Long before George Porter Jr. was a bassist in one of the jam world’s most beloved funk combos, he was a guitar player — and by all indications, not one of the most gifted. In fact he was kicked out of his guitar class for his rebellious ways at a recital.
“My guitar teacher was kind of upset,” Porter says. “I was supposed to play ‘Home on the Range,’ and I wound up playing ‘St. Louis Woman.’ I kinda got graduated and thrown out of class at the same time.”
Despite that rough start, Porter continued to play the guitar for years. Eventually, he met future Meters bandmate Art Neville. At the time, Porter had been called in as a replacement for Neville’s regular guitarist.
“I was truly a rhythm guitar player. I was not a lead guitar player. So I knew the music that was required of me that night, but I couldn’t take solos, and at that time Art wasn’t a soloist either. He played piano to accompany himself,” says Porter. “He was a little upset with me needless to say. He was like, ‘You’re a lousy guitar player.’ ”
Porter can laugh about all that today because he ultimately switched to bass and is now an in-demand session player and a member of several bands. But mastering the bass didn’t happen all at once.
Porter recalls an incident before the Meters got together. He’d been regularly playing with Frank Moten from Dizzy Gillespie’s band and noted funk guitarist Walter Washington. Their specialty: 12-bar blues-bebop. On Porter’s off-nights, he watched a combo led by a keyboardist called Ching Ching. There was a bass sitting on a chair to the side, and finally Porter got up the nerve to ask if he could sit in. Ching Ching decided to play Miles Davis’ “Tune Up,” which is definitely not 12-bar blues and is in the relatively uncommon key of D Major.
“I’m hearing these chord changes pass me by, and I’m saying, ‘What the hell? I don’t even recognize any of these. I’m not even hearing the intervals,” he recalls with a chuckle. “Ching Ching turns around and says, ‘Come on, youngster, and get in there.’ But I don’t have a clue what’s going on. So he stops playing the organ and grabs the bass from me and starts playing these changes. I just sat there on the side of the stage watching his hands move up and down. It was the most amazing thing I’d ever seen in my life.”
Humbled, Porter returned home. He was thinking about those chords. By morning he’d worked them out.
Over time, Porter became a skilled bassist and, along with Neville, drummer Joseph “Zigaboo” Modeliste, and beret-sporting guitarist Leo Nocentelli, formed the Meters in the late ’60s and took off on a 12-year run that petered out in ’77, just ahead of disco’s arrival. During that time, they coined a brand of funk to rival James Brown, choosing an earthier, less frenetic sound that would later take hold of the jam community. Today, Porter plays in a combo called the Metermen with Modeliste, Nocentilli, and Phish keyboardist Page McConnell.
The Meters infused funk with a brassy Big Easy swing, and backed such artists as Robert Palmer, Dr. John, and Allen Toussaint, for whom Porter and the gang were the house band. After James Brown, the Meters are probably the next most sampled artist, and while the band’s loose Crescent City soul would prove to be extremely influential, it was never the commercial powerhouse that the Godfather of Soul was.
A decade after the Meters broke up, Porter reunited with Neville in the Funky Meters with drummer Russell Batiste and guitarist Brain Stolz. They still play periodically, as do the Metermen and Porter’s solo act, George Porter Jr. and the Runnin’ Pardners; all of the acts play a significant number of Meters tunes. Meanwhile his old Meters partners Modeliste and Nocentilli have been talking about recording new material, presumably with McConnell, or perhaps another keyboardist.
“I’m thinking maybe next year we might revisit it, or next year we can just come in my home studio and it ain’t going to cost us no money. Get the basics down and then go into a bigger studio for vocals and overdubs and mixing and stuff,” Porter says.
In the meantime, this funky rhythm master will continue to dance to the beat of his own drummer. “People ask me how I’m doing,” he says. “The only thing I am really able to tell them is that I’m feeling fine, and I’m growing old gracefully.”