The Unsung: The Meters

By MIK DAVIS,

Take a moment – Count rhythmically from 1 to 4. Now count, the same pattern but put an "AND" in the spaces between the numbers. Finally, count that same pattern once more but put the emphasis on any "AND" you like. You now not only understand syncopation but you can harness the endless possibilities of music weaving in and out of the beat.

The New Orleans band, The Meters, is the best example of many permutations and combinations a group can jam into those four beats. Like a well-respected singer/songwriter with no audience, the Meters were always one of those groups that musicians loved far more than the listening public. During the course of eight albums between 1969-1977, the Meters changed music forever.

The Nevilles are royalty among musical families in New Orleans. From their house on Valence Street, the entire history of modern New Orleans music crystallized. Art Neville's mother used to clean the church down the street. On one quiet day, she toted young Art with her. Lo and behold, he wriggled away and found the organ. Once he flipped that switch and turned it on, Art would never be without a keyboard until he passed away earlier this year.

The early history of Rock ‘n’ Roll is constructed around local scenes. The sounds of Doo Wop echoed on stoops from New York down the East Coast straight into New Orleans. Even with its rich musical history, those harmonies led young men and women into the studios to try their hand at it as well.

Frankie Adams and Lou Welsch wrote "Mardi Gras Mambo" in 1953 as a Country song. The first version from Jody Levens flopped. However in 1954, a group of young teenage musicians came to Cosimo Matassa's studio on Gov.Nicholls to try it again. The Hawketts were a seven-piece group with a new singer and organ player, Art Neville. When its sax intro were heard on radios throughout the city, a timeless hit was born.

Following the popularity of "Mardi Gras Mambo," the Hawketts became the backing band for local Larry Williams. A few years of playing "Bony Maronie" and "Slow Down," opened the door at Specialty Records for Art Neville to go solo. First, Art's brothers coalesced around him in the Neville Sounds. But, Aaron went solo and to tell it like it is, Art needed to find and season the right group of musicians around him in pursuit of a more "funky" sound.

The Ivanhoe on Bourbon Street was the kind of club that demanded its players play long and hard sets with touches of the hits of the day and even a little Dixieland. The second iteration of Neville Sounds broke the color barrier on the popular tourist street and wound up backing several of the largest local artists as well.

Art, in search of a new guitar player, discovered 14-year old Leo Nocentelli. Raised on playing a plastic ukulele, Nocentelli skipped all the adolescent pursuits to teach himself to be a better guitar player. When Art and his brothers were cruising through a neighborhood between the Irish Channel and the Seventh Ward, Nocentelli became a Hawkett. After stints playing with Otis Redding and on several Motown songs Nocentelli joined Neville Sounds.

By day, Neville Sounds became the house band at Sansu studios for Allen Toussaint and Marshall Sehorn (Jean Knight's "Mr. Big Stuff," Lee Dorsey's "Ya Ya" among others.) At night at the Ivanhoe (or the Nite Cap), they were formulating a new sound. Stripped down from seven members to just four consisting of lithe drummer Zigaboo Modeliste, bassist George Porter Jr., Nocentelli and Neville, they went into the studio to record a new single for Art. With a distribution deal through Bell Records, Sansu gave Art a single in 1967. "Bo Diddley (Part 1 and 2.)" In these hands, what was once a Rockabilly staple became a frenetic, funky, groove.

Meanwhile on the bandstand, Nocentelli had grown tired of the same opening song. So he retooled a guitar lick he liked and fed it to the other three. "Cissy Strut" was born. When Sansu cut this one to wax, the magic happened. "Cissy Strut" sold 200,000 copies in two months. The newly anointed Meters signed contracts and charted their future.

1969's self-titled debut is largely a response to the success of Booker T. & The M.G.'s.  The most famous instrumental group at the time, "The Meters" trades Booker T's knack for changes in texture (see: "Chinese Checkers," "Jellybread" and "Hip-Hug-Her") for sophisticated rhythms underpinning more melodic songs. Led by their Ivanhoe opener "Cissy Strut," the second-line sound of New Orleans propels nearly every song including the jump funk of "Live Wire," the chromatic runs of the searing "Ease Back (#20 R&B.)" and the slow grind of the pre-album single "Sophisticated Cissy (#7 R&B in 1968.)" Even the covers they choose are redesigned to fit the style of the Meters and their hometown ("Stormy" and "Sing A Simple Song".) 

It goes without saying that "Cissy Strut" was a massive hit, selling 200,000 copies in its first two weeks and vaulting into the R&B Top 5.  A mere six months later, The Meters fired off their second salvo "Look-A-Py-Py." The serpentine winding of the title cut (#11 R&B) unveiled the blueprint for their future. Unhurried but head-bobbing funk driven by the consistent drums and insistent guitar lines. In the middle of the melange of sound, the bass changes from rhythm (there for most of kick drum hits) to melody with alarming ease. On top of it all, Art Neville's organ squealing like a guitar, often playing the melody line and punctuating it with horn-like flurries. Working in Atlanta, The Meters under the watchful eye of Allen Toussaint and Marshall Sehorn gelled into the mighty Jam/Funk they are viewed as today. "Pungee" is punchy yet laid-back, while "This Is My Last Affair" is a ballad that you can dance to. The driving Sly & The Family Stone-style "Oh! Calcutta" and the Fatback march of "Dry Spell" (#39 R&B) prove how elegant their group compositions are becoming at matching the styles of the day. However, it is the album cut "Yeah, You're Right" that illustrates the band's future direction with its locomotive version of the Blues translated into Funk and winding/unwinding of the main melody with Jazz-like fervor.

With so many singles in so little time, 1970 brought the Meters the honor of being named both Billboard and Cashbox magazine's R&B Instrumental Group of the Year. Despite two albums, it was back to work in New Orleans and time for Art Neville to return to singing with the group. "Struttin'" features three vocal cuts including a heartfelt cover of "Wichita Lineman" and a fortified revisit of Lee Dorsey's "Ride Your Pony" (whose 1965 version features the future Meters as the house band at Sansu for its composer Allen Toussaint, writing as Naomi Neville.) "Struttin'" adds to the Meters' palette the galloping "Go For Yourself," the simple-but-striated funk of "Joog," and its most famous export the dormant single "Hand Clapping Song (#26 R&B.)" sampled, covered and used in commercials in the 21st Century. "Struttin'" is mostly the band reaching for that elusive hit. Rearming their innate ability to "Strut," it opens with the classic "Chicken Strut (#11 R&B)" which surprisingly failed to crossover. Moreover, some compositions like "Britches" and "Hey! Last Minute" sound limited and hurried - like a band that needs a change.

Contract-bound and beholden to Toussaint, the band was ready to join the blossoming world of Funk in the Seventies. Art was temporarily asked to leave the group as they continued the pursuit of the hit that would bring them success outside of their hometown. Nocentelli's singles ("A Message From The Meters (#21 R&B)" in 1970 and "Stretch Your Rubber Band (#42 R&B) in 1971") were more R&B based but not working. In 1972, the Meters were released from their contract and snapped up by Warner/Reprise. Reunited with Art and using Toussaint solely as their producer, the band calmed down the high-energy ethic of their sound to compete with the plethora of Funk bands charting in the early Seventies. 

The major-label debut "Cabbage Alley" remains underrated. With larger production budgets, they riff hard ("You've Got To Change (You've Got To Reform)," go full island lilt ("Soul Island") and effortlessly cover Neil Young (Art on the beautiful "Birds.") 1974's "Rejuvenation" further distills the modern Meters and remains #138 on Rolling Stone's Greatest Albums of All Time. "Rejuvenation" even revisits the New Orleans strut "Hey Pocky-A-Way" (which the Grateful Dead will use as a standard in their sets.) That return to New Orleans music and the inclusion of Cyril Neville in the group finally brought the city's magic to the nation on 1975's "Fire On The Bayou" as did their coveted tour spot opening for the Rolling Stones. 

Behind the scenes, The Meters proved to be a force of nature in the studio playing on Robert Palmer's fierce debut 1974's "Sneakin' Sally Through The Alley," 1975's #1 single for LaBelle "Lady Marmalade" and most notably helping Dr. John hit the Top 10 in 1973 as the backing band on "In The Right Place." However, the critical huzzahs and sweet session gigs were not translating into success for the band. Even an appearance on Paul McCartney's 1975 Mardi Gras single ("My Carnival,") could not move the meter on their sales. "Fire On The Bayou" is the reclamation of their New Orleans roots. The band effortlessly mix in modern funk ("Talkin' Bout New Orleans"), mild-mannered Soul ("Out in the Country,") and revive 1954's "Mardi Gras Mambo." The album's "Mardi Gras" single "They All Ask'd For You" would go on to be synonymous with the City and the Audubon Zoo.

This last gasp of New Orleans devotion would prove to be all for the band. 1976's "Trick Bag" was selected and released without their input and 1978's "New Directions" would close the book on the band in San Francisco without Toussaint as producer. Still, the members went on to play with a wide swath of Rock N'Roll' best. Modeliste would play with Keith Richards and John Fogerty as well as be named the 18th best drummer of all time by Rolling Stone. George Porter, Jr. played with John Scofield, David Byrne and Tori Amos. Nocentelli appeared on numerous albums as a session guitarist and in reviving the Meters as The Meters Experience would play this music again accompanied by the likes of Al DiMeola, Bernie Worrell and for one iteration members of Phish. This week for New Year's Eve in New Orleans, Porter Jr. and Modeliste even played together. 

While their relationship is regularly described as "estranged." We hold the hope that with the loss of Art, the original three might play together again soon, or even play with Art's other famous group The Neville Brothers in the future. Fortunately, the music all remains in print. Further listening and study always reveals some hint of the groove, lick, riff or melody you missed. The Meters remain the band to work through for musicians who wish to play music between the notes. The best place to start is the upcoming Cherry Red 6CD box "Gettin' Funkier All The Time." For the first time ever, the complete Josie (the first three albums) and Warner/Reprise (the final four) are released together in one package. In addition, this stellar SoulMusic collection adds every B-side and studio rarity.

Honored last year by the Grammys, these four-time Rock N'Roll Hall of Fame nominees continue to earn more respect and importance as more people listen to their music. Every year a song is used in a commercial, their catalog experiences an uptick. As mercurial as bands can be, most of the Meters' songs sound like these exist out of time. This music is essential both as art and influence because, like you now, it counts far more than that almighty beat.