Apr 21 2015

The Meter Never Stops Runnin'

By: Briana Prevost

The front door jiggles Wednesday afternoon to George Porter Jr.'s home. He waits a minute while the door still trembles, then finally resolves to open it. He greets his wife, AraLean, at the door. He quickly kisses her, and AraLean smiles as he asks about her day.

The week before, Porter designated Wednesday night as date night for the pair before he left for California to play with the 7 Walkers. For a week, Porter, 64, played in and around the San Francisco area and this day was his first full day back home. But not for too long. For a man that actively gigs in five different bands and in 2011 only estimates that he spent 65 of the 365 days out the year in New Orleans, you can bet this day of solace was the calm before the storm. Next up, Porter is booked to play 16 gigs over 10 days for Jazz Fest 2012.

So, how does he keep his busy touring schedule running like clockwork? "I have a wife," Porter says with a hearty laugh as he realizes the grueling schedule he has to keep up with. "Basically, there's three booking agencies involved with my career," who all, along with AraLean, keep everything squared away for each band in a shared Google calendar.

George Porter, Jr. plays bass in The Meters, The Funky Meters, the Runnin' Pardners, the 7 Walkers and the Johnny Vidacovich Trio. In a career that started over four decades ago, he has been able to cement his status as a valued musician in the industry and the longevity of his career proves that. "George sets the example for work ethic; it's unparalleled," says musician Dave Jordan, who has known Porter personally for about 20 years. "That's the first thing you see. He dots all the I's and crosses all the T's in all that he does."

At 14 years old, Porter dropped out of school. He started jamming with musicians and taking lessons on the classical guitar around the time he dropped out, and at 16 years old, he began to frequent the club scene in New Orleans to hear live music (lying about his age to get in, nonetheless).

One club in particular, the 808 Club in the Freret Street neighborhood, had a 5-piece house band that featured Walter "Wolfman" Washington as the vocalist. Porter sat in for the bass player on the last set, and was offered the gig at 16, a feat he partially credits to the Vietnam War. "The city had a big vacancy for electronic bass players," he says.

"...A lot of young musicians were drafted."

Porter, unable to enlist due to the curvature of his spine, which caused him to fail the physical fitness test, took the gig at the 808 Club, which began his career as a professional musician. That is, until he got caught. "Actually, what happened was, they found out how old I was," Porter says laughing. "That's what stopped [the gig] at that point."

Not long after this event, Porter found himself recruited by Art Neville to become one-fourth of one of the biggest bands in funk, The Meters. Fronted by Neville on keyboards and comprised of Porter on bass, Leo Nocentelli on guitar and Jospeh "Zigaboo" Modeliste on drums, The Meters used their simple melodies and inherently Southern soul to catapult their sound from their regular gig on Bourbon Street to mainstream America in the mid-1960s. Funk favorites like the "Cissy Strut" and "Fire on the Bayou" garnered them enough recognition in the music industry that musicians across genres took notice. Pop artist Paul McCartney and rock legends The Rolling Stones both invited The Meters to perform at various events they were promoting. The band even went on to record with Allen Toussaint, Dr. John, Patti Labelle and Robert Palmer. By the time The Meters disbanded in 1977, each member had cemented themselves on the music scene. So much so, that long after they went their separate ways, samples of their music can still be heard on tracks recorded by Heavy D, Queen Latifah, LL Cool J and The Beastie Boys, to name a few.

"He's a big reason why I started playing bass," says Jordan. "Back in '91, when I first heard him play, it just flipped me out. I never heard live music like that before."

The success of The Meters led founding members Neville and Porter to bring together another reincarnation derived of the blues and funk flavors The Meters trademarked-the Funky Meters. Next up, Porter formed his own solo project, The Runnin' Pardners, which has seen many noted musicians who comprised of the line-up since the early 1990s. "George is the greatest music teacher and music business teacher I've ever had," says John Gros, former Runnin' Pardner and current leader of Papa Grows Funk. "I learned more with him in 7 years than anything else. After I left [the Runnin Parders] I had a fan base. That happened because George allowed me to be myself as a musician."

More recently, Porter has also been recruited to join Matt Hubbard, Papa Mali and former Grateful Dead drummer, Bill Kreutzmann to form a fusion of California rock and southern romp in the 7 Walkers. And to round out his already dizzying schedule, Porter plays occasional one-off gigs with the original Meters and whenever he is home, he finds time to play every Thursday night with the Johnny Vidacovich Trio at the Maple Leaf.

"I always knew that I was going to be a musician," Porter says. "I wanted to be more than just a musician, I knew that early on."

Even though Porter dropped out of high school in 9th grade, he has never stopped being a student.

Having a career that spans over four decades has placed him on the hot seat to growing trends and technology in the music business: a ride he could have chosen not to get on. But Porter was determined to learn every notch involved with not only making, but recording music, a hobby he crafts as time permits. Dubbed a "genius techie" by Dave Jordan, Porter is more than happy to share that he loves recording and experimenting in the studio, which is conveniently on the 3rd floor of his home. Whenever he has time, he toys around with the software program Master Writer ("I am the worst lyricist"), and invites song writers to come work on lyrics. He also enjoys studio sessions with other musicians who might need some direction, a mentoring responsibility he picked up from his time with Allen Toussaint. "[One of] George's greatest qualities is, he can always be the frontman, but he can also step back and be a support man; there's no ego," Jordan says. "That's pretty amazing."

Egos aside, Porter knows that although he and his bandmates from The Meters aren't getting all the royalty checks they deserve (Porter estimates that over 178 samples have been made from their records that they haven't been compensated for), that the music he loves to perform is a business and therefore, has to make money.

Such topics were discussed in a past panel featuring Porter and up-and-coming rapper Dee-1 for "The People Say Project: Conversations in Culture and Money." A partnership between NOLA Fugees Press and Loyola University New Orleans, the panels bring in artists from different generations to share their experiences on how to make a living based on their art in today's society. Dee-1 shared his experiences breaking into the Southern hip-hop scene, while Porter shared the secrets to his success for sustaining a successful musical career during such changes in the music industry.

"I would've hoped that by 64, I would've been more seeded in this industry than I am," Porter says, admitting that his solo project alone can't pay all his bills. "But you know, the position I'm in now is not a bad place. Most of the people I've grown up and loved haven't gotten to this point musically." A feat he surpasses by constant reinvention of the root of it all-his music.

"[George] showed me that if you play what you love, people will follow," Gros says. "That's a career. It may not be a milliondollar career, but we can certainly provide for our families."

Aside from touring, recording, and playing with some of the biggest names in music, George Porter, Jr. has also been awarded a Best of The Beat Award for a lifetime achievement in music. And for an active gigging career that shows no signs of slowing down, there are still a few things that Porter wants to tackle in music, like perhaps dabbling into country or finding some new skats left hidden in be-bop.

"[George has] created a uniquely New Orleans and uniquely American style of music," Jordan says about Porter's ability to continue to be relevant to music today. "You could make a pretty good argument that he's made one of the greatest contributions to the younger musicians in the city. He's such a giver and he's so accessible.

"He's a musical hero of mine, and when you get to play with your hero, it's a big deal. We killed it. Word up."

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