The Meters are universally accepted as one of the great funk bands. Their rhythm section work is legendary for its ability to jump on a groove and stay put. One of the vital cogs to this band has always been guitarist Leo Nocentelli. Whether it’s a popping, funky single-line melody, killer jazz work, or some big fuzzy rock work, he can handle it all. VG recently talked with Nocentelli, right before a Meters reunion gig in San Francisco.
Vintage Guitar: Let’s start at the beginning. Would any of us run across you before your work with the Meters?
Leo Nocentelli: I did a lot of recording with different people, mainly Allen Toussaint. I did some stuff with Lee Dorsey. Remember “Ya,Ya,” and “Workin’ In a Coal Mine”?
So it would be safe to say you’ve always been a New Orleans guy?
Oh yeah, from way back. I did stuff with Ernie K-Doe, like “Mother-In-Law.” So people were hearing me, even if at the time they didn’t know who I was.
The Meters are a New Orleans band. How did it come together?
Well, when I was still in my teens, Art Neville had a group called The Hawkettes. I’d been playing around town, and Art heard me and hired me for his band. It went on to where he started hiring other people, and dropping horn people. He eventually hired Zig (Joseph “Zigaboo” Modeliste) to play drums and changed the name to Art Neville and the Neville Sounds.
After going through various bass players, he hired George Porter. At that point, we started playing at a club called The Ivanhoe, in the French Quarter. We were there for about two years before we made our first recording as the Neville Sounds, with him doing the lead vocals. It wasn’t a hit. At that point… do you remember a song called “Hold It”?
Well, it was an instrumental that all the bands opened with at the time. I’d been doing it for years. When we were playing at The Ivanhoe, I got tired of playing it. So I decided to write a song. I didn’t have a name for it. I introduced it to the band and we started playing it.
One night, Allen Toussaint came in, liked the song, and liked the band. He asked us if we wanted to come in and record some instrumentals. Of course we said, “Yeah.” We recorded some songs, including “Sophisticated Cissy,” which was actually the first song I ever wrote. Well, Allen said, “What’s that song you guys open up your set with?” I told him the history of it, and he took us back into the studio to cut it. At that time we named it “Cissy Strut.” The song came out and sold like 200,000 copies in the first week, so we immediately formed a co-op situation, the name Meters came up, and we stuck with it.
After the success of “Cissy Strut,” you cut an album?
Yeah, in fact we cut three for a label that’s defunct now – Josie Records. After they went down, we made a deal with Warner Brothers, and became one of the first black groups on Reprise. At the time, Warner was strictly pop-oriented, and didn’t have a whole lot of experience with R&B acts. So, we kind of got caught up in that. The material was good, but the fact is, Warner just wasn’t equipped with knowing what to do with it.
I can believe that because I wasn’t aware of you guys until the mid ’70s, in my upper teens, and I had already gotten into funk and R&B pretty heavily.
Well, the Meters were always the kind of a band that had a cult following. You have to have a great marketing system, and at the time, Warner Brothers didn’t have that.
We throw around the term R&B a lot, and funk is usually what’s mentioned when the Meters name comes up. But you guys were pretty versatile…
We all come from different musical backgrounds, as far as what we like. I started out listening to guys like Kenny Burrell, Johnny Smith, Charlie Christian, and people like that. Even “Cissy Strut” is kind of a jazz-bump kind of thing with a groove to it.
There are some cuts on the reissues that definitely emphasize your jazz side; you play octaves and chord solos…
Yeah, you can really hear my personal influences on some of the later stuff, like “Rejuvenation.” There’s a song called “Middle of the Road,” and on the album Trick Bag, there’s a song called “Suite for 20G” which James Taylor originally wrote and I always loved. I kind of rearranged it and played an instrumental version of it. I put a kind of Wes Montgomery feel to it.
You guys did some covers, but other than that was it writing by committee?
We did a few covers, not too many. And the writing? Well, I had the most musical training, so that responsibility fell on me. Basically, because I loved to write, too. At that time, it wasn’t about me. The only thing I was interested in was making sure the Meters found their place in the history, or whatever. Just trying to make a mark. So, a lot of the songs I took credit for, and some of them I just shared. From a financial aspect, those songs are making nice money right now for everybody. I mean who knows? Hindsight is 20/20. If I would have known the songs would turn into what they’re doing now, because everyone has sampled those songs, I don’t know, I probably still would have done the same thing.
I know you guys have done some work together again recently, right?
Yeah, Zig left the band around ’84, and everyone kind of disbanded and started doing their own thing. We’d get together periodically to do something, but not regularly. I moved to L.A. and started doing some things with my band, and we started to get kind of popular doing gigs. I decided to call George to come do some dates with me in San Francisco. We did that. People started to book the band a little more, and we called the band Geo/Leo.
We did some touring, and at a gig in ’89, Art Neville showed up. Zig was there, too. So George and I did our set, then I called ‘em both up to the bandstand, and that was the first time the four of us had been onstage together for a long time. Right after that, we started to do work as the Meters. All of us except Zig. We did that until ’93.
At that time, I ran into some business differences with the band and management. I could be specific, but I don’t think it’s necessary. Let’s just say there were some things I couldn’t deal with. So I left.
A few months ago, I was approached by a friend who said, “Why not get together?” Well, a lot of the Meters business that I wasn’t satisfied with earlier had been straightened up. So, it made it possible to play with these guys again.
How about work in the studio? When the Meters weren’t up and running, were you working with other folks?
Oh, yeah. I’ve done work with Peter Gabriel; played on the Us album. I did some stuff with Keb Mo. I’ve been doing lots of recording with rap groups. A lot of them have sampled me, and I guess now they’re figuring, “Why not get the real deal?”
So, you’re not one of those musicians who thinks rap is “bad” for music and takes jobs away from “real” musicians?
Oh, no! No way. I think in terms of being a writer, publisher, and artist, well, when people sample you, you get paid for your artistry or playing, your writing ability, and your publishing. In the beginning, it was kind of strange, because people were sampling, and not paying. Once that was changed, and people were getting paid for the artistry that was in their grooves, it was cool to be sampled by professionals like Ice Cube, Latifah, Heavy D, and people like that.
What’s your baby as far as an axe goes?
Well, for 25 years, I played a black 1976 Fender Starcaster. And I did a lot of recording with it.
How many of them do you have?
I have the black one, plus one in sunburst and one in blond. I basically use the black one.
The Starcaster was their answer to Gibson’s ES-335…
Yeah, and it has a nice jazz sound, but you can do pretty much anything you want to with it.
What did you use before the Starcaster?
I used the Tele on most the early Meters stuff.
So, you were traditionally a Fender guy, then. Same thing with amps?
Yeah, I used a red-knobbed Fender, which they also don’t make anymore.
Word is you recently made a switch…
Yeah, about a year ago I started playing a Gibson ES-335, and I’ve found a lot more versatility with it. Gibson has been really supportive of my efforts and career.
Right now, I’m working on my first solo studio album, which will contain all new material, and you’ll hear it on there. People can get Live in San Francisco now, and it’s got a lot of great Meters stuff. But the new album gives me the opportunity to re-live some of the same type of stuff from the Meters; it’s 2002 Meters personified – but all new material! It should available in early Fall.
So are you using other new gear, as well?
Yes, in fact, I love my Line 6 amps, and I’ve always been a fan of Dean Markley strings. I’ve also been getting into accessories a little more, so I’m using a gorgeous Levy’s strap and a lot of Dunlop stuff.
Anyone wanting to leap into the Meters legacy these days is in luck. There’s a fine best-of collection on Rhino, and the folks at Sundazed have reissued the majority of the Meters catalog, chock full of smoldering funk and rock, and everything in-between. Plus, with Nocentelli stepping up with a new solo studio album, it’s Meters and beyond in the new millennium.
Leo Nocentelli’s longtime favorite guitar is a ’76 Fender Starcaster, a short-lived thinline semi-hollowbody produced as a response to Gibson’s ES-335. Photo courtesy of Leo Nocentelli.
This article originally appeared in VG‘s Sep. ’02 issue. All copyrights are by the author and Vintage Guitar magazine. Unauthorized replication or use is strictly prohibited.