The Meters may not have invented funk, but they pioneered a certain brand of it. The legendary New Orleans group, which formed in 1965, perfected a sparse, salty style of instrumental funk that emphasized space and groove, creating a foundation of tight, shifting rhythms and hi-hat-heavy drums and percussion interplay.
They didn’t do much commercial business in their time, but two of their members, keyboardist Art Neville and percussionist Cyril Neville, went on to form the Neville Brothers band, and over the years, the Meters’ catalog of eight studio albums became the inspiration for everyone from George Clinton to neo-funk bands like Galactic. And they’ve been sampled on over 130 rap and hip-hop tracks.
For the entire 1970s run of the original Meters, bassist George Porter Jr. was down there handling the bottom end. Rather than being a show player like Bootsy Collins or a workmanlike genius like Motown’s (and South Carolina’s) James Jamerson, Porter’s magic lay in how tastefully he played, anchoring songs like “Cissy Strut,” “Groovy Lady,” and “Tippi Toes” with a deceptively laid-back, wickedly fluid style. He could nail a song’s melody with just a few notes, which made those brief moments when he’d stretch out the edges of the groove all the more captivating.
On his own, with his long-running band the Running Pardners, Porter has been an indefatigable ambassador of New Orleans soul, touring constantly and releasing a series of harder-edged funk albums than the Meters ever did. He’s found a home among the jam-band community, but for Porter, it all started with the endlessly deep melting pot of Big Easy music.
“It wasn’t funk then,” he says. “It was called R&B. But I also grew up with the influence of jazz. And when I say jazz, I’m speaking of what we were playing in New Orleans, which was pretty much swing music. It was a lot of the songs from the bebop school that were basically shuffles, you know? I played a gig when I was 16 years old at a club called The 808, and the music we were playing at that gig was swing music. We would take a break, and then when we came back we would move into the New Orleans Ninth Ward stuff. Earl King, Chris Kenner, Professor Longhair kind of stuff. And then to the Fats Domino stuff, which eventually became rock ‘n’ roll. I played in all of those communities from jazz to R&B, which later became funk.”
Porter says that despite the reputation the Meters later gained as one of the most important bands in New Orleans lore, their lack of commercial success at the time ended up being a curse. “I think that’s the reason it didn’t last as long as it could’ve,” he says. “The band started wanting to be more commercial because we saw groups who were opening for us selling records, and we wanted that.”
That caused a pronounced shift towards slicker material toward the end of the decade, and, at least in Porter’s estimation, killed what was special about the group. “The primary writers in the band (typically guitarist Leo Noncentelli, Art Neville, and drummer Ziggy Modeliste) wanted to write more commercially inclined-type music, and it put a damper on the unique thing we were doing in the beginning. The last few records started getting farther and farther away from the original music.”
But Porter stayed true to the funk sound he’d grown to love, and stayed on the road, which was where a host of jam bands and forward-thinking jazz artists would find him years later. “I kept playing the parts of that music that I thought never got represented by the band,” he says. “And then when the jam community started to grow, they and the jazz musicians who were moving from playing jazz to fusion, they were all playing Meters music and giving props to us.”
Not that it was all sweetness and light when people starting digging into the Meters’ catalog. “I think there are like 136 samples of our music in the hip-hop community, and not a single one of those guys ever gave us props or acknowledgement,” he says. “They never said, ‘Hey, this is a Meters song.’ They never paid us. They outright just stole our music.”
Those hard feelings aside, what is it that’s caused all of these different genres to borrow, emulate, or steal the music Porter has been playing for five decades?
“I believe it’s probably the pocket,” he says. “The space that was there. It led to the jam community being able to play stuff on top of it. A lot of our earlier recordings were almost like beds for stuff to happen on top of. That’s why it worked so well in the hip-hop community. Those were pockets and grooves that were just waiting for somebody to happen on top it. It didn’t have a lot of melodies on top of it. It was just grooves.
And when it comes to leaving space and creating a groove, it all comes back to New Orleans for Porter, specifically the advice he once got from the legendary performer, songwriter, producer, and arranger Allen Toussaint. “Allen told me years ago that it’s not what you play, it’s what you don’t play that makes the song happen,” he says. “And I believe that. I really do.”