Keyboardist, singer and New Orleans music icon Art Neville would have turned 84 on Friday, Dec. 17, 2021. Though he died in 2019 — on Valence Street, where he was raised — his immeasurable contributions to the fabric of New Orleans music have cemented his lasting presence in the city’s culture.
It may be impossible to overstate The Meters’ influence on contemporary music, particularly in New Orleans, where keyboardist and singer Arthur “Poppa Funk” Neville Jr., and the band he put together with bassist George Porter Jr., guitarist Leo Nocentelli and drummer Joseph “Zigaboo” Modeliste, are rightfully revered as icons.
Their pioneering approach to funk was built on a gritty, bottom-up sound, with deeper-than-deep pockets, unexpected grooves and a shared, seemingly elastic sense of time that allowed them to play off of one another’s individual genius like no other quartet.
The resulting sound shaped virtually every shred of funk you’ll find in New Orleans today, along with a large portion of the hip-hop world, which continues to sample their seminal recordings extensively. In other words, there’s a reason we call him “Poppa Funk.”
But music is an amalgam of sounds, stories, people, politics, memory and more, all bound up in a package with roots in specific times and places. There’s a path that leads to the music itself. A closer look at that larger landscape gives us new layers to unfurl and stories to unravel within the music. It asks what those narratives are all about, what makes them reverberate and inspire even after their creators are gone.
When it comes to The Meters, that path begins in Uptown.
“I got it from the neighborhood, where I lived, man.”
That’s how Neville explained the inspiration that fueled his creative output in a 2005 interview with Offbeat’s John Swenson.
“I just listened to everything around me, and I’m about 10 years older than the other guys in the Meters and I guess that gave me an edge, although they all listened to basically all the same things I did.”
In a city where neighborhood allegiances have run deep and fierce for a century or more, The Meters’ Uptown heritage becomes an essential, even defining, characteristic of the band and its members.
Located upriver from Canal Street and stretching past the universities to the far Western edge of Orleans Parish, Uptown New Orleans began as a series of plantations and farms that depended on an increasingly cosmopolitan and financially viable port city, whose center was the French Quarter.
Over time, that land beyond the Quarter and its immediate surroundings was subdivided, sold and incorporated into small cities, with property boundaries laying the general foundation for roads. As what would become the different neighborhoods of Uptown developed independently, so, too, did the character and vibe of those sections.
That evolution of distinct neighborhood vibes shows up throughout New Orleans culture, including the Black masking traditions of the Mardi Gras Indian community and the Social Aid and Pleasure Club parades that have lured “second lines” of dancing, boozing revelers behind them since the 1800s.
Born out of early benevolent societies, SAPCs are neighborhood organizations that formed to provide community services ranging from support for the elderly to care for the sick to funerals.
At the clubs’ annual street parades through the neighborhoods where they’re based, sharply suited members strut their stuff ahead of a brass band. Different clubs create different styles of sashes, banners, umbrellas and fans, employing styles or colors that are unique to their own traditions. They also tend to hire brass bands that suit the members’ taste and style, with more traditional organizations opting for more traditional music and more dance-focused clubs picking bands that can play up their best dancers’ moves.
Black Indian masking traditions developed along neighborhood lines, too.
Uptown Indians — including the Nevilles’ uncle, Big Chief Jolly of the Wild Tchoupitoulas — traditionally create handmade costumes decorated heavily with ribbons. They use flat patches whose intricate beadwork reflects a narrative, often one that’s rooted in Native American history.
Downtown tribes, meanwhile, are known for building three-dimensional patches and headdresses.
All of this feeds into the culture out of which The Meters and their sound were born. And you don’t get The Meters without Valence Street and the Thirteenth Ward, so that’s where this tour begins.
Napoleon Avenue cuts a wide swath through the center of Uptown.
For our purposes, Napoleon begins down by the Mississippi River wharves at Tchoupitoulas Street, where The Meters and Neville Brothers would perform regularly after Tipitina’s opened at 501 Napoleon Ave. in 1977. From there, it shoots up past Magazine Street’s bustling shops and busy bars, past the stately homes on St. Charles Avenue and across the South half of Claiborne Avenue, whose North half was still known as the city’s “Black Main Street” when Neville, Porter, Modeliste and Nocentelli were kids.
Napoleon ends at a gazebo-like circle of land in the middle of Broadmoor, technically the last section of Uptown before Mid-City.
The Thirteenth Ward — which Porter often refers to as “Nevilleland” — spans the wedge of Uptown between Napoleon and Jefferson Avenues, with its riverside boundary at Tchoupitoulas Street opposite a smaller section of South Broad Street on the ward’s lakeside.
Nestled between Prytania and Magazine Streets is Valence Street. That’s where Arthur Neville Sr. (“Big Arthur”), and his wife, Amelia, first settled down and eventually raised their six children. Art (or “Artie”) arrived first, followed by Charles, then Aaron, then Athelgra. Baby brother Cyril came next and the youngest (and first to pass) was Rowena or “Cookie.”
In his autobiography, Inside the Music: The Life of Idris Muhammad, Art and Aaron’s childhood friend, then Leo Morris, describes the Thirteenth Ward below Prytania Street as having been populated largely by “musicians and schoolteachers,” many of whom had children and were generous and “kind.”
He also notes that Prytania Street “divided the white neighborhood from the Black neighborhood,” with the Black residents of the ward occupying the blocks closer to the river.
In 1942, about five years after Art was born, the Nevilles moved into the Calliope Projects in Central City, an experience Art and Aaron have both described in warm and glowing terms over the years.
The then-new housing development, officially known as B.W. Cooper Houses, before it was demolished in the years after Hurricane Katrina, featured “comfortable” homes where everyone knew everyone else, Art told Offbeat in 2003.
But in 1954, the Neville family returned to Valence Street, this time settling down in the camelback-style shotgun double house at 1104 and 1106.
By then, Art was playing music and singing seriously, having found inspiration in established musicians like Professor Longhair as well as his former classmate, James Booker, who he’s credited as the reason he wanted to get behind the keys.
Modeliste, who grew up as a close friend of Art’s younger brother Cyril, would later recall watching Art’s bands practice on the family’s porch.
(Muhammad writes about the rehearsals in his book, too, recalling at one point how he came home from a tour and checked out Art’s band, stunned when he recognized the drummer. It was the “kid” who used to press his face into the screen when he and Art practiced — and the band was about to become The Meters.)
“Arthur Neville’s grandmother owns all these houses on the block,” Muhammad writes of Valence Street.
As he got older, he and Aaron Neville would go to the local YMCA dances when Art was playing, “because we were youngsters, Arthur would let Aaron come up and sing and then he’d let me come up and play the drums.”
Like his cousin, Modeliste, Porter moved to the Thirteenth Ward as a little boy, having relocated from the Tulane-Gravier neighborhood downtown.
(When Neville first hired Porter and Modeliste, he had to ask their moms if they could do the gig.)
Rounding out The Meters’ extended family presence in the Thirteenth Ward in later years was the Nevilles’ uncle, George “Big Chief Jolly” Landry, whose Wild Tchoupitoulas Mardi Gras Indian tribe made the Patio Lounge (now 45 Tchoup) at 4529 Tchoupitoulas St. their home base beginning in 1974.
Neville’s work as a musician began in earnest when he was still in high school, after the keyboardist for a young band called the Hawketts left for a job with Fats Domino.
“I remember the guys in the Hawketts coming back there [to the Calliope] in an old car — George Davis, Carroll Joseph the trombone player, Israel Bell — nicknamed ‘Sticks,’ August Fleury and John Boudreaux,” Neville told Offbeat in 2003. “They heard about me playing around town with another band — Charles’ band, the Turquoise … So the Hawketts came down to the projects and asked me if I would play with them.”
Soon, Neville — and his Thirteenth Ward neighbor, Leo Morris — were traveling around Louisiana and Mississippi.
In 1954, when Neville was just 17, the band cut a Caribbean-inflected R&B cover of “Mardi Gras Mambo,” featuring his lead vocals.
It was Neville’s first local hit. It was also the first but not the last time he would be victimized by a recording industry that often failed to compensate artists adequately, if at all — particularly if they were Black.
“We never got paid one penny,” Neville said of the track.
The Hawketts owe at least some of their success/ability to record to the New Orleans recording industry’s first major pioneers, the first being Cosimo Matassa, who would go on to work regularly with Neville as The Meters came into existence the following decade.
In the late ’40s, Matassa began using his father’s jukebox shop at 838 N. Rampart St. as a used records store. Sales were strong, so Matassa upped his game, installed recording equipment. By 1947, Paul Gayten had a hit he recorded at J&M. But the first landmark recording at Cosimo’s (as it was called), came from a December 1949 recording cut by Fats Domino and producer Dave Bartholomew called “The Fat Man.” The record was a No. 1 hit on the national R&B charts by early 1950, and helped put the sound of early New Orleans R&B — with its second line rhythms, hard-hitting, Earl King-perfected backbeat and Professor Longhair-inspired, boogie-woogie-meets Caribbean piano style — at the forefront of American music’s road to rock ’n’ roll.
“[Matassa] developed what is known as the ‘Cosimo Sound,’ which [was] strong drums, heavy bass, light piano, heavy guitar, light horn, and a strong vocal lead,” Malcolm “Mac” Rebennack, aka Dr. John, explains in John Broven’s Rhythm and Blues in New Orleans. “That was what eventually came to be known as the New Orleans sound.”
As Matassa and the seemingly unstoppable Domino-Bartholomew duo continued recording at J&M over the next few years, artists from across the country took note, including Little Richard, who cut 1955’s “Tutti Frutti” at the studio shortly before Matassa relocated to a larger space on Gov. Nicholls Street in 1956.
All of this helped set the stage for Neville to score touring work with singer Larry Williams and solo contracts in the mid-’50s with the Specialty and Instant labels.
He didn’t see the kind of success with smaller hits like “Cha-Dooky Doo” that the Hawketts’ “Mardi Gras Mambo” had. But after a stint with the U.S. Navy in 1958 and a tour with his brother Aaron, Art’s music career – and the path to what would become The Meters, quickly picked up.
After Art’s tour with Aaron ended, he resumed his own music, hand-picking a band he’d call Art Neville and the Neville Sounds (later shortened to Art Neville and the Sounds).
It featured Leo Nocentelli, a fiery and imaginative guitarist and a prolific music composer who’d been working steadily with Toussaint in the early ‘’60s, recording at Matassa’s for Lee Dorsey, Ernie K-Doe and others.
Cousins Porter and Modeliste became the rhythm section, with Porter joining first.
With its relaxed liquor laws and sheer volume of musical talent, the New Orleans club scene was a magnetic culture of its own from the time Neville, Porter, Nocentelli and Modeliste were children well into their years as The Meters.
And for countless New Orleans musicians from the 1940s through the 1960s, the Dew Drop Inn was Ground Zero for all things rhythm and blues.
A mixed-use establishment operated by Frank Painai beginning in 1938, the club included a hotel where traveling Black artists — including Ray Charles — often stayed while in town.
The Dew Drop showcased acts touring the “Chitlin Circuit,” Black clubs across the South where touring artists from B.B. King to Duke Ellington could safely perform. It also incubated and helped establish young local artists, giving musicians like Deacon John Moore and, at one point, George Porter, opportunities to play in the house band.
In addition to musicians, the Dew Drop booked a wild mix of performers with vaudevillian flair like Peg Leg Bates, who mesmerized audiences by tap dancing on one leg, burlesque dancers, comedy acts and more.
Painia also allowed white music fans inside, which often got him arrested. After 1964’s Civil Rights Act, he started fighting back, and even won in 1967 when he sued the city for shutting him down because he had Black and white patrons inside at once.
The Dew Drop was part of a network of Central City clubs and lounges that also included the Nite Cap. Located at 1700 Louisiana Ave., it was more funk and soul-focused and served as the home of Art Neville and the Sounds’ first regular gigs.
Allen Toussaint stopped in to see them occasionally, but the band didn’t crystallize until they landed a gig at the Ivanhoe — six nights a week, right on Bourbon Street at the corner of Toulouse. The club was looking for a smaller lineup, so Art pared the band down to himself, Porter, Modeliste and Nocentelli.
Nearby, Fats Domino was playing regularly at Al Hirt’s Club, you could catch Benny Spellman at Dreamland and Clarence “Frogman” Henry was showing off his frog voice bit at Club 577.
By then, Toussaint was running his Sansu record label with Marshall Sehorn over at 1211 St. Philip St. in the Treme, and Cosimo Matassa was churning out more hits at his new Jazz City studio at 748 Camp Street. It wasn’t long before Toussaint approached Neville about studio work and brought the band into his Sansu fold as the house band.
A July 19, 1968, Art Neville and the Sounds set, documented in the book Soul Music Odyssey USA 1968 by Jonas Bernholm, showed early hints of what would appear on the group’s first eponymous albums — a mix of instrumental originals and creative takes on classic.
Their set that night included funkified hits like “Hang On Sloopy” and “Watermelon Man,” plus “Bo Diddley, Part 1 and 2,” “La La Means I Love You.” Near the end of the set, they played “Hold On, I’m Coming,” which may or may not have been because Aaron was expected to sit in and sing, but reportedly never showed up.
As they continued to churn out backing tracks and jams for Toussaint’s artists in Matassa’s Uptown studio, the band’s Ivanhoe work gave them the direction, inspiration and fan base they needed to record something of their own.
Eventually, Art Neville and the Sounds changed their name and got to work on their first record there at 748 Camp St.
They called it, “The Meters.”