The Core: George Porter Jr.
Photo credit: Dino Perrucci
As he prepares to release a new record, The Meters’ bassist looks back on his storied career and the foundations of funk
CUTTIN’ TRACKS IN THE CLOUD
Crying for Hope has 12 songs on it and seven of those songs were recorded probably four years ago. [Guitarist] Brint Anderson was still in the Runnin’ Pardners and we cut 20 or so tracks that we never released. And when he left, I started doing the Porter Trio thing with the remaining band—the drummer Terrence Houston and Michael Lemmler on keyboards. I played for about a year with that band and was having so much fun that I said, “Guys, why don’t you come over to the house and cut some tracks?” So, we went in and tracked about 19 songs. We were on a roll until COVID hit us.
Then, one day last year, I was just playing upstairs in the studio, and I started listening to my old Apple Music files and thought, “Man, I need to revisit this Runnin’ Pardners stuff!” We had a new guitar player, Chris Adkins, by then so Michael started updating those tracks using Pro Tools—taking Brint off and adding in Chris. We got six or seven songs done and then I started writing some new material, so we started working on that instead.
Basically, how we did it was I would put down a bassline and send it to Mike, who did the doctor thing. He’s a surgeon. We used Cloud Collaboration and FaceTime through my iPad so that we could see each other while we talked about the songs. And once we laid it all out and analyzed it, he would put his keyboards down. After that, we would invite Chris and Terrence to add their parts; at first, Chris had to upgrade his home studio, but once he did that, we were flying. Terrence didn’t have a studio, so he was going to a friend’s house outside the city to record safely and normally. So the next thing we knew, we had finished a full album.
Some of the songs I wrote [during the pandemic] were more topical. “Crying for Hope” leans on the Black Lives Matter movement—it was definitely written after the George Floyd problem. “Get Back Up” originally had lyrics, which I had gotten Mia Borders to write, but I just could not wrap my head around the lyrics so we left it as an instrumental. She just has a better handle on singing R&B than I do. But, in the near future, I’m going to look at those lyrics and make them mine.
SITTING HERE IN LIMBO
The Porter Trio stuff we did is still sitting in the can, and I am hoping to finish that project up. I try to give the Runnin’ Pardners and the Porter Trio their own space. With the Porter Trio, I’m into mingling with jazz-fusion and funk-fusion; the Runnin’ Pardners is more of a funk-rock band with a taste of R&B. In some cases, the Porter Trio plays some Runnin’ Pardners songs, but we play the songs very differently from the way the Runnin’ Pardners play them.
I also still want to venture more into the jazz stuff I’ve been doing and finish this jazz album. Before COVID hit, I did some stuff at the Maple Leaf with the marvelous drummer Herlin Riley, who is a member of the [prominent New Orleans] Lastie family. He did a nice stretch with Wynton Marsalis; he has a wonderful talent for playing big band and bebop, and he also comes from the R&B tradition. Basically, he has his hands in pretty much every part of the New Orleans drumming scene. So I was thinking about getting him, Mike Lemmler and a couple of other players to do a jazz project. I have already recorded a bunch of sessions and tracks as part of [this longgestating] jazz project—I wrote this music for [saxophonist] David Lastie before he passed away. When he passed away, I passed them on to Juanita Brooks and to her brother, who is her musical director. And then Juanita passed away so I grabbed the tracks. It’s a lot of bebop stuff—if it don’t swing, it is nothing but the blues. I’d also like to bring John Scofield and Warren Haynes in on that project. I like to take musicians out of their comfort zone in the studio. It’s the Allen Toussaint in me.
MAKING IT TO 74
Zig [Zigaboo Modeliste] has an organization called Foundation of Funk that’s been one of our most successful [post-Meters projects]. I’ve been playing bass in that band, and we’ve used keyboard and guitar players like Eric Krasno, Neal Evans, John Medeski and Eddie Roberts. But the most successful one with the buyers has been when Zig and I have used Ivan Neville on keyboards and Tony Hall on guitar. We did a big festival [LOCKN’ in 2018] with them and Cyril Neville where we almost had the whole Dead & Company lineup come out with us.
We also did Playing in the Sand with the New Orleans contingent of the Foundation of Funk in February of last year. Then, I stayed in Mexico because, the following week, I went down to play with Widespread Panic. And after that show, I went home and played like one gig before they shut us down.
Since then, I’ve gotten to know my wife’s dog really well during the last nine months. I lost my wife three years ago. We were together for over 50 years so me and her dog spent the pandemic together. I know her attitudes; I know her “wants” and “don’t wants.” I’ve also rearranged my studio; I just recently bought a new chair to sit in when I’m at the console. [Laughs.] I’ve just been learning the new system. I am not all that crazy about going out and playing in the clubs, though I have done a few outdoor performances.
My birthday is the day after Christmas, and we always do a show. We did do [a stream] this year, but it was totally different. We only played for about an hour and 30 minutes. My birthday parties are typically three to four hours, and I usually get hauled out of that birthday party so worn out. I usually sleep the next day or two.
But my girlfriend, Miss Sullivan, has been very hardcore about how these dates have to go down. People can’t come around—we are social distancing. She’s very strict on that. I’m 73 years old and she’s trying to make sure I turn 74.
On a really positive note, during the pandemic I’ve gotten closer to my musicians, especially Mike Lemmler. He is the musical director of both of my bands. I’ve been very blessed to have had him in the Runnin’ Pardners for the last 20-25 years. I always tell people that he is the bandleader. John Gross, who was the keyboardist in the Runnin’ Pardners, introduced us. I went away for almost six months to play with David Byrne and, in that long period of time, I lost a lot of my players to other gigs. When I came back, I was making less money so I decided to lose the horn section—which angered my wife, who loved the horn section, to no end—so John suggested we add a second keyboard player. So, at one point, we had Russell Batiste on drums, Mike Lemmler piano, John Gros on B3, and Anderson on guitar. And that band went wild for a long period of time until John Gros started his own Jimi Hendrix acid-rock band, and Mike Lemmler became the only keyboard player. Pretty much the rest is history.
The first time I saw Russell Batiste play was with the Batiste Brothers in the 1980s. I’d been going to play with Charmaine Neville at Snug Harbor on Monday nights. Charmaine needed a drummer one time because her drummer didn’t show up. And I said, “I saw this kid onstage, he’s really good.” Reggie Houston knew Russell’s dad and Russell showed up for the gig. And I just said, “Man, I like this guy. I wanna put him in my band.” And I did, though we did kick him out a few times. [Laughs.]
Through the connection of him playing with me, I got him in the funky METERS with Art Neville. Originally, when the funky METERS started, they were talking about using [Neville Brothers drummer] Willie Green and I said, “No man, we can’t do that. Y’all already got a band—The Neville Brothers—with that particular drum style.” I said, “Let’s use somebody younger and more aggressive.” Art said, “OK, let me hear this guy.” Russell came to a couple of practices, and Art fell in love with him.
After Art left The Meters [in 1977], Russell’s dad David had actually played Saturday Night Live with us. He’s mentioned that he played with The Meters folks for a while, but I don’t remember that now. Herlin Riley played keyboards with us after Art left the first time in the ‘70s, a guy named Mario played keyboards with us for a bit after Saturday Night Live and David Torkanowsky played with us for a little while. We brought Willie West in as a singer, and Zig had started to sing by that point, but I left the band probably eight months after Art. I just didn’t particularly like the direction that the music was going in with the players that we had. Zig and Leo went along for probably about a year or so after I left, and then they called it quits too.
WILD WILD LIFE
[During the pandemic], I was looking for videos of the time I was in David Byrne’s band [on Facebook] and someone actually sent me a DVD of a show I did with him in New Jersey. That gig was very educational, playing music with that Latin feel. I’m not sure if I played the role well enough because I was not asked to come back and do it again. But it was fun and it was interesting. [I ran into him once at the hotel during Bonnaroo in 2004] but he’s been to New Orleans several times and I’ve never gotten a call. [Laughs.] I was out of town a few times when he came through, though I did want to see him when he played the House of Blues. But the tickets were sold out. And I had already somewhat burned my bridges with the House of Blues people. When it first opened, I played there all the time. At one point in time, I had the most sold-out shows at the House of Blues, though I think The Neville Brothers probably beat me out. But then, all of a sudden, they stopped calling me. And when they stopped calling, I kind of got angry. I chewed them out, so I can’t really call and ask for tickets anymore. [Laughs.]
THE CORE FOUR
I have retired the funky METERS. The last few years before Art died, the band was Terrence Houston, Brian Stoltz, Art and me. And when Art passed away, Brian was calling me to orchestrate the funky METERS because the funky METERS had created a whole different atmosphere than The Meters—the funky METERS were a jamband using The Meters material as the basis. But even though we got some offers, I’m not interested in doing the funky Meters without Art Neville.
It’s the same with The Meters. Leo called about going out with Zig and another keyboardist and playing, but you can’t call it The Meters without Art—without the four of us. We did have Cyril Neville join us when The Rolling Stones had us open for them in 1970s, but the music that is the most loved is what we created from 1968-1974. And I believe that what we did as the four of us was very important. I never say, “never” about anything, but I’m not sure about Zig, Leo and myself doing something with some other organization. I don’t think that will ever happen.