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Get Dazed by the Meters
By Brian Knight

One can one say about the Meters of New Orleans? In a city steeped in the funk, they are the godfathers. In a nation full of funskters, they are legends. The band is the foundation of what we know as funk today. Dr. Dre is funky – he owes it all to the Meters. George Clinton is known for being funky but he doesn’t even come close to the Meters. Cameo? They are not even on the same funk map. In fact, there are very few people who can share the same funk influence as the Meters – perhaps James Brown, but even his Motown Gospel soul has to tip its hat to the Meters. For the longest time, the early recordings of the Meters were virtually impossible to find. But now, thanks to Sundazed Records, the Meters first five albums The Meters, Look-Ka Py Py, Struttin’, Rejuvenation and Fire on the Bayou are available on disc. In addition, the label has also released the recordings of Lee Dorsey, who was one of the first musicians that the Meters played for. With no further ado, lets jump into the funky world known as the Meters.

The Meters have their humble beginnings in a New Orleans neighborhood when Art Neville, after a short stint in the Navy, started his own R&B band. Prior to his time in the armed forces, Neville made a name for himself with his 1955 single "Mardi Gras Mambo" with the group the Hawketts. This tune was an instant local hit that still ripples through the streets of New Orleans every February. In the mid-1960s, Neville recruited George Porter Jr. (bass), Joseph "Zigaboo" Modeliste (drums), Leo Nocentelli (guitar), his two brothers, Aaron and Cyril (both vocals) as well as an additional saxophonist for his new band, Art Neville and the Neville Sound. After booking their first gig at the Ivanhoe, a small stage venue located in the heart of the revelry laden Bourbon Street, the owner suggested that Art downsize the band. Instead of making the band a family affair, Neville opted to retain the strings and drums to complement his organ playing. Art and his brothers had plenty of time to strut their stuff together and ultimately did with the formation of the Neville Brothers.

Prior to this collaboration, Porter, Modeliste and Nocentelli were off doing their own projects, not really making any significant musical impact. The jazz influenced Nocentelli grew up listening to Dixieland and was recording in Detroit prior to joining Neville. Nocentelli’s guitar work can be heard on Motown albums by the Drifters, Martha and Vandellas and even the Supremes' "Where Did Our Love Go?" Porter was playing in different gigs around town including stints with Earl King and Irving Bannister & the All-Stars. As for Porter’s second cousin, Modeliste, he had met Neville earlier when he sat in with the Hawketts. Modeliste wasn’t even the original drummer. He replaced the sickly original time keeper (Glenn) of whom none of the members can even remember his last name. The end result was a band similar to Booker T and The MGs in terms of instruments and sound

It was the quartet’s raw funky sound at the Ivanhoe that caught the eyes and ears of legendary New Orleans producers Marshall Sehorn and Allen Toussaint. The duo saw an even more suitable comparison to Booker T and the MGs – Art and company would serve as the ideal backing band for the multiple artists that came through their studio, Sansu Enterprises. Art and Toussaint were no strangers to each other’s work as the two collaborated in 1962 for the tune "All These Things." One of the first items that Sehorn and Toussaint addressed was that the band needed to change its name. The story behind the naming of the band is murky. The rumor mill suggests that the band picked a name out of the hat and the Meters were born while other stories suggest that Sehorn and Toussaint bestowed the name. Just as Booker T backed up classic Stax albums by Otis Redding, Wilson Pickett, Carla Thomas, Albert King and Sam & Dave, the Meters served as the back up band for Earl King, Chris Kenner, Betty Harris, as well Toussaint's own music efforts. The one singer that gave the Meters their first real opportunity to shine was Lee Dorsey.

Although Lee Dorsey grew up in New Orleans’ Ninth Ward with fellow musician Fats Domino, Dorsey spent much of his early life away from the Crescent City. In 1936, the ten year old moved to Portland, Oregon – a location that could not have been more geographically, climatically or musically dislocated from the Big Easy. By the time the United States had entered the war against the Axis powers, Lee was fighting for the Navy in the South Pacific. It was this time as a seaman that Dorsey also learned another method of fighting – boxing. After receiving a battle wound, Dorsey continued to ply his trade as an extremely successful featherweight boxer throughout the northwest. The five-foot tall Dorsey, who went by the name "Cadillac Shorty", fought until his retirement in 1955 and then returned to New Orleans.

Within three years of his arrival in Nawlins, Dorsey quickly made the conversion from scrappy fighter to soulful singer and ultimately caught the attention of the always talent identifying savvy of Sehorn and Toussaint. Under the tutelage of Sehorn (who was working for the NYC record label, Fire/Fury), Dorsey scored a hit with the song "Ya Ya" that reached #7 in the Billboard Charts during the summer of 1961. Three years later, Sehorn, Toussaint and Dorsey collaborated for another hit "Ride Your Pony". Through Toussaint’s writing ability, Dorsey recorded classic songs such as "Get Out of My Life Woman", "Here Come the Hurt Again?", "Working on a Coalmine" and "Work, Work, Work." All of this R&B tunes were recorded under the local record label, Amy Records and feature the combination of Dorsey’s easy going soulful vocals, Toussaint’s superb writing skills and Sehorn’s uncanny sense of production. Between the 1965 and 1969, the three slammed the airwaves with one soulful tune after another. Sundazed Records has now released Ride Your Pony and The New Lee Dorsey, which not only contain the original albums but also a whole slew of B-sides and unreleased tracks.

During Dorsey’s hit making tenure, the Sansu studio band played the music, but this was long before the arrival the Meters. It was not until 1969 that Art, Joseph, George and Leo first had an opportunity to record with Dorsey. The final tracks on The New Lee Dorsey highlight the Meter’s presence with the tunes "Everything I Do Gonh Be Funky (From Now On)", "There Should Be A Book", "Candy Yam", "Give It Up", "What You Want Is (What You Get) and "I’m The One". The properly named "Everything I Do Gonh Be Funky (From Now On)" would have a lasting effect on the funk music scene as everyone from saxophonist Lou Donaldson to percussionist Poncho Sanchez has covered it. After these sessions on Amy records, Lee Dorsey took off for greener pastures with a larger label. But it was during those sessions that really opened the light on the Meters and gave them the opportunity to record alone.

While serving as Sehorn and Toussaint’s studio band, the Meters had an instrumental view on the musical world. The singers and the studio band almost never saw each other as the majority of the work was accomplished through multi-track recording. With this in mind, it seemed only obvious that the Meter’s first album would be 100 % instrumental. Vocals didn’t seem to matter when it came to recording for their 1969 debut album The Meters for the Josie label. The album spurned multiple hits that would set the pace for both the Meters and the entire New Orleans funk sound. The album contained long time Meters favorites such as "Cissy Strut", "Sophisticated Cissy, "Ease Back", "Cardova" and "Here Comes the Meter Man" which defined the Meter’s sound – simple in structure but deep with the rhythm. In a sense, the Meters defined the basic characteristics of the groove. While Funkadelic, Cameo, James Brown and Sly Stone are synonymous with funk, these artists look to the Meters for the basic down to earthy and raw sound.

Since the formula seemed to work for The Meters, the band kept to the theme for 1970’s Look-Ka Py Py. The album’s title track hit #11 on the R&B charts. Remarkably enough, the song was written while the band was riding in the car from New Jersey to Atlanta. Zigaboo discovered a rhythm that was created by their Mercury’s two burnt pistons. The band improvised to the beat, threw in a chant and the next thing they knew, they were in Atlanta cutting the song. Six months after the recording of Look-Ka Py Py, the band returned to more friendly recording confines of New Orleans and the famous studios of Cosimo Matassa to lay down the tracks for Struttin’. Like their first two albums, Struttin’ was no exception to the Meter’s panache for creating the funkiest of hit instrumentals. This album produced two popular tunes - "Chicken Strut", which featured Zigaboo’s chicken cackling and "Hand Clapping Song". The album also brought Art Neville’s singing ability back to the spotlight. Throughout the 1950s and early 1960s, Neville’s voice was his primary asset but when the band started working for Sansu Enterprises, his vocals were put on the back burner. Appropriately enough, Neville’s return to singing was marked with a version of Lee Dorsey’s "Ride the Pony", which Allen Toussaint penned five years earlier. The remaining vocal tune was a version of "Darling, Darling, Darling". These two vocals comprise only 1/7 of the present album with the remaining 6/7’s containing the relentless tandem of Modeliste and Porter, the slinky organ of Neville and the wailing solos of Nocentelli.

In his book Up from the Cradle of Jazz, authors Jason Berry, Jonathan Foose and Tad Jones described the Meters sound: " The Meters set a style, a trademark of relaxed rhythmic shadings with loose interplay between instruments. Leo played light jazz chords, influenced by Kenny Burrell and Barney Kessell, his idols, and with a scratch-work technique accenting the rhythm. Modeliste on drums hit poly rhythmic snare lines against George Porter’s bulging bass patterns. Art’s slicing chords on keyboard occupied the center."

Struttin’ marked the last album that the Meters recorded with the locally ran Josie label. By the time 1972 rolled round, Josie had gone bankrupt and the band signed with Reprise Records, a subsidiary of Warner Bros. Despite the new label, Toussaint remained as the band’s producer and Sehorn stayed on as their manager. Although all of the ingredients for the patented Meters funky gumbo were still intact, the hits were no longer as prolific as they were with the Josie label. What was lost with the lack of hits was gained with some truly integral installments of the Meters sound. The first album with Reprise was 1972’s Cabbage Alley. The name itself was an enigma for New Orleans is a land of Crawfish Etouffe, Jambalaya, Gumbo, Shrimp Po-Boys and Artichoke Pie – the idea of eating cabbage in the Big Easy is as foreign as eating New England clam chowder in Belize. Regardless, the album was named after a small back street located in New Orleans so the title retained a tie to the city. Musically, the album was a major vehicle for Leo Nocentelli who wrote four of the albums songs and co wrote another four. Prior to this album, the Meters wrote all the songs collectively. With Cabbage Alley, the band took a noticeable turn towards creating a pop song. The band no longer walked into the studio, pressed record, jammed for six hours straight and sifted through the tapes afterwards. There was a deliberate effort to make a pop-oriented album and the Meters stumbled through the process. The album ultimately had some creative highpoints such as Nocentelli’s ballad, "Lonesome and Unwanted People", and the Latin tinged "Soul Island". The latter song came to fruition after the band’s spirited tour through the Caribbean. The album also featured a remake of Professor Longhair’s "Hey Now Baby" (renamed to "Cabbage Alley") as well as a version of Neil Young’s "Birds".

In 1974, the band recorded Rejuvenation which contained the albums sole chart song, "Hey Pocky Way" but also fan favorites such as "People Say" and "Africa" and the slow tempoed and gritty "Just Kissed My Baby" featured Lowell George sitting in on guitar. After a two year recording hiatus, the album’s title was rather apropos. The band had definitely graduated from the Booker T and the MGs organ sound and developed into a well-rounded quartet that incorporated other musical styles into their sound. This transition was felt even more when the Meters recorded the classic album Fire on the Bayou in 1975. One of the tracks, "Middle of the Road" was Leo Nocentelli’s tribute to his jazz influences and most notably, Wes Montgomery. The song was quite the departure from the dance vibe of "Cissy Strut" and displayed the Meters ability to play within the jazz idiom. "Middle of the Road" was the album’s hidden gem but the album’s title song was the highlight that immediately became a staple in both the Meters and the Neville Brothers’ repertoires. The tune "Talkin’ ‘Bout New Orleans" and "Mardi Gras Mambos" were both direct tributes to the people of New Orleans. The album also signified the return of Cyril Neville to the fold who was a pert of the band way back in the beginning, when they were trying to get a gig at the Ivanhoe. The Reprise albums also saw a switch from primarily instrumentals to a largely vocal effort for the band. The irony is that it usually takes vocals to create a hit song, but some how the Meters recorded a plethora of hits without the benefit of lyrics. Once the band converted to a lyrical focus, their hits diminished. As aforementioned the lack of hits had nothing to do with the band’s ability to create a groovy tune, as the two Reprise albums will go down in history as the finest Meters efforts and the funkiest albums of all time.

This rise in popularity but decrease in hits is best displayed during the years after recordings of Rejuvenation and Fire on the Bayou. The band’s playing ability caught the eye and ear of musicians everywhere. In 1975, they played for a private party for Paul McCartney and also recorded on one of his albums. They also played on albums by Robert Palmer, Dr. John and Labelle as well as opened for the Rolling Stones on tours throughout the United States and Europe. As a recording unit, the Meters recorded the Wild Tchoupitoulas with Cyril Neville and members of the famed Mardi Gras Indians. This was a fine album but a departure from the Meters sound. After this recording, things went sour as Toussaint and Sehorn left the band, which ultimately led to disputes over the Meters name. As a result the band split up in 1979.

21 years later, the music of the Meters is still alive and well. Art Neville and George Porter Jr. formed "the funky Meters" in the mid 1990s and continue playing the Meters tunes with the same funk abound. George Porter and Joseph Modeliste also have their own bands while the Neville Brothers are always playing the New Orleans vibe. If anything, the songs of the Meters can be heard everywhere. One of the band’s earliest singles, "Cissy Strut", has been played by every bar band from here to San Diego and it has been recorded by pianist Johnny Lewis, organist Big John Patton, bassist Jaco Pastorious and guitarist John Scofield. Guitarist Grant Green further immortalized the Meters with the swinging "Ease Back" and "Hey Pocky Way" was a popular part of the Grateful Dead’s repertoire throughout the late 1980s.

Despite the presence of the "funky Meters" and other musicians covering their tunes, there is no better way to hear the Meters than to hear their 1970s album. There is a certain vibrancy found in these Sundazed re-releases. It is often believed that live bands can’t sound good in the studio. Well, that is not the case for the Meters as they kicked ass in the studio. In addition to the original albums, the Sundazed re-releases all feature bonus tracks such as the single versions of "Hey Pocky Way" and "People Say", a long version of "Running Fast" and a collection of previously unreleased songs such as ‘Meter Strut", "Soul Machine", "Funky Meters Soul", "Grass" and "Borro". If you are a fan of New Orleans music, funk music, instrumental music, R&B music or any/all of the above, then these albums are a must for your collection.

Head on over to www.sundazed.com to find out more about these Meters and Lee Dorsey re-releases. Once there you will find a whole lot more 1960s reissues.

If you like New Orleans music, than check out these articles:

Interview with Henry Butler        Interview with James Singleton of Astral Project   

The 2000 New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival           

The 2000 New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival Photos