The Indomitable Spirit of George Porter Jr.: Interview
It seems nothing slows George Porter Jr. down for very long. Not advancing age (he turned 72 in December), not personal tragedy, not even a worldwide pandemic silences the fat grooves that once anchored New Orleans’ seminal funk band The Meters, who altered the city’s sonic landscape and influenced generations of musicians to come.
During the 40-plus years since The Meter’s broke up, Porter has stayed busy as a sought-after studio musician and producer who has worked with a long and diverse roster of artists including Jimmy Buffett, Maceo Parker, Marianne Faithful, Tori Amos, Taj Majal, Harry Connick, Jr., David Byrne. Independent projects followed including George Porter Jr. & Runnin’ Pardners, The Porter Trio, Funky Meters, and Foundation of Funk, along with a number of original, full-length recordings.
Those years also saw Porter reuniting with former Meters’ bandmates the late keyboardist Art Neville, guitarist Leo Nocentelli and drummer Zigaboo Modeliste for occasional reunion shows that ran until up until Neville retired in early 2018. Neville sadly passed away that July shortly after The Meters were nominated and passed over for the fourth time for induction into The Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, but were honored with a Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award, admittedly a bittersweet thrill for Porter.
Considered among the founding fathers of funk alongside legends like James Brown and George Clinton, The Meters’ career spanned a little more than a decade but made a lasting impact that reached across genres and generations. Starting with their inception in the mid-sixties until their break up in 1977, their relatively short and sometimes tumultuous time together produced funk classics like “Cissy Strut,” “Look-Ka Py Py,” and “Africa.”
Music’s luminaries such as Patti Labelle, Allen Toussaint, Dr. John, Robert Palmer, Lee Dorsey, Paul McCartney and more employed their talents in the studio and beyond. Their influence continues to reverberate today; The Grateful Dead, The Red Hot Chilli Peppers, Jaco Pastorius, Widespread Panic are among a long list of internationally acclaimed groups who have recorded their songs, and the band remains one of the most sampled groups by hip hop artists around the world.
The Meters have also amassed a huge following within the jam scene where Porter is a much-beloved staple including at events like Jam Cruise. Porter has appeared with popular jam-oriented acts like Dead & Company, Phil Lesh & Friends, Bob Weir and The Campfire Band, Widespread Panic, and many more. Porter has also endeared himself to Deadheads, starting with a stint in Bill Kreutzmann’s side project, 7 Walkers, and continuing through his work with Voodoo Dead, a New Orleans-infused project formed for Jazz Fest in 2015. The supergroup has featured all-star lineups including Oteil Burbridge, Anders Osborne, Jackie Greene, Steve Kimock, John Kimock, Wally Ingram, Papa Mali, and more. Just recently, Voodoo Dead, including Porter, Steve Kimock, Jeff Chimenti, and John Morgan Kimock, completed a short tour in Japan in February. Last year, he also played with Joe Marcinek and Melvin Seals in Dead Funk Summit.
Video shot by Gregory Marcus
Once back in New Orleans from his travels, Porter hit the ground running, adding another title to his name on February 21 when Krewe of Oak crowned him King Robustus XXXIV at a special Mardi Gras parade and ceremony. Being home also means holding down a weekly gig at The Maple Leaf Bar alongside keyboardist Michael Lemmler and drummer Terrence Houston, who make up The Porter Trio. His other waking moments are filled with writing new music for Runnin’ Pardners, which also features Houston and Lemmler along with guitarist Chris Adkins and rising young talents like saxophonist and multi-instrumentalist Khris Royal.
Like the rest of us, much of Porter’s life has been put on hold while we all wait out the Coronavirus pandemic. He is safely ensconced in his New Orleans home but staying active, taking care of his health, completing new music, and keeping in touch with fans and the outside world via social media. His admirers, myself included, wish there was a way to bubble-wrap him in an abundance of caution until this crisis is over and we all come out of hiding to share live music again.
In the meantime, I take comfort in his music and the thoughts he shared with me in the interview below that was recorded aboard Jam Cruise in January, where he is a much-loved elder statesman. We talked about the past both near and distant, including old friendships and the seeds for The Meters; tackling the music of The Grateful Dead; working through grief after losing his beloved wife of more than 50 years, Ara, to cancer in 2017; and finding love for the second time around with long-time friend and collaborator Denise Sullivan.
MFN: I’d like to start by touching on your storied past, which has been written about extensively. You’ve worked with some of the biggest names in the business – Taj Majal, Patti Labelle, Tori Amos, Paul McCartney. There are too many to name here.
GP: The correct thing about Paul McCartney is that we really didn’t work with him on that project. I have to get that story out there correctly, and I’ve been trying to correct it for years. It still has not gotten corrected. But basically, what it was, he had recorded this Mardi Gras-feeling song, and Benny Spellman said that the only thing missing from this song is parade crowd sounds. And McCartney snapped to it and said, “Okay.”
And so Benny came back. Cuz, while that session was going on, most of us were hanging out in the back by this Foosball machine and just playing games, trying to figure out whether bubble cash legit and hanging out and talking. It was Earl King, and I’m not sure if I was the only Meter there. Leo might have been there. But Benny came back and said, “Man, we need to make some crowd noises, play some tambourines and make some noises.” So we all went in the studio with cowbells and tambourines. They miked the room with like two microphones.
We started at one side of the room, and we cow-belled, and we just walked from this side of the room, from that side of the room making noises, screaming, maybe a couple of whistles. You know, “Throw me somethin’, man!” and that kind of stuff. And they recorded that. That was put on that Mardi Gras Record that I don’t believe was ever released to the world, maybe just played in New Orleans. I don’t think I’ve ever heard it in New Orleans since then. That was during the time he did the Venus and Mars record.
MFN: That’s a great story. Another great story I heard on Andy Frasco’s podcast with you was how you adopted “Jr.” at the end of your name. Would you mind repeating that story for us?
GP: You mean about my dad and the washing machine? (Laughs) I think it was Western Auto or Western Zone. You know, where you can go rent to purchase. We were living on Baronne Street, me and Ara at the time. She was complaining that if she had to wash clothes, she had to go five or six blocks. So, I said, “Let’s go buy a washing machine.” So we went and bought one not thinking we had to buy a dryer, too.
So we go around to this little store to buy the washing machine. We pull up with the clerk, and we do all the paperwork. Then he goes in the back and when he comes back, the manager comes out. And the manager says. “Oh, Mr. Porter. We been lookin’ for you!”
And I said, “Lookin’ for me?”
And he said, “Yeah. Apparently, you bought a television.” Or something. I can’t remember exactly what it was. But he said, “You haven’t paid any money on it, and you haven’t returned our equipment.”
And I said, “Oh, no! I ain’t never bought nuthin’ from you before ever.”
What it all ended up being, when he took the birthdates on the paperwork, it was my Dad’s birthday. It was my Dad who had bought the TV. So at that point, Ara said we need to start using Jr. on your name. Because at that point I hadn’t ever used junior. So junior got added to the name. Well, I am a junior. I just never used it.
MFN: Going even further back, you and Zig (Zigaboo Modeliste) have been friends since you were little kids.
GP: Pretty much. We were seven, eight. Something like that. My grandmother and the lady who raised Zig, Miss Blouin, she and my grandmother were cousins. So, after my Dad decided that the violin was not going to be the instrument to be played in his house…
MFN: You played the violin?
GP: Ah, well. I tried (laughs). That didn’t last a day and a half. My grandmother told my mother about Clinton, who is Zig’s older brother, and that Clinton is a piano player in The New Orleans Symphony. It ended up being my grandmother saying to my mom that we should go to Clinton and I take piano lessons from Clinton. So that happened because of Zig.
His older brother was paying more attention to me playing piano and hadn’t done any of that kind of stuff with him. He kept wanting to interfere and get involved and wants to be a part of my lesson. So he said, “Hup! Enough of that!” (Laughs). So once again my music input got cut off.
And so my grandmother for my eighth birthday brought me an acoustic guitar that my mom got into a lot of trouble for because my dad thought my mom bought me the guitar. Mom got holy hell. I even put a line on one of my Christmas records that she got in trouble one Christmas. What I actually say is she got in trouble one Christmas when I got my first guitar because my dad thought she bought the guitar, and he was not into purchasing any of his money to buy instruments, because that wasn’t going to make you money.
The only time we (Zig) spent together then was when we were with Clinton. I didn’t see Zig again until junior high school when I moved Uptown at what we called Neville-ville on Coliseum and Bordeaux, with Miss Blouin and Zig just two blocks away. And a half a block across the street were Art’s parents. That was my introduction to the Neville family clan.
MFN: Right there. Those were the seeds for The Meters.
GP: That would be considered the seeds. Right. I had an acoustic guitar at the time, and I had actually been playing. I had studied classical guitar. By the time I moved Uptown, I had learned my way around the instrument pretty well and was playing blues and R&B kind of stuff on the guitar. Zig and Cyril (Neville), because Cyril stayed across the street, they were always leaning toward becoming drummers or percussionists. So they were beatin’ on boxes and pots and pans and getting in trouble with parents for bringing out their pots and beatin’ on the pots with sticks.
We used to have jam sessions on the side of Zig’s house. And the neighbor on the backside, she got tired of it and called the police on us one day. And the police raided the party and needless to say my acoustic guitar got smashed because the police, they broke my guitar. It would be a couple of years before I ever owned another guitar. Back then in those days those black car-drivin’ guys, they didn’t take no mess.
MFN: So how did you go from guitar to playing bass?
GP: You see because I had studied classical guitar I knew the bass formula, although the songs I was playing in lessons were country and western songs. But I was learning how to play bass lines and chords at the same time. So, you know it was a natural thing that flowed from guitar when the time came.
MFN: Did you know early on that music would be something you wanted to do for your life’s work?
GP: No. I didn’t know that I would actually look into music as a way of life. I originally thought that it was just going to be some pleasure. I found comfort in playing an instrument. There weren’t that many guitar players that I could say, “I want to strive to be like that.” I mean, I knew Earl King. I knew of Snooks Eaglin. Herbert Wynn was a wonderful guitarist who was my introduction to Art.
I had to be about 16 or 17. Art needed a guitar player for a gig one night that Herbert would usually be playing that gig with him. But Herbert couldn’t play that gig because he had a fraternity house gig, and he sent me because I was a very fluent rhythm guitar player. And I knew pretty much all the songs that were a part of the bass knowledge at that point in time. But Art wanted and needed a lead guitar player because Art was basically a piano accompanist to himself singing.
I went and played this gig with Art, and every time he went and turned around and want me to play this solo, I was, “Uh, uh. Naaaah. I don’t solo.” At the end of the night on our way home he just kinda leaned over and told me and said, “Man, you the worst guitar player I ever known.” (Laughs).
So during that little short period of time that Art and I were separated, I think Aaron went out on “Tell It Like It Is” and made a lot of music. Art came back off that tour with Aaron, and he decided he wanted to put together a band.
By now I’m playing bass guitar with a guitarist named Irvin Bannister at a club. Art came in there one night, and he saw me playing bass. At the end of that night, he leaned over to me and said, “Now that’s the instrument you need to be playing.” I only had three strings on that bass, and Art was impressed with my performance with a three-string bass, and he asked me if I wanted a gig.
MFN: So you were almost entirely self-taught for the bass, then.
GP: For the bass, I was self-taught. Yeah. But I kinda attribute my bass knowledge to a gentleman named Poppy. His name was Benjamin Francis. His bass guru was a gentleman named George French from New Orleans who played on a lot of Earl King recordings, early Earl King records. So, I always tell George French that I was one of his students by proxy.
MFN: You are the guru to so many people including Flea of the Red Hot Chili Peppers. I was rewatching a video recently from an epic 2017 concert in the Dome with them where you joined in and Flea introduced you as his teacher. He clearly was in awe of you. You probably don’t give any thought to all these people that you’ve influenced because you’re a humble guy. Are there young bassists who you’re mentoring right now?
GP: The only student I ever had was Tony Hall. He was studying and really wasn’t just a student. He was a sponge. He was the guy that would sit there and play with me when I was playing my guitar on the steps. He would just play. When I would play my bass he would just hang out. He was absorbing all this information because he was a big fan of me starting out as a kid, a small kid. My wife called him our son, you know. Tony started out with us when he was probably like three, four years old. He’s been around my family his entire life.
MFN: Is there anybody you’re listening to right now that catches your ear?
GP: I don’t listen to music. In general, I don’t listen to music and the reason is because
I’m trying to perfect my writing skills. I want to do something that I have not heard yet. So with that in mind, I automatically eliminate listening to things.
MFN: The last few years you’ve been writing like crazy and releasing that in dribs and drabs and various EPs. How many tracks have you got?
GP: Right now what has not been released, I have pretty much a completed album. The only part that’s missing from it is the vocals that I’m happy with for my Porter Trio record, which is three of the Runnin’ Pardners – the drummer Terence Houston, Michael Lemmler, the keyboardist and myself. The songwriter collaborators with myself have been Denise Sullivan; she wrote one of the lyrics to one of the songs. Mia Borders has written two of the songs, and Susan Cowsill has written one of the songs.
MFN: Those are some powerful women you’re working with.
GP: Yeah. Yeah. They’re some strong lyricists and I kinda like that because my lyrics are usually kinda he-hum gibberish (laughs). So the song “Police State” that I wrote, Denise said she turned Porter into English. She pretty much rewrote the lyrics for “Police State” and made it more of a story. So that’s one project. There’s like 14 of those songs we recorded.
There’s another project that I started for Runnin’ Pardners that was pretty much done. Then the guitar player decided to leave the band. The original lineup, say, for the last 10-12 years has been Terence Houston on drums, Michael Lemmler on keyboards, Brint Anderson on guitar, and myself. When we brought in a new guitar player, Chris Adkins, we also brought in Khris Royal as a saxophonist. Khris as a solo artist was recording and writing for his own band, Dark Matter. I pretty much only had Khris at times. We just kinda grew used to not having him more than having him. So we kinda just grew back to being just a four-piece band.
So that band, I pretty much have that whole record. It’s like 16 songs. I just haven’t been home long enough to get Chris Adkins to replace all the guitar parts. He just has a different feeling than the tracks that Brint put down.
So that’s two complete albums. And then I started writing music for a thing that kind of came to my mind last year or maybe 2017 after Ara passed away. It would have been early 2018. After Ara passed away, I was on (Jam Cruise) by myself, and I’d just spend a lot of time by myself the whole time. I was thinking that I have these wonderful female songwriters here.
I heard a song, maybe it was Tammy Tyrell and Marvin Gaye singing, and I thought, “Oh, wow. Maybe I oughta do something like that.” Instead of having an orchestrating thing like that particular song that they did, you know let’s just do something with just bass guitar, their vocals, and my vocals – kind of a trio thing but just two voices and a bass guitar, an acoustic bass guitar.
I’ve asked Erica Falls, definitely Mia and definitely Susan. My granddaughter (Ciara Porter) I believe is gonna get a shot at doing a song. There’s two more young ladies that have been suggested that I interview. I can’t say who they are yet.
MFN: So we’ve got a lot of material to look forward to. Any idea when it’ll come out considering you’re so busy much of the time?
GP: I’m hoping when I get some downtime. The Porter Trio record, the majority of it is instrumental, but there are five vocal songs, and there’ll be six non-vocal songs. And we’ll probably break it down to be a 10-song piece. So one of the vocal songs or one of the instrumental songs will get lost. But that’s just me getting up one morning and singing it and settin’ down one evening and saying, “Okay. I’m happy with this.”
It’s even been suggested letting someone else produce the vocals for me instead of doing it myself.
MFN: Do you have some people in mind?
GP: Yeah. I’m actually thinking about letting Mia do it. She does really well. I like the way her vocals sit in a record and how she makes the lyrics fit the movement. And not being one of the greatest singers on the planet, you know I have to be kind of guided to not do things that I think I want to do because I think it might be hip to do it.
MFN: Speaking of hip. You’ve been embraced by The Dead community and I think I read that you prefer not to sing a lot of the songs. Why?
GP: Well, my reason is there were so many lyrics. I mean some of those Dead songs are like hundreds of lyrics. I mean thousands I should say ‘cuz Robin Hunter was a lyric-writing man. Boy, he wrote some lyrics.
One of the things that I was always a little edgy about was the way Garcia voiced those lyrics inside of the songs. Because they were so melodic and the band being as melodic as it was, he had to do a lot of movement vocally to put those lyrics in there to make them fit. When I started singing songs like “Sugaree” and “Eyes of the World,” what I did was I lessened my bass line so my bass line wasn’t as melodic as the line that originally goes with the songs. I’ve gotten grief from some of the Phil (Lesh) fans that think I bastardized his bass lines. But Bill Kreutzmann loves the way I bastardized those bass lines.
The way I felt, if you want me to sing these songs and you’re alright with me singing them, then this is what I need to do in order to sing these songs. In fact, I recorded “Eyes of The World,” but it’s almost in a hip hop kind of feel. It was almost cryptic. Every time I played it, nobody recognized that that’s the song because I didn’t have the lyrics on it at this point. Nobody recognized the chord movements as that song. I felt, “Well, maybe I might have something here.” In any case, the Dead community are gonna hate me. (Laughs).
Video Shot by WTH Films
MFN: You’ve been everywhere lately, and your storied career has taken you around the world. You just turned 72 in December and show no signs of slowing down. How do you keep yourself healthy?
GP: Well, I sleep. When I don’t have to be up, I go to bed. If I don’t have to be out, then I don’t.
MFN: What do you see ahead for George Porter going five, ten years down the road.
GP: You know, after being with a single person for so long. Ara and I spent almost more than half our lives together. She passed away one month and one day before our 51st wedding anniversary. So, I just kind of never thought that for the next few months or years that I would ever be able to say that I’m comfortable in a new relationship. And today I’m happy with the relationship I’m in.
Denise has been a good friend. She’s been a wonderful partner. And more than that she’d punch me in the head if I act stupid. And I always tell her I never believed that I would fall in love with the same person twice. You know, Ara and Denise are so much alike, you know. They look at the same stupid programs on television, and there’s a lot about the two of them. It wasn’t something that I went looking for. It just happened. It was there, you know. She was a good friend. She’s a friend that moved into the next step of friendship.
MFN: That’s a beautiful story. Career-wise, where do see for yourself in the future?
GP: Completing those three records! (Laughs)
Porter is currently doing just that. He’s been working remotely out of his home studio with his Runnin’ Pardners bandmates along with Mia Borders, his granddaughter Ciara and her husband DJ Wino Willy to put the finishing touches on new music. To see what George is up to, including live streams, follow him on his Facebook page and stay tuned for what he has in store.