"My philosophy on life as a musician…Try to keep your head above the water and stay competitive."
George Porter Jr...be funky all the time
George Porter, Jr. is best known as the bassist of The Meters, along with Art Neville, Leo Nocentelli and Joseph Zigaboo Modeliste. The group was formed in the mid 60's and came to be recognized as one of the progenitors of funk then called R&B. The Meters disbanded in 1977, but reformed in 1989. Today the original group still plays the occasional reunions but the Funky Meters, of which Porter and Neville are still members, most prominently keeps the spirit alive.
Few bass players in the history of modern New Orleans music are as storied as George Porter Jr. During the course of a career spanning more then four decades, Porter has not only made a deep impression with his work in the Meters, but he's notched session work with artists as diverse as Paul McCartney, Jimmy Buffett, David Byrne, Patti LaBelle, Robbie Robertson, Tori Amos, Taj Mahal, and live performances with Mickey Hart, Bill Kreutzmann, Warren Haynes, John Scofield, just to name a few. Early in his career, Porter worked with seminal New Orleans artists like Allen Toussaint, Earl King, Lee Dorsey, and Johnny Adams, Irma Thomas, The Lastie Brothers again to only name a few.
Porter is also the band leader of his own unique long term project the Runnin' Pardners, well respected not only as a quintessential New Orleans band, the touring band continues to receive accolades on the jam band and festival scene. Porter has proven to be capable of the ultimate fusion of rock, funk and R&B, and has gained recognition as one of the industry's elite bass players. He continues to be not only an in demand performing artist but an accomplished studio musician and producer.
Transcribing audio to text by Ms Denise Deni Sullivan
How do you describe your philosophy for the music and for the life?
How do I describe my philosophy on music? I have never really thought about a philosophy on music before, I just play what is in my heart and how I feel in that moment and every moment has a different feel and a thought that is unique.
My philosophy on life as a musician…Try to keep your head above the water and stay competitive. Before I knew that you could earn money doing this I was just having fun and I enjoyed hanging around the older guys who were playing and I was able to learn from them. Once I realized that I could do this for a living my philosophy was to truly learn about the craft, I dug deeper into myself and exposed myself to many different styles of players to make myself more versatile. I have a saying that you need to put tools in your toolbox, and the more tools you have that is more things you can go and grab the moment that you need them and use them. Somewhere in back of your brain or through your fingers. I am not actually sure where that stuff is stored but I have tried to continue to collect new information and skills.
What characterize the George Porter Jr. sound?
I am not sure, over the course of the last 40 some plus years I found that the sound has changed over time, based on the instruments I have played. When I was playing Melody Plus's my sound was one thing when I was playing Gibsons my sound was a little different as when I was playing Fenders and now playing a Lakland I think the instrument and the to a degree the amps effect that.
I am not sure the sound that is on a particular recording is the actual sound of my instrument. You give an engineer a good clean bass sound and they fabricate it to fit in with the other instruments on the record. I don't think I have the same sound on every recording.
As far as music goes I am still learning the craft of writing songs so I don't think there is a signature sound that is George Porter Jr. so to speak. Maybe there is a style rather than a sound as there are certain things that I may do like the way I group notes or play that someone would say oh that sounds like Porter Jr. In a solo section of a song can you isolate who that is? I don't know unless there is a signature or a pattern that stands out.
What was the most interesting period in your life and why
I think that would have been the week after I got sober and came out to find out if I could still be mentally and spiritually as creative musically as I thought was when I was getting messed up. Because I just didn't know if I still could do this. I knew I couldn't change the world and that I could only change me but I wasn't sure that the thing that inspired me musically was still going to inspire me as a sober person. It did though, and here I am 23 years later, still sober and still making good music.
How has the music business changed over the years?
When I first started in the music industry it was pretty much bend over and take what was given you and in many ways with the major labels I think it still seems the same today. The internet today has helped huge giving artists an outlet to successfully get our music out there to the people without needing the major labels. So I do not think the industry and major labels have changed much at all but the internet and technology have given people a great deal of opportunity to produce and market music independently and successfully.
What was the best moment of your career?
If I had to pick a best moment I would think that would maybe be a night in 1976, in Paris opening for the Rolling Stones and the audiences was hating us. They were making all kinds of negative noises and Keith Richards and Mick Jagger came out on the stage and told the people to shut up and listen to the music and give the band a chance. They did and they seemed to enjoy it.
I was hard to believe that they felt strongly enough to come out and do that for us. That was a moment where we could have been so discouraged that it could have killed the band, we would have been demoralized being in front of 80,000 plus people who did not want to hear anything we had to play and that would have made it hard to continue.
That was probably the best musical career moment and something I will always remember. In my life I have had other moments that were amazing like meeting the McCartneys and other famous musicians. Most important to me was having the opportunity to play with Earl King, Ernie K Doe, Snooks Eaglin and all the great guys who made music down here, and getting to learn a great deal from them.
What was the worst?
That might be along the same lines as what happened in the best moment as once again the Meters were getting booed off the stage. We went to Montreux Jazz Festival to be the house band for Professor Longhair and Dr John. We did our set with Dr John and then there was a short break and Fess came out as the headliner. Well, the baby grand piano was acoustically miked and we were an electric band. The blend of the two did not work very well and the audience could not hear Fess's piano. So once again the Meters were being booed off the stage. This time we left the stage and just let Fess play.
Some music styles can be fads but the Blues and New Orleans music seem to endure why do you think that is?
Blues and New Orleans music are always for some reason grouped to together in a way that I don't really always understand, When I did my first record for Rounder Records, "George Porter Jr. of the Meters Runnin Pardners" it was listed as a blues record and it was definitely not what I consider blues.
I believe though, that the blues music in New Orleans was so closely tied to the R&B music, which was tied to the Funk music that they all run together as a genre sometimes. Which is why I don't necessarily like the labels some people put on music.
I think maybe because of the simplicity of the blues and New Orleans music it endures.
I just think the music is simple and stays listenable and unlike some jazz fusion and other styles which can get over the head of the listener. The Blues people know what it is and New Orleans music is sometimes just good shake your booty stuff, something people can dance to. The fact that it is easy to relate to makes people listen to it over and over again and keeps attracting new audiences.
What do you think is the main characteristic of your personality that made you a musician ?
Maybe the will not to have a nine to five job, I didn't want to be a garbage man or a cook in a big kitchen prepping food, although sometimes if I had known music was going to be as much work as it has been sometimes in my life, I may have taken a day job. I of course started this at a very young age but I had worked on a Canada Dry truck and I worked in the cafeteria in the hospital when I left school and music just seemed more appealing as a way to make money.
Runnin' Pardners how did that come about?
Runnin' Pardners was originally a trio that started with myself a keyboard player named Phil Parnell and a drummer. There is debate whether that was Hurley Blanchard or Bernard "Bunchie" Johnson. We were playing a little club in Uptown New Orleans called The Absolute Restaurant and Bar. We would play on Saturday nights after the dinner service was over. The name came about because the owner wanted to use my name as drawing card and call the band George Porter Jr. and, but it was actually Phil Parnells band and I just didn't think it would be fair to have my name in front of his band, So the owner might have come up with the name "Y'all Runnin Pardners aren't you?" and we took that name. Then when Phil fired me it was the first time in my life ever being fired out of a band. It did not have to do with my ability to play. When he fired me and he eventually lost the gig I took to using the name about 12 years later since no one was using it.
The Runnin' Pardners as my band had the first album in 1990 which actually came mostly from the band called Joy Ride that started in 1979, We recorded the Joy Ride record in 1980 the Runnin Pardners then really came about 10 years later in 1990.
What was the first songs you learned
The first songs I learned on guitar was Down in the Valley, Red River Valley and Home Home on the Range.
What was the first gig you ever went to.
I played bass/ guitar at a Sanctified Church on Gravier St around the corner from my house and I got paid one dollar. Benjamin "Popi" Francis who was the bass/guitar player who I learned how to play from took me there
Photos by Scott Bernstein
What does the blues mean to you?
I am not sure because I don't listen to alot of blues though from time to time I get to play the blues but not often anymore.
I did have the chance to play blues frequently back in the day with Earl King and Snooks Eaglin and sometimes in the old days with Walter Washington. When I was a young kid 15, 16 and 17 coming up sneaking into clubs and trying to play in them you had to know everything. You had to know how to swing you had to know how to shuffle and for the most part most of the fast blues was off the shuffle.
What the blues means to me is that I respect it as the roots of the music that I grew from. I went from playing blues changes with a bebop kind of feel to playing the blues both slow and fast. I had to learn how to play all of it.
What has New Orleans offered to you that is special?
I think New Orleans has offered me as a musician the unique opportunity to have grown up in a time when Earl King, Ernie K Doe, Tommy Ridgely, Benny Spellman, Chris Kenner, Dr John, Snooks Eaglin and Eddie Bo all these guys were the giants, Then there were the Lastie Brothers and guys like Frank Motin guys who did not get to be as big name wise as some of those others but were still talented. I grew up in a time where all these guys shared their thoughts musically in an open way. I believe if I had been in any other place I probably would have still wanted to be a musician but I think I would be more one dimensional instead of as broadminded musically as I am.
I believe that all these great musicians that I was able to hang out with as a kid gave me a gift and I learned from that.
Are there any memories of the Meters you would like to share?
There are some things I would like to say about the Meters that may have been untold to some degree. When we decided to be a band there was a musical camaraderie that happened with that band of sharing thoughts and ideas that didn't happen all the time with other bands. For two and half almost three years, that collaboration worked very well for the band especially in writing instrumental songs.
That sort of stopped when we started going home and bringing music to the group to play that no one else in the band had real influence on writing. Not to say that some of the better music that we recorded was not indeed individually written by someone like Leo or Zig who went home and brought us their song. Of course we still all contributed to them before they were recorded but it was not the same as when we wrote all together.
I just feel that once we started trying to be like everybody else and we lost some of the edge we had when we were considered primarily an instrumental band.
What is something about the Meters that make you smile?
That moment in a song when somebody does something or says something and all four of us respond musically to it in sync with it. Then there is nothing to do but look at each other and grin cause that is something special that can only happen when we are together.
Why do you think the Meters continue to have such a devoted following?
That is a serious question and I have no real clue except the music itself seems to be timeless. Four or so generations of young new players have come into the world and continue to keep our music alive. When Art, Leo and I with Russell Batiste decided we were going to start playing together we were welcomed with open arms because people still valued the music. Then same thing has happened with the Funky Meters it has kept the music out there and, it is like parts of the music never has gone away.
A great deal of the music also never got played live by the band which is the basis for my new Runnin Pardners CD "Cant Beat the Funk". I took 16 of 28 Meters songs that were never played live after they were recorded. I wanted to play and record that music. I gave away two of those songs they are actually available for free download on my web site www,georgeporterjr.com and I re-recorded 14 more on the CD.
I think if you were not familiar with those songs as Meters songs from back in the day you would think they are new and contemporary music.
What is the thing you miss the most from the Meters?
Well I don’t miss much of anything from the Meters as we still get together to play periodically and we get together to play in different combinations. So there is not much to miss as it is still happening.
What experiences in your life have made you a good musician?
The experience of being around the great New Orleans musicians, who gave me constant on the job training. Many of the songs I played I learned on the gig. I did not have all those records at home I learned all those bebop songs and so many others on the spot
Of all the people you have met who do you admire the most?
Hmmm I would have to say I don't know. I guess my hero musically would have to be Earl King.
From who musically have learned the most secrets?
Well over the course of the last 45 years I am not sure whom I have learned the most secrets from. I have never spent enough time with any single person to get all their secrets and I am still learning. There are secrets I am still digging out. Some of those secrets I am discovering on my own. I am basically a self taught musicians so just going into myself and finding things about the music I play or that I have decided to play I am still learning secrets about that.
Are there any memories from New Orleans from the sixties and seventies you would like to share?
No not really, If I start telling some of those stories there could be trouble. Maybe when I write my book you can read about them.
What is some of your most vivid memories of Snooks Eaglin?
Oh Snooks was such a character musically and personally. One night I was playing with him at the Rock n Bowl and he called this Ray Charles song that I had never played before that had this ungodly number of chord changes in it. Snooks called all those changes out loud over and over even after I got it, like he just didn't trust that I had it. You can actually see it on You Tube.
Patti LaBelle, Dr John, Taj Mahal, Bo Dollis, Albert King, are there any memories with all GREAT MUSICIANS, which you’d like to share with us?
I appreciate I was allowed to participate in projects with all of these great musicians and that I got to be myself on these projects while at the same time trying to help make sure that it was going to be a good record representative of the artists style. I would have to say that my experience as a session player is that I know how to be myself and make a contribution that does not take away from what was trying to be done by the producer.
Do you have any amusing tales to tell from Irma Thomas & Allen Toussaint?
Nothing really amusing but Irma Thomas was the first artist to ever take me on a gig outside of New Orleans, she has been the big sister I never had over the years.
Allen Toussaint , his knowledge and ability to get music out of people, is something I have walked away from recording sessions with him admiring. I have seen him take artists and inspire them to be even better than they thought they could ever be. Especially with female artists he just made the artist so comfortable and confident that they could play music they were not even familiar with. I have learned some of that, how to inspire people to be even better than they think they are capable of.
What advice Earl King, Lee Dorsey, and Johnny Adams given to you, which memory from those makes you smile?
I don't ever remember getting advice from Lee Dorsey or Johnny Adams. Earl King on many occasions told me you have to believe in what in your doing in order to be able to do what you want to do. It took me a long time to understand and to this day I sometimes struggle with believing that I am accomplishing everything I can and want to do. I am very skeptical sometimes that I am doing this correctly and I am still learning how to be more confident in reaching my goals.
I do know that I am very consistent in my session playing and I come to the table open minded. Knowing it is not all about George Porter Jr. being on this record I am going to do what the artist needs to be done. I think that professionalism is something I learned from working with all these artists.
When I think of all those guys who came before I constantly smile. Earl more than anybody he would make me feel I walked into a room of sunshine. I knew when I left the side of Earl King that day I was going to be enlightened, I would leave knowing more about what I do and why I was doing it than I did when I walked in.
What turns you on?
There is no more pleasure than watching people enjoying what I am doing. I can't think of anything better than when the band is playing great and doing things musically that makes us look at each other and smile. Then we look out and see that the audience is smiling and enjoying it too. That is so cool.
What is your secret musical dream?
I would like to be able to say that my dream is to have my music plastered over billboards all over the world but I know that is just a dream, I know that most of us don't get that shot and I think it is more important is to find something within ourselves that keeps us true to what we love to do musically and at the same time that there will be people out there who appreciate and enjoy what I am putting out there.
If you go back to the past what things you would do better and what things you would avoid to do again?
If I had anything I could do better I would not give up my reading of music. When I was reading music I could open up a songbook and look at some music written in the 30's or something, then sit down and play it. I cannot do that anymore, now trying to read music is like Greek to me. Oops but you know what I mean.
If there was a way to go back I would avoid the drugs and alcohol and if I knew I was going to live this long and that life was going to be this good at this age, I might have taken better care of myself.
Give one wish for the Blues & New Orleans
My one wish for the blues and for New Orleans is that our music could be heard in a larger scope. It would be nice to hear more of our music commercially in the world, but saying that, it is not really that important. What is important is that I am doing an interview for a writer in Greece who is familiar with our music that is the kind of thing that means so much to us. It is wonderful that there are people in other parts of the world that are listening to what we are doing down here Blues R&B and Funky New Orleans music and appreciating it.
Es La Bas!!
...to be funky all the time.
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