[Gustavo Escanelle]

Funk Legend George Porter Jr.'s Musical Journey

07:00 April 30, 2024
By: Emily Hingle

George Matters

George Porter Jr. has been referred to as a progenitor of the funk genre, but that genre title doesn't sit well with him. "I don't put a label on my music. It's music. I leave that for other people to do. That's my personal feeling."

Whatever the description, Porter's brand of big, juicy bass has garnered him international acclaim and attention, but his career in music may have never happened if he took the same street that he always took that one Saturday.

George Porter Jr. [Gustavo Escanelle]

Porter's Musical Beginnings

Many musicians recount that they were fascinated by music from an early age, which led them to learn how to play it. Starting music lessons, however, wasn't young Porter's choice. His mother was told by her choir director that children who picked up an instrument and took lessons tended to stay out of trouble, and she heeded that advice. "My mother gave me and my brother violins when we were about six years old, which didn't last a whole day." He continued, "Although the violin thing didn't work out, I took piano lessons for six months. Then, on my 8th birthday, my grandmother and mother teamed up and bought me an acoustic guitar. That's where it went from there."

From the age of 8 to 11, Porter took private guitar lessons religiously every Saturday. "I was learning how to play guitar using the classical formula—using 10 fingers, but the songs I was playing were cowboy songs like 'Home on the Range' and 'Red River Valley.'" Slow-paced country songs were not exciting to the budding young musician, but he eventually came across the sound that truly ignited a passion within him when he made a minor change to his routine.

"I changed my route to go catch the bus two blocks from my house. I was walking up to Tulane and Galvez to catch the bus, and I turned the corner and heard guitar music being played. I walked toward the music, and a guy named Benjamin Francis and his grandfather were sitting on their steps just playing. I saw his grandfather playing using the same fingering, but he was playing blues songs, 'The St. Louis Blues' and those kind of songs. I just knew from hearing that, I said, 'This is the kind of songs I want to be playing.' And it was from watching him play using his right hand the way I'm using my right hand, but he was playing a totally different type of music. That's pretty much what ended my going to guitar lessons on Saturdays because I saw the music I wanted to start playing and learned how to play it, which was at that point blues."

George Porter Jr. [wikimedia commons/Robbie Mendelson]

The Meters

A few years after that fateful day, Porter was recruited to be the bassist for a newly-formed band called Art Neville and the Sounds alongside drummer Zigaboo Modeliste, guitarist Leo Nocentelli, and keys player/vocalist Art Neville. The fledgling group worked as the studio band for Allen Toussaint's Sansu Enterprises recording label and gigged around the city while also working to get coveted opening slots for popular touring bands.

"Before we were doing our own music, we were a cover band. We played everything from Neil Young, Crosby, Stills & Nash, and 5th Dimension," said Porter about The Meters' first tours as an opening act. In May 1969, The Meters released their first album, The Meters, and they began to move away from covers to perform original material. However, most of those songs were under three minutes long. Playing the album in its entirety wasn't enough to fill out a live set. Musical improvisation became necessary to stretch the songs out.

"When we started touring with our first record with 12 songs, we would play all 12 of those songs. But we would be on a four-hour gig. That's where jamming came in. We would take those two-and-a-half minute songs and play them for five, six minutes. We were musicians and were able to go outside and create pockets. The pockets that we created after the song got to be new songs for the second record."

George Porter Jr. at Tipitina's [Robert Witkowski]

Porter's Pockets

Porter isn't sure where the term "pocket" came from, or if The Meters coined it, but those improvised jams are what made the New Orleans band known the world over, entertaining listeners and inspiring fellow music makers. Porter discussed how a pocket is created, saying, "What I call a 'pocket' is a groove that a drummer creates, then the bass line and drummer's foot pedal coincide and create a pocket where guitar and organs can get into. Melodically, to be able to do that, you have to have something to get into, and the pocket is where. I'm not sure where the term came from, but that's the way I've always described New Orleans music. That's the way I described what The Meters did. Zig and I created pockets that Leo and Art could get in and do the things that keyboards and guitar needed to be done."

The pockets that Porter and his bandmates construct on stage are one-of-a-kind. He doesn't believe in playing the same set twice. Each show is an exploration of musical inventiveness made live on stage between the musicians and the energy they receive from the audience. Porter concluded, "When I play, it doesn't matter if I'm playing to two people or 2,000 people. I'm presenting what I do at the best that I can do it—every time."

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