George Porter Jr. talks new Runnin’ Pardners album Crying for Hope
An esteemed member of New Orleans’s musical royalty, George Porter Jr. founded The Meters in 1965 alongside Art Neville, Leo Nocentelli and Joseph “Zigaboo” Modeliste.
Known as one of the progenitors of funk, The Meters became the house band for Allen Toussaint’s recording label, backing recordings by Dr. John, Lee Dorsey, Earl King, Robert Palmer and Patty Labelle’s No. 1 hit Lady Marmalade. They toured with the Rolling Stones and influenced a variety of artists including Led Zeppelin, Bob Marley, the Red Hot Chili Peppers and the Beastie Boys. Porter’s rhythmic work with drummer Modeliste also came to be used as building blocks for hip-hop artists A Tribe Called Quest, Run-DMC, N.W.A. and Queen Latifah, all of whom sampled The Meters.
The band broke up in 1977, and Porter went on to become a highly coveted session bassist. He notched studio sessions with David Byrne, Jimmy Buffet, Tori Amos and Taj Mahal, and he performed live with John Scofield, Warren Haynes, members of the Grateful Dead and countless others. In 1990, Porter started his own band, the Runnin’ Pardners.
Porter is a recipient of a Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award and was named one of the 50 greatest bassists of all time by Rolling Stone. Born and raised in the Crescent City, Porter, now 73, calls New Orleans home to this day.
The new Runnin’ Pardners album Crying for Hope was released on March 26. Recorded remotely during the pandemic and echoing themes of social justice, Crying for Hope marks Porter and the band’s first full-length album in a decade. The powerful new album speaks to struggle, perseverance, comfort and rejuvenation.
Porter joined us to talk about the new album and to tell us some stories from the earlier years of his life and career.
Congrats on the new album — and for being voted bassist of the year by Offbeat Magazine, as well.
Thank you. It’s been a crazy ride, but we seem to be faring better in New Orleans.
How many years in a row have you won bassist of the year?
I forgot. I’ve stopped counting. I think I may have lost maybe one or two over the course of their history.
I just played Sissy Strut. I’ve asked you before and I’ll ask you again: How sick are you of that song?
Let’s put it this way: With my trio or with the Runnin’ Pardners, when we play Sissy Strut, the song is now called Sissy Got the Blues, and it’s a 12-bar blues.
So it’s not remotely the same as the original.
It’s not remotely the same song anymore.
This new album of yours, Crying for Hope, is the first new music for Runnin’ Pardners since the It’s Time to Funk EP in 2015. What prompted you to get back together and record?
In 2017, I started this record. The guitar player Brent Anderson quit the band a few months after we started the sessions. We already had almost 26 songs recorded. Brent decided to take on his cooking career and solo career, so he left the band and I didn’t see anybody that I wanted to bring into the band. I didn’t want to go through all that again. So, I just kind of shelved the record. Those 26 songs weren’t looked at again until the early part of last year. It was around March when I had bought a new computer for the studio and was transferring files from the old one to the new one. I went into the Runnin’ Pardners folder and started listening to some songs, and I thought — there are some good songs in here!
Every morning I have to get up at 6:45 with my dog. Miss Vicki wants to get up and do her business and eat. While I was downstairs with her, I would play my acoustic bass and record what I was playing with my phone and take it back upstairs. Basically I wrote seven more songs. So, half of the record is songs from 2017 and the other half I have to give credit to Miss Vicki.
So a lot of this was recorded live before the pandemic?
A lot of it was recorded with all of us in the same room in my studio.
I know how difficult it is to organize a bunch of musicians. I suppose having to record from home has its benefits. Whenever you’re ready, you just punch in and do it.
Pretty much. We would FaceTime each other, and we would talk about where we are in the song, what we were doing and what we would like to do better. We pretty much talked our way through it, sort of like if we were in a session in the same room. This way, it took a little longer to do it, but we got it done. I’m really pleased with the product. The record sounds like we were all in the same place.
Is it tricky to keep it sounding spontaneous when you’re not together?
When you’ve worked together as much as we’ve worked together, we know how to play off of each other.
The title track, Crying for Hope is a deep tune. What inspired it?
It was shortly after the George Floyd incident. I’m not a soldier who marches out screaming from the pulpit, but it was just a feeling. The song wrote itself.
What kind of music was playing around the house when you were a kid?
My dad was into the saxophone and organ players, the jazz musicians. My mom sang in the Catholic school choir where myself and my brother went. So, it was between gospel music and bebop.
Louis Armstrong, Dr. John and you are all from the same area of New Orleans. What’s in the water there?
I always blame it on the mudbugs. Everything that we do down there that’s good, blame it on the crawfish.
How did The Meters all meet up?
Art Neville picked out his musicians. Leo Nocentelli was playing in the band at this club called the Night Cap, and there was a guy named Sam Henry that was playing at this club, and he was a B3 player, and I believe Art went there and hijacked the gig — not only took the gig from him, but Sam left his B3 there and Art played it. At that time, it was Art, Leo and Gary Brown. I was playing with a guy named Irvin Bannister, a wonderful guitar player, and Art came to the club. He was hanging out across the street with Fats Domino. When Art got across the street, I’m playing bass and at the end of the evening, Art asked me if I wanted a gig. It wasn’t a big decision — I said yeah, sure.
He’s the one who suggested switching from guitar to bass.
Well, he was the one who told me I was the worst guitar player he’d ever heard. But I think switching over was a natural thing, mostly because it was a need. There weren’t many electric bass players in the city, and there were gigs that called for electric bass players. It was a natural thing to move over to bass.
When The Meters were Allen Toussaint’s house band, how much freedom did you have playing on those early tracks?
We had no music in front of us. Allen brought us into the studio with him because he used to come into the Night Cap and watch us play. We never knew he was there, but the doorman would tell us at the end of the evening. He used to stop his car on Bourbon Street and listen to us play a couple of songs. I think he saw the camaraderie musically — how we played off each other. I believe that was what attracted him. In the studio, I had some trouble with one of the songs, getting back from one part to another part, and I asked him to write it out so I could read it and always know when it’s time to get back to the other part, and he said, “Man, if I wanted y’all to read this music, I would have kept the rhythm section that I had before.” He had Walter Payton in there, and he was one of the best reading bassists on the planet. He said, “I don’t want y’all to read. I want you to play the parts I give you, but I want you to interpret them.”
You left these really great spaces in your music. To my ears, it was a different type of funk than what, say, James Brown was doing. You weren’t just playing on the one. You were playing a lot on the one-and. Where did that come from?
That’s true. I don’t know why it happened that way. That idea of playing on the downbeat and one the “and” in between one and two, that was just something that we did. We did it naturally and we did it without thinking about it.
You signed a pretty rotten record deal around that time.
That’s the first time I had ever seen that many zeros on a piece of paper that had my name on it. Without question, I signed on the dotted line. It took almost 30 years for me to get back my publishing rights. Our publishing got sold to another company, and the company that it got sold to basically started paying us. It was 30-some years before we started getting paid for music that we had done. Luckily for us, the secretary in that management’s office credited our writer’s royalties. There were artists in our days that weren’t even getting their writer’s royalties. There were record labels claiming they owned both the writing and the publishing rights. We lucked out.
Robert Palmer was a huge fan of you and The Meters. He gets you to play on his first studio album Sneakin’ Sally Through the Alley in 1974. The record comes out and you’re not mentioned anywhere. How does that happen?
I never understood that, either. That first record, man, the parts that were played on that record, all those bass lines are my bass lines. All those grooves that Leo and Zigaboo played, we wrote all our own parts. For him to leave us out, I never knew why we were ignored. When we came back to do the second record, we basically sat on our hands and he got nothing out of us. We didn’t offer anything. So, that session never happened. He went away and we never saw him again.