songs and maybe stop one time.”

On his new album, Can’t Beat the Funk!, Porter revisits the Meters catalogue, adapting tracks he felt had been overlooked in Meters reunion shows to his current lineup. He suggested 24 songs for the Meters’ reunion in 2000, but only “What Cha’ Say” and “Liver Splash” made the cut. Since then, one more of his choices, “The Hand Clapping Song,” has been added to Meters reunion show setlists. At Jazz Fest 2010, Porter announced that he planned to re-record some Meters material and within a month, he had the band in his home studio working out arrangements. “I didn’t really want everybody to mimic what they had heard in the original tracks,” he says. “I wanted everybody to pretty much bring themselves to the song and take some of the organ solos and make them synth solos or piano solos. Having Brint’s guitar solo be a slide.”

George Porter, Jr. with The Meters at Jazz Fest 1991. Photo by Clayton Call.

George Porter, Jr. with The Meters at Jazz Fest 1991. Photo by Clayton Call.

Porter has played with drummers Russell Batiste and Johnny Vidacovich longer than he played with Modeliste when the Meters were together (1964-1978), and the Runnin’ Pardners have outlasted the Meters. Still, the Meters are the band with which he’ll always be most associated, and when he records their songs or they reunite, it’s news. Some were epic, such as the 2005 shows in San Francisco and at Jazz Fest, while others have been less so. This year’s Voodoo set was special in that for the first time, a reunion included Cyril Neville.

The day was a long one for Porter and Art Neville who had played a funky Meters show in Sacramento the night before. Their flight home put them on the ground in New Orleans around 3:30 p.m., less than three hours before their scheduled start time. Cyril’s guest spot wasn’t on the setlist, but Art sent the word to Porter, who was onstage checking the drums, that Cyril was there, and Art wanted to bring him up to sing “Be My Lady.” Porter said no to the song choice, preferring instead “No More Okey Doke.”

“The night before in Sacramento I was playing a bass solo and the pocket fell right to me and I went into ‘No More Okey Doke,’ Porter says. “ I ran down the stairs, grabbed Mark [Mullins] and Craig [Klein], and I said, ‘Y’all guys remember that little horn part in ‘Okey Doke”?’ Craig started singing it.” They were pressed into service, and the whole guest spot came together in the 15 or so minutes before show time.

“It was nice,” Porter says. “Cyril came up and gave a good presentation.”

As he tells that story, which involved one minor miscommunication, it sounds like dealing with the Meters is never simple and probably hasn’t been for years. Over the years, the Meters have reunited and pulled out on each other, and more than 40 years of history together has to leave a mark.

“I don’t think anybody dislikes each other,” Porter says. “I think that we just don’t keep in touch, but we didn’t keep in touch back then.” How did it get like that? “I don’t have a real answer for that. I think it’s just neglect. We probably think that [the others] are going to be around forever, and that’s obviously not true. But that probably had a lot to do with management and everybody who got in between us. They were able to do that because we just didn’t talk to each other enough. That’s probably the case even with the funky Meters. I talk to Brian [Stoltz] all the time, but he calls me and it probably has a lot to do with the mess that’s going on with PBS.”

Is playing with the Meters still fun?

“I still enjoy myself, even when we have a train wreck, which isn’t often. I thought Voodoo went flawless. Some of the gigs that we rehearsed didn’t go as well as Voodoo did.”

George Porter, Jr. with the funky Meters in 1998.

George Porter, Jr. with the funky Meters in 1998.

 

Porter’s newest project is 7 Walkers, a band with Papa Mali, Grateful Dead drummer Bill Kreutzmann and Matt Hubbard, and it splits the difference between Porter and Mali’s Louisiana-centric musical world and that of the Dead, with lyrics written by Dead lyricist Robert Hunter. Because Porter’s so busy, Reid Mathis often subs for him, and recently Kirk Joseph has filled in for him with increasing regularity. Like so many things in Porter’s life, his association with 7 Walkers started onstage. He was playing a show at Tipitina’s with Papa Mali in 2009, and in the middle of the rehearsal while tuning up, Mali asked him what he was doing on a given date. With 7 Walkers, Porter is playing with his second Grateful Dead drummer. “I had done a Mickey Hart tour about two years earlier,” he recalls.

While the music has always been rewarding for Porter, the business rarely has. Business-related tensions fed the initial break-up of the Meters. In 1991, he told OffBeat’s Anthony Clark, “Music was a seedy business back then. We couldn’t figure out how we could play so much and not make any money. Somebody wasn’t telling us everything.” He credits a number of management decisions for limiting the band, and in 2005, Art Neville told OffBeat contributing editor John Swenson, “Somebody didn’t want us to make it.” Over the years, legal and financial issues created tensions that affected relationships between the Meters, particularly those that arose when Meters’ beats were sampled for hip-hop tracks.

Currently, Porter faces legal issues that emerge from the break-up of PBS. When he decided he didn’t want to be in the band anymore, its management, Highsteppin’ Productions, sued to recoup the money it says the band owes it, money it contends the band authorized it to spend on PBS’ behalf. Porter is understandably careful when talking about the suit, conceding only that the sum is in the mid-hundreds of thousands. News of the suit has prompted a number of PBS benefit shows around the country (including one that almost made it impossible for him to attend the Best of the Beat), and it has led to a number of sky-is-falling type postings online and a website, SavePBS.org. Porter, Brian Stoltz and Russell Batiste face possible bankruptcy, and if things go badly, Porter could lose his share of the Meters’ publishing. “All the depositions have been done,” he says. “Trial dates are set. It was supposed to have been around Mardi Gras; now it’s two weeks before Jazz Fest here in New Orleans.”

 

George Porter, Jr. has spent a life playing music, and he’s been generous with his talent, playing with others and sharing what he has learned with others. OffBeat’s John Swenson has referred to the Runnin’ Pardners as a finishing school for New Orleans funk bands, and John Gros and Mark Mullins are just two of his many graduates. He laughs at the image, but when talking about the band, he at one point talks about a keyboard player “who came through the school.” Part of his way is to trust the people he’s playing with, offering no more guidance than necessary. “I say what neighborhood we want to go to, and then I leave the individuals room to get there as best they can,” he says. “I think I told Brint once or twice, ‘Don’t take that left turn. Don’t go there no more.’”

More than anything else, he leads by example, at all times putting the music first. “No matter how creative or outside he gets, George is always holding down the groove,” Papa Mali says. You can always feel that pulse. George is the root of New Orleans funk.”