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Members include: David Russell Batiste (joined reunited group, c. 1989), drums; Joseph "Zigaboo" Modeliste (born on December 28, 1948), drums; Art Neville (born on December 17, 1937, in New Orleans, LA), keyboards, vocals; Cyril Neville (joined group, 1975), percussion, vocals; Leo Nocentelli (born in 1946), guitar; George Porter Jr. (born in 1947), bass; Brian Stoltz (joined reunited group, c. 1994), guitar. Addresses: Agent--Elevation Group, 360 17th St., Ste. 200, Oakland, CA 94612. Website--The Meters Official Website: http://www.funkymeters.com.
Although the Meters polished their skills as a backing band, their original work as a recording act---particularly a few dozen instrumental sides recorded in the late 1960s---served as a vital influence on the development of funk. Infusing the soul combo format with the wild syncopations of their native New Orleans, they introduced new rhythmic possibilities, and their seemingly telepathic communication produced a groove that appeared both locked-in and loose. After courting mainstream audiences wit h mixed results in the 1970s and partially metamorphosing into the Neville Brothers, the group fragmented and has performed with rotating personnel ever since. Indeed, the rights to the Meters name and many of their recordings remained in dispute into the 1990s, and the group eventually bifurcated into two: the sporadically appearing original quartet, and an offshoot known as the Funky Meters.
Keyboardist Art Neville, the eldest of a prodigiously musical group of brothers, began his musical career in New Orleans in the mid-1950s. With his band the Hawketts, he recorded "Mardi Gras Mambo," an instant smash in the Crescent City that has sin ce become a standard part of the town's yearly Mardi Gras festivities. He was soon offered a solo deal by Specialty Records and was able to earn a living recording and performing with the Hawketts.
After a stint in the Navy, Art joined his brother Aaron to form an ensemble called the Neville Sounds, which soon included younger brother Cyril as well as the three musicians who would form the nucleus of the Meters. Bassist George Porter Jr. and drummer Joseph "Zigaboo" Modeliste, the latter having briefly been a Hawkett, were cousins, while guitarist Leo Nocentelli had been a hot session player for Motown Records in Detroit, recording with major acts like the Supremes in his teenage years. Aaron Neville scored a solo hit with 1966's "Tell It Like It Is," and the group backed him on tour. Then, in 1967, the Neville Sounds split up; Aaron and Cyril became part of The Soul Machine, while Art Neville, Porter, Modeliste, and Nocentelli branched off o n their own.
Honed Sound in Tough French Quarters
That quartet, lacking a permanent moniker, honed a mixture of R&B dance tunes and a bit of jazz in the crucible of the nightclub scene in New Orleans's French Quarter, working long nights for little pay at places like the Nitecap and the Ivanhoe . "It was a six day a week thing, ten o'clock at night till four in the morning," Art told Melody Maker in a 1976 interview, adding, "We'd always improvise a lot to keep it from being monotonous, doing it every night. We'd alway s try something else."
Such improvisation refined the tight grooves for which the group would become known and injected the spice of New Orleans rhythm, particularly the syncopated "second-line" beat, into the hit songs they trotted out for the dance crowd. Art played or gan exclusively, supported by the complex interaction of the Porter-Modeliste rhythm section and what Rolling Stone called Nocentelli's "inspired rock & roll guitar, which is almost ghostly in its thin-sounding tone and eeri e dissonances."
New Orleans impresario Allen Toussaint, an old friend of Art's, saw the group play and was sufficiently impressed to sign them to his record company, Sansu. The label, co-founded by Toussaint and local producer Marshall Sehorn, aspired to become for New Orleans what the Stax label had been for Memphis and Motown for Detroit, namely, a soul music or rhythm-and-blues hit factory.
Thus, like Stax, which used the organ-guitar-bass-drums firepower of Booker T. & The MG's as its house band, Sansu deployed Art Neville's groove-heavy foursome as the backing group for a variety of performers, including Lee Dorsey, Ernie K-Doe, and many others. "We never knew who the artist was going to be," Porter recalled to Musical Gumbo: The Music of New Orleans authors Grace Lichtenstein and Laura Dankner. "Allen would spell the music out, and then he'd find the a rtists and make the artists fit the track."
The quartet recorded a few singles under Art Neville's name, and in 1967 cut a track that would establish them as serious contenders in the R&B world. Called "Sophisticated Cissy," the insinuating funk tune became a smash, and Sehorn immediately inked a deal for the group with Josie Records. The label insisted that the band adopt a pithy name, however, and after several suggestions were picked out of a hat, "the Meters"---one of Toussaint's entries---won out. More hits followed, notably "Cissy S trut," which, like "Sophisticated," based its groove on the stride of local drag queens.
Unknowingly Made the Charts
In 1969 the band released its debut album on Josie, also called Cissy Strut. Unbeknownst to the group, the title cut reached the number four position on the Billboard rhythm and blues chart. "We played six nights a week from six o'clock to five o'clock in the morning for almost two years and we didn't know we had a hit record," Art Neville told Lichtenstein and Dankner. Such omissions of information on the part of Toussaint and Sehorn, both of wh om profited knowingly from the record's success, sowed seeds of bitter discord down the line. The two of them, as Rolling Stone observed, "produced the records, managed the band and owned both the studio where the records were m ade and the songs' publishing rights." Meanwhile, as Neville noted in Melody Maker, the band endured "the bottom of the barrel type touring, the chitlin' circuit. Out of the way clubs where the promoters would run out with the m oney."
Despite their travails, the Meters earned a degree of recognition; Billboard and Record World dubbed them the best rhythm and blues instrumental group of 1970, the year they released Look-ka Py Py. Ben Sandmel, in his liner notes for the album's 1990 Rounder reissue, quoted Porter's recollection about the disc's percolating title track: the key riff came "from a burnt piston in the engine of our van," the bassist revea led. "It kept going 'ooka-she-uh, ooka-she-ah,' over and over. Leo and Zig started singing along to it, and beating on the seats. Zig would beat on the roof, too, 'cause it had such a great bass drum sound. Then Art started singing 'bom she bom bom,' and we worked the whole thing out right there in the van."
This anecdote speaks volumes about the intuitive group process that listeners found so compelling in the Meters, who signed on with Reprise Records in 1972. Though their debut on the label, Cabbage Alley, fared poorly, the ir 1974 album Rejuvenation---a Toussaint-produced effort---became something of an instant classic. "Although the Meters draw freely from a variety of sources, they make a music uniquely their own," enthused Jim Miller of Rolling Stone, adding that the recording "shows off the full extent of the Meters' skills, by including ballads as well as extended improvisation." Sampled frequently by hip-hop DJs, Rejuvenation included suc h classic tracks as "Jungle Man" and "Africa."
Reached Tenuous Heights
In between these Reprise albums, the Meters backed up New Orleans pianist Dr. John on an album that included the hit "Right Place, Wrong Time," and also backed Robert Palmer on Sneakin' Sally Through the Alley. The year 19 75 saw the Meters expand to a quintet with the addition of Cyril Neville, the youngest of the Neville boys, on percussion and vocals. Around that time, the band also performed at a lavish Los Angeles bash hosted by ex-Beatle Paul McCartney, and landed a h igh-profile opening spot on that year's tour by British rock superstars the Rolling Stones. All this success, Art Neville regretfully explained in Musical Gumbo, affected the easy chemistry of the Josie days. "Some of the attitu des changed," the organist recalled. "You know, heads went to swelling up." Various band members had begun using drugs as well.
Toussaint and Sehorn continued to profit from their management of the Meters, collecting publishing rights and royalties from Reprise and paying the group only after recording and other expenses had been recouped. The Meters' 1975 album, Fire on the Bayou, sold insufficiently to put them in the black, and they fared no better with the following year's Trick Bag. In 1977 the Meters recorded what would be their final album, New Dire ctions, produced without Toussaint; that same year they were bumped from the television program Saturday Night Live's Mardi Gras installment.
The Meters soon broke up and descended into a protracted legal battle over ownership of the band's name and rights to their recordings. Periodic reunions occurred, and the litigation was ultimately concluded with all parties but Modeliste satisfied. The drummer was replaced by David Russell Batiste. Modeliste and Nocentelli also performed together periodically in the ensuing years (sometimes as "Zig and Leo"), while Porter, like his bandmates, became a respected session player. Art and Cyril joined Aaron and the rest of the Neville Brothers, who became a much more financially successful act than the Meters had ever been.
Yet the Meters left a profound legacy, marked in part by several dozen samples, many of them uncredited, that appeared on hip-hop recordings. Rounder's early 1990s reissues Look-ka Py Py, The Meters Jam, and Good Old Funky Music provide ample evidence of what latter-day funkateers like the Red Hot Chili Peppers had been saying all along: that the New Orleans foursome had been an integral and largely overlooked part of funk history. "Acts as diver se as the Jackson Five, George Clinton and his Funkadelic colleagues, and Prince clearly listened well to the sinuous syncopations of the Meters," attested authors Lichtenstein and Dankner. And as Sandmel declared in his liner notes, "Few other bands hav e ever balanced such subtle understatement and suspenseful use of silence with such powerful, creative funk." The writer went on to offer a tempting challenge to listeners: "Just try to keep still once the music starts."
Reunited in 2000
That had always been a challenge during the Meters' live appearances as well, and the lure of a Meters reunion occasionally proved to be too much for the original members to resist. The most notable reunion came on November 11, 2000, at San Francisc o's Warfield Theatre, after a reconciliation among the group members at the 1999 New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival. The Meters' drawing power was such that 2,200 tickets at a minimum price of $85 each sold out quickly. A follow-up concert in Memphis the following April fell through, but further reunions, conditional on the fragile health of keyboardist Art Neville, were discussed.
The Meters' name also lived on after the formation in 1994 of the Funky Meters, a group featuring Porter and Art Neville, along with new drummer Batiste and former Neville Brothers' guitarist Brian Stoltz. That ensemble toured widely in the 1990s and early 2000s, playing a circuit of large theaters and dance halls like Chicago's House of Blues and San Francisco's Fillmore. The Funky Meters recorded an album, Fiyo at the Fillmore, in 2001. In 2004 they participa ted in a "Make It Funky" concert at the Saenger Theatre in New Orleans, which was filmed for later release as a documentary that surveyed the history of modern New Orleans music. A segment of the concert and film were devoted to the Funky Meters, an appro priate honor for a band that had become a true New Orleans funk tradition.
by Simon Glickman and James M. Manheim
The Meters's Career
Group formed in New Orleans, LA, 1967; worked as session players for Sansu Records; released instrumental single "Sophisticated Cissy," 1967; signed with Josie Records, released debut album, Cissy Strut, 1969; signed with Reprise Records, released Cabbage Alley, 1972; backed such artists as Lee Dorsey, Pointer Sisters, Neville Brothers, Dr. John, and Robert Palmer, 1960s-1970s; toured with Rolling Stones, 1975; disbanded, 1977; Art a nd Cyril Neville joined Neville Brothers, 1977; reunited periodically with various personnel, 1980s and 1990s; Art Neville and George Porter formed the Funky Meters with David Batiste and Brian Stoltz, 1994; original Meters held major reunion concert, San Francisco, 2000; Funky Meters recorded Fiyo at the Fillmore, 2001.
The Meters's Awards
Named Best Rhythm and Blues Instrumental Group by Billboard and Record World magazines, 1970.
- Selected discography
- Cissy Strut Josie, 1969.
- Look-ka Py Py Josie, 1970, reissued, Rounder, 1990.
- Struttin' Josie, 1970.
- Cabbage Alley Reprise, 1972.
- Rejuvenation Reprise, 1974.
- Fire on the Bayou Reprise, 1975.
- Trick Bag Reprise, 1976.
- New Directions Reprise, 1977.
- Good Old Funky Music Rounder, 1990.
- The Meters Jam Rounder, 1990.
- Uptown Rulers: The Meters Live on the Queen Mary Rounder, 1990.
- Fundamentally Funky Charly, 1994.
- Funkify Your Life: The Meters Anthology Rhino, 1995.
- (As the Funky Meters) Fiyo at the Fillmore Too Funky, 2003.
- Also appeared on recordings by Lee Dorsey, Ernie K-Doe, the Pointer Sisters, Dr. John, the Neville Brothers, Robert Palmer, and others.
- Lichtenstein, Grace, and Laura Dankner, Musical Gumbo: The Music of New Orleans, Norton, 1993.
- Rees, Dafydd, and Luke Crampton, Rock Movers & Shakers, Billboard, 1991.
- Cash Box, June 9, 1990.
- Down Beat, December 1990.
- Guitar Player, April 1991.
- Melody Maker, May 29, 1976.
- Rocky Mountain News (Denver, CO), March 8, 1996, p. D16.
- Rolling Stone, May 11, 1972; September 12, 1974; September 8, 1977; August 8, 1991.
- Times-Picayune (New Orleans, LA), November 15, 2000, p. Living-1; April 27, 2001, p. Lagniappe-12; October 26, 2001, p. Lagniappe-24; May 2, 2003, p. Lagniappe-12; April 27, 2004, p. Living-12.
- "Biography," Funky Meters Official Website, http://www.funkymeters.com (December 14, 2004).
- "The Funky Meters," William Morris Agency, http://www.wma.com/funky-meters/summary (December 14, 2004).
- "The Meters," All Music Guide, http://www.allmusic.com (December 14, 2004).
- Additional information for this profile was obtained from liner notes by Ben Sandmel to Look-ka Py Py, Rounder Records, 1990.
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