After a long, illustrious career of high highs and low lows, from opening for the Rolling Stones with the Meters, to scratching and clawing to overcome a drug problem, George Porter, Jr. is again on top of the New Orleans music scene. With several projects in the works, Porter is back in control of his life, and his career as one of the fathers of New Orleans funk and one of its busiest studio bass players.
Within the past year, Porter has kept busy playing with the rejuvenated Meters, performing with his own band, the Runnin’ Pardners, recording a solo album of the same name, and playing in the studio on several other people’s projects, including, most recently, Robbie Robertson’s.
November found Porter in Europe with the Meters, where he was joined by the Pardners in Holland, London, West Germany and Switzerland. “Me and Art [Neville] are overseas a lot,” he said. “Europe has had a continuing interest in the Meters.”
In late February, Porter went overseas with the Runnin’ Pardners to back up Eddie Bo on a Japanese tour, where again interest in the Meters runs high.
Porter discovered the Meters’ popularity in Europe shortly after their break-up while on tour with Professor Longhair in 1978. “They did as many interviews with me as they did with Fess,” he said. “From 1980 on I brought bands over. There was interest in the Meters the whole time.”
Since their first album in 1968, the Meters have also maintained a cult following locally and on both coasts, especially in San Francisco, where the Grateful Dead dropped in to see them at The Boarding House.
With the recent success of the Neville Brothers, which includes two former Meters, Art and Cyril, demand for the band skyrocketed.
“The Nevilles definitely kept us alive in America,” said Porter. “Originally, their show was 80 percent Meters material, and Cyril always gives credit where credit is due.” Many Neville Brothers favorites were originally Meters’ songs, including “Hey Pocky Way,” “Fiyo on the Bayou” and “Africa.”
The time was ripe for a Meters reunion. “It’s something that’s been trying to come for awhile,” said Porter.
Despite occasional reunions for special concerts, the Meters remained de-funked until recently, largely due to litigation over publishing rights filed by their ex-drummer, Zig Modeliste.
When the Meters regrouped last year, Modeliste refused to join them. He was replaced by youngster Russell Batiste. “Russell’s been around us since he was four or five years old,” said Porter. “His father, David Batiste, played keyboard with us sometimes in the ’70s. He’s offering a lot to the band. Giving us young images.”
How do the new Meters measure up to the old group?
“We had fun then, and we’re having fun now,” said Porter. “Russell’s more rockin’ than the laidback funk Zig applied, but we’re just as good.”
There’s no doubt Porter has fun on stage. He bobs and bends to the beat, shaking his head to the bass riffs, white socks pulled up to his knees.
With renewed demand for the Meters, their old records became especially hard to find, so Rounder Records answered the call by releasing two albums this fall. Look-Ka Py Py is a re-release originally recorded in 1968, and Good Old Funky Music is a collection of previously unreleased material the band recorded from ’68 to the mid-’70s.
Look-Ka Py Py is up for several awards, including a Grammy for best reissue, and is doing well, while Good Old Funky Music is doing well on the college circuit, said Porter. For the latter, Rounder Records collected about thirty unreleased cuts and chose an album’s worth. “I wish we could have chosen the material,” said Porter. “There’s a lot of bad material. Some of it was never completed.”
Porter also released a solo album on Rounder Records in 1990, George Porter, Jr., which he says is doing well considering that Rounder has not promoted it much. “We released it in Japan and doubled the sales,” he said.
The solo album is more mature-sounding than a Meters fan might expect from Porter. With just a little funk residue left over from the Meters, Porter ventures into progressive rhythm and blues with soul songs and well-executed instrumental jams.
The Runnin’ Pardners sound is a hybrid form of the Meters, Porter’s previous band the Joy Ride Band, and the Metrics. “The Metrics were more avant-garde jazz with me and Zig keeping a funk bottom. David Torkanowsky, Tony Dagradi and Scott Goudeau could play out. The new music is more combed-down.”
Porter’s new band has kept busy, and they played nearly every day during the Mardi Gras season. “The Runnin’ Pardners may pay our own way this year,” he said. “The kids uptown are going crazy over us.”
The Runnin’ Pardners have also been putting together a demo for Rounder Records to review for a second album. “We’ll be in the studio soon,” said Porter. ”I’m putting material together now. I had some stuff. The record company wanted it to be funkier, not so much ‘fusion,’ but the stuff that got airplay was fusion. We’re doing some group vocal stuff this time.”
But Porter says not to expect a Runnin’ Pardners tour, unless Rounder wants to promote one. “It’d be kind of hard now. We have a teacher in the band, guys with career jobs.”
Porter has also been busy in the studio recording for locals, including Nu Clear Rhythmz. In February, he recorded several tracks for Robbie Robertson, former leader of The Band (“The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down”), at Ultrasonic Studios and at Daniel Lanois’ French Quarter workshop. All the Meters joined for one track, and Porter, Neville and Batiste played on three others. “Robertson’s doing a lot of ethnic rhythms,” said Porter. “He had one rhythm going, then he put a different one on top of that. Then he had me and Art sing something completely different on top of that. It’s out stuff.”
Between studio work and playing with the Meters and the Runnin’ Pardners, Porter is one of the busiest musicians in town. With over 25 years in the music business, he has built quite a reputation for himself. But he nearly blew his career, and his life, through drug abuse. Much of his vigor and enthusiasm comes from a year-and-a-half of sobriety after a long, hard-fought bout with drugs.
“I lost a lot of work and credibility,” said Porter. “The Joy Ride Band recorded, but never released anything. We said, ‘Let’s go get high’ and didn’t get the job done. I wasn’t the leader I should have been.”
Porter’s failures snowballed until he hit rock bottom. “I totally lost control,” he said. “I had the desire to die. I said to my mom, ‘If you don’t get me off the streets, I’ll be dead.’ She helped.”
Part of the problem, said Porter, is with the music scene. “My influences were junkies,” he said. “Society expects it of creative people. Do drugs. Get some germ. Get shot. Even during the time of kings and queens, the jokers of the court were like that. Now we got this terrible drug problem. Musicians have had something to do with that monster.”
Today, Porter has taken on the responsibilities he used to spread out to go get high. Sobriety has had a considerable influence on his music. Optimism and moral advice runs throughout the Runnin’ Pardners album. He sings, “Get your life together, get it together. It ain’t what you do, it’s how you do it,” and “Sing don’t happy so the sadness get you. It will all get better.”
New Orleans roots run deep in Porter’s music. As a child, he remembers watching Roy Byrd (a.k.a. Professor Longhair) ride past his house on a bicycle. He began playing around town at an early age, and by the mid-’60s, the original Meters were together under the guise of Art and the Neville Sound. With Porter on bass, Neville on keyboards, Leo Nocentelli on guitar, and Modeliste on drums, the band was signed by local composer and entrepreneur Allen Toussaint to be the studio band for Sea-Saint Productions.
The Meters released Look-Ka Py Py in 1968, and had four consecutive regional hits, including the title track, and later hit with the oft-covered funk anthem “Cissy Strut.” The boys from the 13th Ward combined New Orleans rhythm and blues with the psychedelic guitar-crazed ’60s, threw in the second-line street beat, and came up with a laid-back but tight, syncopated funk groove that has defined the New Orleans sound ever since. Their sound soon gained them a cult following, and got the attention of many noted musicians. Many of their earlier albums received awards as instrumental rock ‘n’ roll.
The gang added depth to the line-up, recruiting Cyril Neville on percussion and vocals, and in 1972 were signed to Warner Bros., for whom they recorded Cabbage Alley, and later the coveted Rejuvenation album.
In 1974, the Meters backed Robert Palmer on his first album, Sneakin’ Sally Through the Alley, with two songs, including the title track, written by Toussaint. That same year, Mick Jagger heard them playing at a boat party held by Paul McCartney and invited them to open for the Rolling Stones’ 1975 tour.
“That tour was rough for the Meters,” said Porter. “They made us take off our glamour outfits. All R&B groups were into dressing well then. We had on $200 Italian jean suits. That was a little too glamorous for the rock ‘n’ roll community. Some clubs wouldn’t let us in. Black clubs wouldn’t let us in.”
In 1974, Rupert Serkhoff began managing the Meters and booking them into white clubs. “That’s what got us labeled too white to be black, too black to be white,” said Porter.
The Meters continued to put out highly acclaimed but poor selling albums. For New Directions, they attempted a more accessible, popular sound. Warner Brothers had high expectations of it. “It would have been our first hit,” said Porter. With frustrations mounting, Cyril and Art Neville quit the band while flying to New York to appear on “Saturday Night Live.” They all discovered they could make more money doing individual projects. Plus, Porter says, their manager couldn’t prove he wasn’t ripping them off.
“Music was a seedy business back then,” said Porter. “We couldn’t figure out how we could play so much and not make any money. Somebody wasn’t telling us everything.”
Art and Cyril went on to form the Neville Brothers with Aaron and Charles, while the rest of the Meters backed up other local musicians.
Today’s Meters are more careful with their money, with Porter and Nocentelli booking the local shows, and the Neville Brothers’ management booking road trips.
Nocentelli also has his own band that is drawing full houses at Uptown clubs. But despite all their extracurricular activities, Porter says the Meters are back for good.
With a Runnin’ Pardners album in the works, and a West Coast tour for the Neville Brothers, the Meters won’t be able to work together for a while. After the Jazz and Heritage Festival, for which Porter will be managing the Burger King stage, they plan to go into the studio to record Will the Real Funk Stand Up, for they already have much material. They are also planning on a live album, which Tipitina’s wants to produce.
Porter is back, the Meters are back, and both are back on their way up. “This is our year,” he said. “Watch out. We’re on the run!”