Used with Leo Nocentelli
A walk through the used record bins of some of the country’s finest music stores with musicians, both famous and infamous.
There's a scene in the 1988 Blaxploitation spoof classic "I'm Gonna Git You Sucka" in which Jack Spade, played by Keenen Ivory Wayans, turns to his crime-fighting mentor John Slade as they walk down the street and asks who the musicians are trailing behind them.
"My theme music," says Slade, played by Bernie Causey. "Every good hero should have some."
I've always wanted to have some theme music. Michael Jackson's Thriller album served as theme music to my elementary school years, much to the dismay of my siblings as they endured sing-a-alongs to "Billie Jean" and "Beat It" on long car trips in the family station wagon. I went through a short Jimmy Buffett stint in the 80s, a requirement for any Florida native, which ended with his crappy Hot Water album. As I grew older, my musical tastes changed. Zeppelin, Clapton, The Black Crowes, the Dead and the Allman Brothers Band soon became constant musical companions in my life, mostly a result of my older brothers' music collections.
Sometime during high school, I was flipping through my dad's CDs and ran across Funkify Your Life: The Meters Anthology. I'm not exactly sure what it was that drew me to the New Orleans born-and-bred funk masters at first. George Porter Jr. was obviously an amazing bass player, Joseph "Zigaboo" Modeliste was the pioneer of second-line drumming and Art Neville's vocals and organ playing was silky smooth. But I think it was the guitar playing of Leo Nocentelli the lean, bouncing solos and catchy, flowing melodies that really caught my ear. I had found my theme music.
So when I was offered an opportunity to talk music with Nocentelli, I was pumped. Unforeseen problems with directions and traffic resulted in the guitarist arriving at the store nearly 45 minutes late, but as we walked down Haight Street towards Amoeba in the California sunshine, I couldn't help but think of the guitar legend and his bandmates walking a step or two behind me, cranking out a "Cissy Strut" as I arrived on the scene to kick some ass, Shaft style.
Swaggering into Used Jazz, Nocentelli heads straight over to Kenny Burrell when I ask about some of his early guitar influences.
"Before Kenny Burrell, I listened to a lot of Johnny Smith," Nocentelli says. "I used to sit in my room as a kid and slow down Johnny Smith records so that I could figure out what he was playing. Then, it was Kenny Burrell and Charlie Christian, Wes Montgomery, a little bit of Grant Green, and Hendrix of course…but I mostly developed my own style. I didn't really try and copy anyone else. I wanted to be Leo."
Nocentelli started his career playing guitar with Danny White, a local New Orleans blues singer, but soon joined Art Neville & the Sounds in the early 1960s. The lineup, which featured Neville, Nocentelli, Aaron and Charles Neville on vocals, Zigaboo Modeliste on drums and George Porter Jr. on bass, grew out of informal jam sessions at local French Quarter nightclubs. After spending a few months playing as the Sounds, famed New Orleans producer Allen Toussaint hired the group, without the vocalists, to be the house band for his label Sansu Enterprises and dubbed them the Meters. As the label's house band, the Meters backed recording for the likes of Earl King, Lee Dorsey, Chris Kenner, and Betty Harris, as well as Toussaint himself. In 1969, the group released their self-titled debut album, which included one of the most memorable opening tracks to an album in music history "Cissy Strut."
"The thing is, I wrote Cissy Strut' long before we were the Meters, man," Nocentelli explains. "I think I wrote it back in '64 or 65. I was trying to come up with a tune that had a jazz feel to it. In jazz, a lot of tunes feature the guitarist and bass player playing the same line. You don't see that too much in rock. But that's the thing about that song. The guitar line and bass line are played together, which gives it a unique sound."
1970-1975 is largely considered the apex of the Meters as a band. 1970's Look-Ka Py Py, as well as Rejuvenation (1974) and Fire on the Bayou (1975), are all classic albums and staples of the funk canon. Hits like "Hey Pocky Way", "People Say", "Just Kissed My Baby" and "Look-Ka Py Py" served as the foundation for future Crescent City musicians in search of the funk. Despite the all-inclusive songwriting credits of Modeliste/Neville/Neville/Nocentelli/Porter on the majority of these classic songs, Nocentelli is quick to point out who the main creator and instigator was for much of the Meters' music.
"I was the sole writer on a lot of our songs and was probably too generous in sharing credit on a lot of the others," Nocentelli says. "Most of the time, Zigaboo and I would come up with something and bring it to the rest of the guys. So a lot of those songs are Leo Nocentelli songs. That's why I get so upset when people ask why I'm not playing any other music today, or why I'm just playing Meters songs. That is my music, man. When you hear that music, you know who you're listening to – that's Leo."
The band's live sound from this era is captured on Uptown Rulers: The Meters Live on the Queen Mary, a show recorded on the famous riverboat and hosted by Paul and Linda McCartney. The band shared the stage that night with another of New Orleans favorite sons, Professor Longhair, and regularly played alongside Dr. John, James Booker, and a variety of other New Orleans musicians at the annual Jazz Festival.
"None of those people were really influential on me as a musician because I played with all of them," Nocentelli says. "I played with Fess, played with Dr. John, played with James Booker. I was playing with these guys. If anyone was really influential on me, it was the other guys in the Meters. We were creating music that no one had really done before. The funk was born in New Orleans, and we were there when it started. We were each others biggest influences, I think."
Currently residing in Los Angeles, Nocentelli gigs with his own band around the country, playing Meters songs and some new material he's written since the band's break-up in 1977. The music of the Meters has experienced a renaissance over the last 10 years through sampling by rap and hip-hop artists. Artists such as Ice Cube, Tone Loc, LL Cool J, 2Live Crew, Run DMC, Public Enemy, Tribe Called Quest and The Beastie Boys have all sampled Meters songs for their own hits, a practice that Nocentelli at first despised but has quickly grown to accept.
"At first, these guys were just ripping off people by sampling songs and just taking the music without any compensation," Nocentelli says. "Now, they approach our label and ask for permission to use some of Cissy Strut' or Just Kissed My Baby' for their songs, and they pay us for it. I think it's great. These rap albums go gold and platinum, so it's been a nice way to make a livin' without having to do much. I call it making a livin' out of the mailbox.' So it's good. And it keeps the music of the Meters alive with the younger generation."
Leo’s Picks of the Day
Anything by Johnny Smith
Kenny Burrell, Blue Moods
Jimi Hendrix, Electric Ladyland
Wes Montgomery, The Incredible Jazz Guitar of Wes Montgomery
The Meters, Cissy Strut