The Meters’ Resilient New Orleans Funk

‘Rejuvenation’ captured the apex of the band’s jam sessions and expansive grooves

On November 23, 2021

New Orleans’ resilience is thanks to its music. The rich culture of the city would not exist without its deep musical traditions, and its musical traditions are just as dependent on the makeup of the place. Its songs are a reflection of its heritage (African, Caribbean, Creole, French, Native American) as well as the sounds of its streets (second lines, Mardi Gras parades, regional dialects, buskers). It’s the birthplace of jazz, but the origins of R&B, rock ’n’ roll and funk can be found in the rhythms, swagger and heart of its people. Though New Orleans has just under 400,000 people, the musicians here have always punched above their weight. These artists are consistently at the cutting edge and consistently steeped in history. If you look, you can see a throughline from Louis Armstrong to Professor Longhair and Fats Domino, from Allen Toussaint and Dr. John to Trombone Shorty and Jon Batiste.

No act encapsulates this better than The Meters: the immensely talented, criminally underrated and staggeringly influential funk group whose core members consisted of keyboardist and organist Art Neville, drummer Joseph “Zigaboo” Modeliste, bassist George Porter Jr. and guitarist Leo Nocentelli. Woefully underappreciated by the mainstream during their eight-album run from 1969 to 1977, the band bridged the gap between the then-fading popularity of New Orleans R&B and the new-era funk and rock ’n’ roll. This is the group that in 1976 Rolling Stone, for good reason, called “the finest performing American band.”

Anchored by seamless jam sessions and syncopated grooves, which Neville would call “tight, sparse and funky as the fuckin’ devil,” The Meters evolved from unfussy, mostly instrumental tracks to full-throated, expansive funk that reached an apex on their fifth album, Rejuvenation, in 1974. Though the story of The Meters can’t be told without mentioning the missed opportunities, the tension between its members, the bad business decisions and their labels’ lackluster promotion, this record is a document of four musicians at the peak of their chemistry. With deep-fried grooves, astounding musicianship and a reverence for their history both in New Orleans and in Africa, this album feels more vital with age. While it didn’t sell as many copies as it deserved to at the time, the record is a product of these band members’ years of hard work gigging in sweaty night clubs, backing up other artists as session players and persevering in a thankless industry. Above all, Rejuvenation is a testament to New Orleans.

The story of The Meters begins at 1016 Valence St., a shotgun cottage on a cobblestone street in the 13th Ward in Uptown, New Orleans. Art Neville was born here in 1937, the oldest of six children (his brothers Charles, Aaron and Cyril would also become New Orleans music legends, with the youngest, Cyril, even joining The Meters full-time). A bookish sci-fi nerd, Art was exposed to music everywhere. Though his parents didn’t play any instruments, his father was fishing buddies with Smiley Lewis, who would later cut ’50s R&B hits like “I Hear You Knockin’” at Cosimo Matassa’s iconic J&M Studios. His Uncle Jolly, a Mardi Gras Indian, Big Chief of New Orleans band The Wild Tchoupitoulas, played piano like Professor Longhair. When his aunt took him to sweep floors at Trinity Methodist Church, Neville found a pipe organ and began playing. “I hit a key and — boom! — the sound nearly knocked me down,” said Neville in The Brothers: An Autobiography. “What I heard wasn’t the voice of God, it was the voice of music — but it might as well have been the same thing. That sound turned me around. After that sound, everything changed.”

Neville’s family moved from Valence to the Calliope housing projects, where his earliest musical obsession was Fats Domino, and he attended elementary school with future piano greats James Booker and Allen Toussaint. He spent his childhood buying 78s and going to dances where, instead of dancing, he spent his time watching the piano players perform. When his parents gave him permission, he’d sneak into the Dew Drop Inn, a nightclub and early hotbed of New Orleans R&B and counterculture. Neville started bands — first The Turquoises and then the doo-wop group Gay Notes — and when his family moved back to Valence Street, he joined the R&B group The Hawketts as lead singer and piano player. His first recording with The Hawketts, which he cut in 1954 when he was just 17, was a cover of the Frankie Adams and Lou Welsch-penned country tune “Mardi Gras Mambo.” That track is still a Carnival staple and a bona fide local hit over half a century later.

Though that single gained steam, the royalty checks largely missed Neville, thanks to draconian recording contracts. So, Neville grinded in the ’50s, recording when he could (his 1958 single “Cha Dooky-Doo” was another hit) and joining the touring bands of players like Larry Williams before being drafted into the Navy as an aviation mechanic. Upon his return, he signed with Instant Records and began working with producer Allen Toussaint on songs like “All These Things” in 1961, which hit No. 1 in New Orleans.

“The truth is that I didn’t see a cent in royalties,” Neville recalled. “I had to get a day job. While ‘All These Things’ was being played all over town, I was running an elevator at [Godchaux’s], an upscale department store on Canal Street.”

With The Hawketts, Neville wanted something more in their sound. Inspired by Memphis’ Booker T. & the M.G.’s’ hard-edged soul music, he saw the writing on the wall. “It was all instrumental, all low-key, but funky enough to burn the barn down,” Neville said. “I liked the simple instrumentation. Nothing more than a rhythm section — keyboard, guitar, bass and drums.” When his brother Aaron also scored a hit with Toussaint in 1966’s “Tell It Like It Is,” Art joined the tour. Once they returned, Art started a new band with his brothers Aaron and Cyril called Art Neville and the Neville Sounds. It was the earliest incarnation of The Meters: second cousins George Porter Jr. and Joseph “Zigaboo” Modeliste on bass and drums, respectively; Gary Brown on sax and downtown kid Leo Nocentelli on guitar.

Their first shows at the Nite Cap, near the 13th Ward, were electric.

“Night after night, month after month, the crowds got bigger as the grooves got grittier,” Neville remembered. “The walls of the joint were wet with sweat. My dream band was taking off.” When a better gig came along at Bourbon Street’s Ivanhoe Piano Bar, the club’s small bandstand forced Neville to streamline the group, kicking out his brothers and Brown in favor of the four-piece rhythm section.

“Because I’m a percussive keyboardist, and because Zig and Leo and George are so inventive rhythmically, the groove became king,” Neville said of those early jammed-out gigs. “Left to their own devices, the boys might go into Miles Davis or Wes Montgomery. But I had to have it simpler than that. My job was to get down and stay down.”

The Ivanhoe residency bolstered their bond. “We played as free as we wanted,” Porter Jr. said in the essential history book Up From the Cradle of Jazz: New Orleans Music Since World War II. “No one was restricted. We didn’t say, ‘Hey, brother, you got to play this and you’ve got to play that.’ Everybody just felt good and comfortable. Really, playing the gig at the Ivanhoe was the thing that got us tight, ’cause we were playing six nights a week.” During this time, Neville reunited with Toussaint and his business partner Marshall Sehorn at their Sansu Label, bringing his bandmates along to work as the backing studio band for artists like Betty Harris and Lee Dorsey.

While the group cut solo tunes for Neville in “Bo Diddley (Part 1)” and “Bo Diddley (Part 2),” they found their session spark when they treated the studio like Ivanhoe. Nocentelli brought a guitar riff that the band had used for warm-ups, which quickly morphed into their signature song, “Cissy Strut.” The bass and guitar mirror each other in the main riff while Modeliste’s drum beat acts as the lead instrument. Neville’s organ stays subdued, but his flourishes round out the groove. “Early in the game, I learned not to get in the way,” Neville explained. “They say silence is golden. Well, I applied that saying to music. Some musicians play a lot of notes … I’d lay back and let the singer or guitarist or saxophonist lead. I’d never play over him. I’d play around him. A note here. A lick there. I’d come at it from an angle.”

This is the alchemy that turned Art Neville and the Neville Sounds into The Meters. In 1969 The Meters boasted singles like “Cissy Strut” and “Sophisticated Cissy,” which both got Top 10 spots on the Billboard New Soul chart, formerly the R&B chart. Though Toussaint was credited as producer, his approach was very hands-off compared to his other productions, letting The Meters cook.

“I can’t think of a group who needed less production help than The Meters,” Neville said. “Put us in the studio, turn on the lights, and let us do the rest. You might see other people’s names as producers on our records, but let me assure you — we were our own built-in writers-producers.” They followed-up The Meters with 1969’s Look-Ka Py Py and 1970’s Struttin’, the latter including the bonkers single “Chicken Strut,” which found Neville doing rooster calls, sounds he picked up from walking the New Orleans streets as a kid.

With “Chicken Strut” gaining steam, a dispute among The Meters about whether or not to sign with Otis Redding’s manager, Phil Walden, led to Neville’s brief departure. It didn’t last. When The Meters were picked up by Warner Brothers subsidiary Reprise, the deal was contingent on bringing Art back into the fold. (The Meters’ old label, Josie, went bankrupt and owed the band substantial royalties). Their Reprise debut, 1972’s Cabbage Alley, was a stark departure from their largely instrumental catalog so far. While the grooves were still there — anchored with a Caribbean flavor from a trip to Trinidad and Tobago — Neville’s vocals took a much more prominent role. Named after a 13th Ward backstreet, the album includes the gritty and driving “Stay Away” and the reggae-inflected “Soul Island.”

"Anchored by seamless jam sessions and syncopated grooves, which Neville would call 'tight, sparse and funky as the fuckin’ devil,' The Meters evolved from unfussy, mostly instrumental tracks to full-throated, expansive funk that reached an apex on their fifth album, 'Rejuvenation,' in 1974."

Though the record was another modest seller, it attracted the attention of Dr. John, who enlisted The Meters as his backing band for the Toussaint-produced 1973 LP In the Right Place. During this time, Toussaint was building a swanky new studio called Sea-Saint, New Orleans’ most high-tech facility at the time. On Rejuvenation, one of the first releases recorded there, the band sounds crisper and more massive than ever.

“We were definitely back in the groove, bad vibes replaced by a group consciousness that went right to the heart of New Orleans merrymaking,” Neville said. “Leo, Zig, George and I had buried our differences in the cemetery of our city’s musical ghosts.” The LP has so much of the musical formula that’s made New Orleans so vital over the past century: booming horn sections, bruising R&B piano, African-inspired production, heartfelt soul ballads and a whole lot of funk.

Perhaps the most important ingredient both to Rejuvenation and to Neville himself is the Mardi Gras Indian chant turned into the album’s most enduring track, “Hey Pocky A-Way.” The origins of the song date back to Neville’s childhood in the Calliope. “I can hear ‘Hey Pocky A-Way,’ a chant echoing through the projects,” Neville remembered. “Me and Charles would bang out the beat on cigar boxes in the window. Don’t ask me where the groove came from, but, bro, that groove followed me around my whole life. It’s still with me.” Neville’s playing on the track is electric, and the jam echoes the kinetic intensity of a Mardi Gras Indian parade. They chant on the track, “Big Chief / Spy Boy / Uptown Ruler,” referencing the roles New Orleans tribes take on. The song remains a New Orleans hit and would serve as the basis for the celebrated and groundbreaking 1976 The Wild Tchoupitoulas LP The Meters and the Neville brothers would record with Neville’s uncle, Big Chief Jolly.

While The Meters hinted at adding in some pop to the swaggering struts of their jams on Cabbage Alley, they perfected this on Rejuvenation. Songs like the piano-led “Loving You Is On My Mind” are pure bliss, while the understated, heartfelt ballad “Love Is For Me” shows a softer side of the band. Even with these ebullient hooks, The Meters never lost their edge throughout the nine tracks. “Just Kissed My Baby” is simmering funk with Neville’s organ dancing around the beat.

“Musicians talk about ‘the one,’ the primary beat,” Neville said. “Man, I never knew where the one was. So my sense of syncopation was all screwed up. As a kid, that felt weird, but as I grew up, I came to appreciate how I kept time. It was different, and no one could say it wasn’t funky.”

Rejuvenation is The Meters at their funkiest. Songs like “What’cha Say” and the sprawling “It Ain’t No Use” find the band locked into their gnarliest grooves, stretching out each knotty beat with abandon. The record also showcased heightened political sensibility in The Meters oeuvre. On the surging “People Say,” they sing, “The rich are getting richer / And the poor are getting poor / People say, people say / Have I got a right to live?” As men who grew up in segregated New Orleans, where clubs weren’t allowed to integrate their crowds, and dealt with a racist, murderous police department that still terrorizes the community, their words have gravitas. On the final track, “Africa,” with its lines, “Take me back to the motherland,” The Meters cap the LP with even more resonance.

This album is the distillation of everything that makes The Meters great, but when it was released, it didn’t make a splash when it came to sales. However, it did lead to more prominent session work with Robert Palmer’s hit cover of “Sneakin’ Sally Through The Alley,” as well as tours with King Biscuit Boy and, most notably, The Rolling Stones, which made Cyril Neville a full-time Meter. In 1975, while recording their Venus and Mars album with Wings and Allen Toussaint in New Orleans, Paul and Linda McCartney invited The Meters to play its release party on the Queen Mary boat in Long Beach, California. Their set was stunning, with everyone from a young Michael Jackson to Cher to Joni Mitchell tearing up the dancefloor.

Though the biggest stars in the world were taking notice, the press was giving the band good reviews and The Meters were transfixing audiences across North America, their follow-up, 1975’s Fire On the Bayou, didn’t crack 100,000 sales — not great numbers by the standards of the day. “At the time Warner was not able to do what they had to do with those records because they didn’t have a Black music department,” Rupert Surcouf, The Meters’ then-road manager, said in Up From the Cradle of Jazz. Attempting to build on the hype from The Rolling Stones tour, Reprise released an unauthorized LP called Trickbag full of demos, which angered the band. By 1977, their final album, New Directions, was released after Neville had left the band before a Saturday Night Live gig, and The Meters had to call it quits.

While Art and Cyril reunited with Aaron and Charles to form The Neville Brothers and achieve pop success, each former member of The Meters became in-demand players. Nocentelli toured with Jimmy Buffett, Porter Jr. recorded with David Byrne and Tori Amos, while Modeliste went on the road with Keith Richards and Ron Wood. After The Meters disbanded, their influence was felt almost everywhere, not just in the disco records that aped their grooves. They became one of the most sampled artists in hip-hop with Public Enemy, Timbaland and many others taking on cuts from Rejuvenation (not to mention even more prominent flips on their older songs like “Cissy Strut” and “Hand Clapping Song.”) In 1985, the Red Hot Chili Peppers covered “Africa” on the George Clinton-produced Freaky Styley. Though they’ve yet to be inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, they’ve been nominated four times.

Despite their differences in creative direction, money or music, The Meters didn’t stay apart for good, reuniting for one-off shows, especially at New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival, several times before Art Neville passed away in 2019. That original magic, like the charm of New Orleans itself, kept bringing these four musicians back together. “The Meters had a kind of organized freedom I’d never felt before in a band,” Neville said. “I liked how we never rehearsed and never practiced. It was good to get back to all that spontaneous combustion.” Rejuvenation is that sound, the explosive energy of a jam and the catharsis of musical chemistry.

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Josh Terry

Chicago-based music journalist Josh Terry has been covered music and culture for a number of publications since 2012. His writing has been featured in Noisey, Rolling Stone, Complex, Vice, Chicago Magazine, The A.V. Club and others. At Vinyl Me, Please, he interviews artists for his monthly Personal Playlist series.

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VOL № E108 — December 2021

Rejuvenation

The Meters

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