New Orleans legends for more than three decades, the Meters represent the acme of rhythmic bands from the seventies. Led by Art Neville, The Meters’ history is New Orleans’ funk history; their singles represent its milestones.
The Meters Origins
The history begins in 1967, with the group ‘Art Neville and the Neville Sounds’, formed by Art (singer and keyboards) Cyril and Aaron (vocalists) Neville, Leo Nocentelli (guitarist), George Porter Jr. (bass) and Joseph “Zigaboo” Modeliste (drums). Art, the band leader, was a veteran of the New Orleans’ musical scene: he had been already playing for 15 years and in 1954, still a high school student, he had published the single “Mardi Gras Mambo” with the Hawkettes (the Meters would later insert this song in the “Fire On The Bayou” album).
The Nevilles had already been playing on many different New Orleans stages when they were offered a long term engagement at a club on Bourbon Street. Legend has it there was not enough space to contain all the band on stage, so Art had to lay off his vocalists (and brothers), Cyril and Aaron. After leaving the group, they formed a new band called Soul Machine, while the others kept playing under the name of The Meters, performing as an instrumental-focused group on the New Orleans club circuit.
During one of their shows, Allen Touissant, a local producer, noticed them. He was so impressed, he signed them as the house band of Sansu, the record label he owned with Marshall Sehorn. Thanks to this opportunity, the Meters were able to share a stage with local legends such as Lee Dorsey and Ernie K-Doe with whom they played some of his greatest successes like “Ride your pony” and “Working in the Coal Mine”.
The Meters’ local fame grew quickly, and they soon had the city of New Orleans in their hands.
Becoming a Legend…
The Meters’ big opportunity came in 1969, when they recorded “Sophisticated Cissy”, their first single for Josie records, and inspired by the local drag queens strut. Their popularity went far beyond the New Orleans scene’s borders: ‘Sophisticated’ was an incredible success, reaching the top positions in many charts. In 1969, the Meters recorded 2 more singles, “Cissy Strut” and “Ease Back”, and they both became hits. The same year the band recorded its first LP (“Meters”), containing all the singles published until then plus 6 more songs.
A new era for funk had begun. Art Neville & co. had the great capacity to create a unique sound starting from any band member’s melodic line.
“Cissy” was a Meters-sound concentrate, the synthesis of their revolutionary musical manifesto: juicy guitar riffs interposed by Porter’s deep bass waves, everything was laid over Ziggy’s fat polyrhythmic drums. Neville’s keyboard lines accompanied that explosive mix, never interrupted by human voice.
It was a brand new sound with the echoes of the origins, miles away from Sly Stone’s and James Brown’s dense funk, rich in vocals and arrangements, a musical vision clearly opposite to Stax and Motown records, who were having the greatest success in that period. Never heard The Meters? Maybe you have but didn’t know… the Meters are one of the most frequently sampled bands in modern music.
For instance, the Meters tune “Here come the Metermen” appears on Big Daddy Kane’s “Long Live the Kane”, DJ Shadow’s “Changeling”, Digable Planet’s “Black Ego” and Run DMC’s “How’d You Do it Dee?”. From the same Meters album, the track “Cardova” turns up in NWA’s “She swallowed it” and the Meters “Live Wire” plays out in Gangstarr’s “Cause and effect”.
In 1970 The Meters released the album “Look Ka Py-Py” with tracks like “Look ka Py-Py” (sampled in Cypress Hill’s “The Phunky Feel One” and DJ Shadow’s “Entropy”the single”), “Funky Miracle” (echoing in GangStarr’s “Take a Rest”) and “Little Old Money Maker” (ever hear Kool Moe Dee’s “Rise and Shine” and Ultramagnetic MC’s “Ease Back”?).
That same year, “Chicken Strut” came out. This is for sure the most sampled Meters’ album: in particular “Hand Clapping Song” has inspired artists like A Tribe Called Quest in “Clap Your Hands”, Das EFX in “Klap Your Handz”, Eric B & Rakim in “Put Your Hands Together”, GMarley Marl in “The Symphony, Pt.II” and Redman in “Da Funk”. Another well-sampled track is “Hey, Last Minute”, which inspired Big Daddy Kane’s “Long Live the Kane”, GangStarr’s “Mostly the Voice”, Lord Finesse with “Hands in the Air, Mouth Shut” and Pharcyde’s “On the DL”. Confirming the influence of “Chicken Strut”, in the year of its release The Meters were honored as the best instrumental R&B band by both Billboard and Record World.
The group had talent, it was undeniable they had skills. Alas, the same thing could not be said about their managers: Touissant and Sehorn weren’t able to fully realinze the band’s potential. They consistently booked poor engagements where promoters ran away with the money before the end of the show. And there was more: Touissant and Sehorn owned the band’s recording studio and obtained the rights on all Meters’ songs through strict contractual clauses.
All these constraints made the Meters totally dependant on their managers. This was probably the reason why their relationship lasted for so many years, in spite of everything. In the meantime the situation with the label started becoming more and more strained, turning unbearable in 1972, when the band left Josie records to sign with Warner/Reprise.
In spite of all the differences from the 1970’s, and all the years passed as solo players, none of the original Meters had lost hope of playing together once again. The occasion showed up in 1989 during the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival, where Neville and the others almost casually find themselves playing on the same stage. Evidently the chemistry worked once again: everyone was so satisfied with their sound, the following year they decided to put the group back together. With some changes: Zigaboo was substituted by Russell Batiste, a young drummer full of energy and with his own particular style.
Quarrels on samples royalties caused Nocentelli to left the group in 1993; Brian Stolz, former Neville Brothers guitarist, entered in his place. In 1994 the group changed name: The Meters became The Funky Meters, the name they still tour under today.
You can find many compilations containing Meters’ songs, on Charly Records in England and Rhino in the U.S.. Charly’s collections are usually more expensive (and the Meters don’t get any royalties on them) so my suggestion is to go for the Rhino ones.
The productions with Rounder label mostly contain live sessions played in the seventies and never published before, or just published on 12” (i.e. “Groovy Lady”, “Message from the Meters” and so on), not too bad if you can find them.
The second/third print situation is quite good: the first three albums (the Josie ones, a must have!) have been reprinted on vinyl by Rhino (you can recognize the second prints by the color of the record label, that is yellow instead of the original red/orange) and it’s quite easy to find them in a good record store, the last ones (the Funky Meters production) are available even on CD, as well as all the collections (with the exception of the Virgo one, that is out of print). However, buy a turntable, buy vinyls! So hands on your shovels and start to dig!
Sophisticated Cissy / Sehorns… (Single, Josie 1969)
Cissy strut / Here comes the meterman (single, Josie 1969)
Ease back / Ann (single, Josie 1969)
The Meters (LP, Josie 1969)
Dry spell / Little old money maker (single, Josie 1969)
Chicken strut / Hey! Last minute (single, Josie 1970)
Hand clapping song / Joog (single, Josie 1970)
A message from the Meters (single, Josie 1970)
Look-Ka Py Py (LP, Josie 1970)
Struttin’ (LP, Josie 1970)
Stretch your rubber / Groovy lady (single, Josie 1971)
Doodle oop / I need more time (single, Josie 1971)
Good old funky music / S
assy lady (single, Josie 1971)
Chug chug chug-a-lug part 1+2 (single, Reprise 1972)
Cabbage Alley (LP, Reprise 1972)
Meters Live at Rozy’s (bootleg 1972, Live)
Rejuvenation: (LP, Reprise 1974)
Cissy strut (?, Island 1974)
Fire on the Bayou (LP, Reprise 1975)
Best of the Meters (compilation, Virgo 1975)
Best of the Meters 71-75 (compilation, Reprise 1976)
Trick Bag (LP, Reprise 1976)
New Directions (LP, Reprise 1977)
The Meters at Rozy’s (live, ? 1981)
Here Come the Metermen (compilation, Charly 1986)
Good Old Funky Music (LP, Rounder 1990)
The Meters Jam (compilation, Rounder 1992)
Uptown Rulers: The Meters Live on the Queen Mary (live, Rhino 1992)
Live at Moonwalker feat. JB horns (live, Lakeside 1993)
Live at Moonwalker 2 feat. JB horns (live, Lakeside 1994)
Funky Miracle (compilation, Charly 1993)
Fundamentally Funky (compilation, Charly 1994)
Second Line Strut (LP, Charly 1994)
The Original Funkmasters (compilation, Instant 1994)
Crescent City Groove Merchants (compilation, Charly 1994)
Funkify Your Life (compilation, Rhino 1995)
Very Best of the Meters (compilation, Rhino 1997)