Used with George Porter Jr.
A walk through the used record bins of some of the country’s finest music stores with musicians, both famous and infamous.
The term "genius" as it relates to music has been pimped out so often over the years to half-rate hacks and wannabes that the word has lost its Power. Everyone’s a friggin’ Genius these days. Somewhere in the depths of RCA Records, a mildly unhinged A&R rep swears on her blog, Claymaniacs.com, that Clay Aiken is a Genius. It’s goddamn frightening.
I don’t know if George Porter is a Genius. He may very well be. But if you’re into assigning labels, one thing you can say with all certainty about George "Kung Fu" Porter is that he and his band mates in The Meters drummer Joseph "Zigaboo" Modeliste, organist Art Neville and guitarist Leo Nocentelli – were Musical Pioneers that created a whole new category to define their music.
Beginning in the mid-1960s as the house band at the Ivanhoe in New Orleans’ French Quarter, The Meters were the defining voices of funk music. Up the Mississippi in Memphis, Booker T. & the M.Gs were a little tighter, stuck a little closer to the middle of the road; out in San Francisco, Sly and the Family Stone were a little spacier, a little more psychedelic. The Meters were off the road and in the swamp those thick, dirty grooves driven by the fonky pocket created by the Porter/Modeliste rhythm section were infectious and made you move your butt. Even more remarkable was Porter’s ability as a bass player to cover the bottom end while at the same time shooting countermelodies at Nocentelli, providing the guitarist with another sparring partner along with Neville on the Hammond B3. The Meters’ music was and still is instantly recognizable as New Orleans funk, providing a blueprint for the generations of musicians that followed them out of the Crescent City.
"I came from the school where less is best," Porter says. "The guys who taught me to play – Earl King and Benjamin Poppy’ Frances believed that a strong pocket creates space for everyone else. I played a whole shitload of notes when I was starting out, but that’s all it was a bunch of notes. Then I learned to pick my spots and really listen to everyone else. I can still get busy when I have to, but if everyone on the stage is talking at the same time, nobody’s really getting heard."
Ironically enough, despite his prowess with the four-string, Porter’s first instrument wasn’t the bass. In fact, it wasn’t even his second.
"I started out playing piano and keyboards as a kid and then switched to guitar," he says as we step into the fevered chaos of consumerism that is Amoeba Music on a Saturday afternoon. "I was in grammar school at the time, but they didn’t have guitars in the music program there so I played drums in the school band. Later on, I switched over to playing bass."
Porter got his start on piano through a love for New Orleans’ famed pianists Fats Domino, James Booker, Eddie Bo and the immortal Henry Roeland Byrd, aka Professor Longhair. Eventually, the bassist shared the stage with the Professor and backed him on his 1978 European tour.
"Fess always liked me," Porter says with a grin. "I think it was mostly because I never got in the way of his left hand. A piano player’s left hand is the hand he plays the low notes, the bass notes, with. I knew Fess had a strong left hand, but there were many great bass players back then that played with Fess that didn’t stay out of his way and just muddied the whole sound. I learned early on that the best way to play with him was to complement his left hand rather than to try and compete with it. Some of my best memories playing with Fess were when we got into a pocket and he’d look up at me and give me this look like, Oh, ok, you’re following me now?’"
To me, Professor Longhair is a marvelous stylist, an unmistakable sound and feel to his music that when you hear it, you know exactly who it is. While Porter agrees, he believes the difference isn’t in Longhair’s technical ability, but what was in the legendary musician’s heart.
"Those guys loved what they did," he says. "Guys like Fess, James Booker and Mac (Rebennack, aka Dr. John)...none of those guys are technicians, in my opinion. I think those guys were special because they just believed in what they did and they did it every night the best they could. And they knew that what they were doing was important."
If anyone outside the members of The Meters deserves credit for the band’s success, it’s producer Allen Toussiant.
"The thing is, Allen had been listening to us play for two years before he even said hello. He knew what was there," Porter says. "Allen was the person that introduced us to the idea of space and leaving space for one another. When we first started playing with Allen, I was busy, busy, busy, busy. We were all busy, trying to play as many notes as we could play. It was about havin’ chops, you know. Allen took us away from that, man. He’s a great technician in the way that he can go into you and get something out that you didn’t know was there."
Talk of Toussaint eventually turns to The Meters themselves. In interviewing two members of the band over the last year, I’ve discovered an interesting difference in Porter and Nocentelli’s take on the band’s legacy while Nocentelli appeared bitter and discontent, Porter likened the experience to a "lost opportunity."
"In my opinion, the band lost itself when it tried to be like everybody else," he explains. "No one saw it at the time. None of us realized it. We’ll sit around and point fingers at one another for the rest of our lives, but it wasn’t a single person’s fault it was collective. I think we compromised ourselves a little bit on our last records, trying to get the big hit. We were musicians’ musicians, we knew that, but we wouldn’t have minded a hit record. We all lost sight of the end result, and that was the music. I think that’s ultimately why we went our separate ways."
Every great record store has a New Orleans Music section, and Amoeba’s does not disappoint. We flip through some Irma Thomas and discover a Smokey Johnson record, It Ain’t My Fault, that Porter recommends highly.
"This was like the lost sessions of Smokey Johnson," Porter says. "Everyone knew Smokey sang It Ain’t My Fault,’ it was a big hit back then. But this was the other stuff, his other tracks. It didn’t come out on CD until a few years ago, but the stuff on this record is killer. Zigaboo came up under guys like Smokey, so I’d imagine he was a big influence for him."
Ask any New Orleans musician about James Black and most will shake their head in disbelief. Much like Smokey Johnson, there is only one recording of Black as band leader, though he did play drums in the studio for several musicians over his career.
"James Black was from the jazz world of New Orleans," Porter explains. "He was more known in the jazz community because he played with people like Yusef Lateef and Ellis Marsalis. He was an amazing drummer and a really eccentric person. Allen Toussaint once said that James didn’t know how to play the same thing twice. So James took it to heart and went into the studio and recorded some tracks with him playing straight pockets. It was tight, man. Someone told me recently that they released those tracks."
We head over and search through Miscellaneous Bs, only to find the elusive recording, Black’s (I Need) Altitude.
"Funny story about this album," Porter says, furrowing his brow as he flips the CD over to read the credits. "For years, I thought I had the original tapes he recorded the tracks on at Ultrasonic Studios. At least that’s what I thought until now. Back then, he pawned them to me one day for twenty bucks and told me to put them in a safe because they were the masters to his album. He never came back for them, so I just kept them. Still have them. Guess they weren’t the masters, huh?"
George’s Picks of the Day Smokey Johnson, It Ain’t My Fault James Black, (I Need) Altitude Professor Longhair, Crawfish Fiesta Miles Davis, On the Corner Stanley Turrentine