Leo Nocentelli is a musical pioneer. As a forefather of funk with The Meters, Leo helped create the syncopated style made famous on tracks like “Cissy Strut.” Leo’s soulful rhythm guitar style with the New Orleans-based quartet (also featuring Art Neville, George Porter Jr. and Zigaboo Modeliste) helped make The Meters’ music legendary and gained the utmost respect of superstars such as The Rolling Stones and Paul McCartney.
After The Meters broke up in the late ’70s (and in between their many reunions), Leo has toured as a solo act and worked as a session player, performing on albums by Peter Gabriel and Robbie Robertson. On Monday, August 9, he’ll play a special tribute show in honor of Les Paul at the Iridium Jazz Club in New York City, where Les had a weekly engagement until a few weeks before his death last year. For information on the show, visit www.nocentelli.com.
Leo recently spoke to Gibson.com about his funky past with The Meters, explained his love of the ES-335’s sonic versatility and told the story of the amazing night when his band were commissioned to perform a private show for Led Zeppelin.
You’ve been doing shows that are billed as The Meters Experience. Tell me what is involved with that.
Well, The Meters Experience consists of some of the great musicians and artists I’ve acquainted myself with over the years and even in the present day, now. Such musicians as Oteil Burbridge, Bernie Worrell … right now I’m using Bill Dickens, bassist with Stevie [Wonder] and Janet [Jackson], Al Di Meola, Jason Crosby [who works with] Robert Randolph. Basically, it’s the concept of The Meters, because, you know, I’ve always done Meter music because it’s my music. I’m the writer of the music. And a lot of people kind of criticize me because I’m doing the music, but I can’t be nobody else but me. It’s kind of a precarious position I’m in, because The Meters is known as a group, as four guys. But the real source, what makes The Meters … of course, the personal musicianship is very important, but it’s the songs are the things that make The Meters stand out. I was the most musically educated person in the band, so I was the one who would write the songs. And by writing the songs, it was me coming out. When I play songs like “Cissy Strut” and “Fire on the Bayou” and “Hey Pocky A-Way” and stuff like that, I’m playing me. And it kind of proved itself. I just did a new CD called Rhythm & Rhymes, and basically, if you listen, it’s an extrapolation of the material and the concept of the songs in the same vein that I wrote for The Meters. So, The Meters Experience is when I go out on the road, I play those songs with the accompaniment I get.
You mentioned “Cissy Strut.” I heard that you wrote that as a song to open The Meters’ set, to replace your traditional opener. Is that true?
Yeah. There was a club on Bourbon Street. This is before The Meters, man. We were called Art Neville and the Neville Sounds. Art Neville was the elder statesman in the group, he already had a group called The Hawkettes. By the time we got to a club called the Ivanhoe, it was George [Porter Jr.] and Zig [Modeliste] and myself and Art. That was really The Meters, but we weren’t called The Meters. We used to play Top 40 stuff. And most of the bands, all of the bands had an opening song that they’d play before they’d actually get into their set. And one of the songs that everybody kind of played was a song called “Hold It.” And everybody played it, man. I got sick of playing that, so I wrote “Cissy Strut.” The melody came out and I introduced it to George, Art and Zig. And we started opening the set with “Cissy Strut,” but it didn’t have a name or anything. It was just that song, that opening song. That’s how that happened. We recorded the song, and it was named “Cissy Strut” long after I wrote it.
So inspiration struck first, and then you had to figure out what it’s called.
Yeah, well there’s a lot of songs like that in The Meters’ catalogue – especially the early instrumentals. One of the most interesting titles was, we were trying to find a title for an instrumental and there was an old radio, one of those, like, 1950 radios. And they had the radios that came with those tubes in it. They had numbers on the tubes and one of the numbers was 6V6LA … And that instrumental, “6v6 La,” [on the band’s 1969 debut album] was named after a radio tube, just on the spur of the moment.
Those early days, before you were called The Meters, did you consider yourselves a funk band? Was anyone calling that music “funk”?
At that time, funk wasn’t as prevalent as it is now. People wasn’t really mentioning it; it was almost like it was a bad word. So back then, it was called R&B. I think the unique thing that made The Meters sound is … when I wrote “Cissy Strut,” that was a first, in terms of guitar and bass playing the same melody, playing the lead melody. It’s old hat today, everybody does it now. It was done in jazz, but if the bass player got away from playing the regular 1-4-5 changes in R&B, then it was like, taboo. That’s what made that song unique and it came out of the equation to be called syncopation, where the bass was in synch with the guitar. I think that’s what made that song what it is, and the funk thing, it was actually a funk sound, but it was called R&B. You know how we change different titles. R&B became funk. And then funk became rap. Stuff like that. So it goes on and on and on …
It seems like that’s common. That it takes a while for something to catch on, before everyone starts calling it the same thing.
The thing about it was The Meters was known as funk and then rap came. And what made that coalition was that the rap artists started rapping over our R&B songs, our funk songs. All of a sudden, The Meters songs developed into hip-hop. All this stuff, like “Cissy Strut,” been sampled so many times. Now, it’s funk, but it’s hip-hop, too. It just evolved, man.
I’ve always thought that what Booker T. and the M.G.’s were to Memphis, The Meters were to New Orleans. Would you agree?
No doubt. There’s no doubt about that. I think Booker T. had the gift of, maybe, having their business a little more together and recording with Stax and all that. They had people who knew how to exploit their artists a little better. I mean, I think that was the advantage they had over The Meters. We were just some neighborhood guys that got together and started playing together. New Orleans, in terms of the record industry, the industry wasn’t there. That’s what kind of kept The Meters under the radar. And it’s almost like that even now.
In those days, and even once you were established, The Meters split their time between backing up different acts and being at the forefront as your own group. Did you have a preference? Would you rather be out in front?
I like both, you know. There’s some value in both things, man. But I’ve always been the guy to play in the background. It’s just my nature. I’m doing my solo thing now, and I’ve been doing it quite heavily for the past 15 to 20 years. I always liked being in the background, but I’m kind of forced to do my own thing, from an economical standpoint. And the fact [is] that I’m enjoying it, and some of the accolades I’m getting. Such is the gig that I’m doing in New York, at the Iridium.
I saw that on your calendar, yes. Tell me about what you’re going to do there.
This is in association with Gibson and the fact that Les Paul had a date there every Monday. After Les died, they started developing a thing where they hire guitarists to come in and do a Les Paul night, dedicating the night to Les Paul. People like Slash and Jeff Beck … the list of great guitarists just goes on and on. I was honored by the fact that they asked me to come and do one of those nights – Leo Nocentelli’s tribute to Les Paul.
What do you have planned as far as music? Are you going to play a few Les Paul tunes?
I don’t know, man. I’ve thought about that. Maybe I will. Maybe I will. I would imagine you’d have to do something. I’m going to represent myself, but Les Paul inspired everybody. Anything you play is going to be inspired by somebody. And I think there’s a little bit of Les in me and in my personal songs. There’s a few guitarists that’s like that. You can’t play without hearing some Les Paul. You can’t play without hearing some Jimi Hendrix. If you go to jazz guys, you can’t play without hearing some Wes Montgomery. You don’t have to really play those people’s songs to bring out the inspiration that they gave you. Les Paul brought on a different style. Whether you liked him or not, it was different and he was an innovator. Anybody that’s an innovator, man, holds a special merit to the music world. That’s what makes people stand out. I’ve tried to emulate that kind of concept.
Talking about standing out, many musicians cite you as one of the best rhythm players ever. Is there a secret to great rhythm guitar?
I was gifted, man. Sometimes, I do some clinics and a lot of the young guys will ask me, “Leo, how can you teach me funk?” So I say, “Listen, man. If you wasn’t born with it, if it’s not in your soul, then it’s not going to happen.” A lot of people can teach you how to play classical, how to play jazz, but they can’t teach you funk, man. It’s the same aspect with rhythm guitar. It’s about knowing what to play. When you hear something, you have to know what to play to compliment what you’re hearing. If you can’t compliment it, then it’s academic. It doesn’t work. If it doesn’t compliment the main idea, it isn’t worth doing. I’ve been gifted with the foresight to see what something would sound like if I played it like this or like that. I don’t know how it happens, but it just happens, but I have a knack for knowing what to play.
I know, for a while now, you’ve been a 335 guy. What’s in that guitar that keeps you loyal?
Well, when I first started playing, I started playing a Gibson 175. That’s what “Cissy Strut” and all those older songs were done with, man. Although, with the 175, the body is bigger. I’ve always been into the hollowbody box, like the 175, and then they started coming out with the semi-hollow. That gave you the leverage of being able to sound a little bit jazzy and be able to sound a little bit rock and roll, too. It’s a very versatile instrument. And that’s what I get out of the 335. If I want to play a little jazz, I can do that. If I want to rock hard, I can do that. If I want to get in between, all of that can be done with that ES-335. It’s the versatility of it that keeps me playing it.
I know some players like the feel of it, too. They feel like their holding something substantial.
Yeah, it’s a very powerful instrument. The pickups on it are really great humbuckers. It’s a really well-made guitar. You can tell by the amount of players that’s using it. It speaks for itself. Some guitars stand out. And another guitar that stands out by Gibson is the Les Paul. Between the ES-335 and the Les Paul, they are about the most outstanding guitars that could be represented by Gibson. They have proven themselves.
In the mid-’70s, a lot of big rock acts got really interested in The Meters. Paul McCartney recorded with you. You opened for The Rolling Stones. What do you think drew them to your band?
I think it was just a new sound, the new syncopated sound. A funny story – we had three albums out and there was a studio where we did [them], called Cosmo’s Studio. We got a call and it said that there was a group out there that wanted us to play for their party. So we said, “OK, what’s the name of the group?” They said the group was Led Zeppelin and they wanted us to play for them. So we got all excited, because Led Zeppelin had a name out there at the time. They weren’t as big as they are now, or as they would become. But they had a name out there, and we was excited to play. So we get all dressed up in uniforms and all this stuff. So, we go over to the studio, and it had a big room there. The room was probably big enough to hold about 50 to 100 people. It was going to be a nice party for Led Zeppelin, who was coming to New Orleans, show them a good time. So we go and set up and start playing, but there wasn’t any people there. So we’re wondering where all the people are, where are all the guests? All of a sudden, Jimmy Page and all the rest of the guys, they all came in. And they was the only ones there. You know what I mean? In other words, it was pre-planned like that. There wasn’t supposed to be any people. We were just playing for those guys.
And everybody gets something from somebody else. When I was writing for The Meters, I got a lot of stuff from other people. That being said, man, when I listened to some of the Led Zeppelin songs, it sounds like The Meters. You could hear it, man. Not to say that Jimmy … you know, there’s no way The Meters could even duplicate or accomplish what Led Zeppelin have done. But there has to be some kind of influence, some inspiration from somewhere to go to that level.
That’s one thing that stands out in my memory. Of course, then The Rolling Stones, we did two months in the states and then another four in Europe to open up for them. And that was an honor. When a group of that magnitude, Led Zeppelin, The Rolling Stones, Paul McCartney, when they say, listen, we want you to open up for us, that means that they really like your music, that someone would play before them and really get the crowd together. You’re someone they admire and respect. So, I think it’s a great thing about The Meters, that they really respected The Meters.
Once The Meters broke up in the late ’70s, I know that you did a lot of session work. How did that start? Did you just get offers from Peter Gabriel or Robert Palmer?
Well, The Meters had more notoriety in the industry, more than with John Doe Public. I don’t think you could have been any major artist and not know who The Meters are or not admire their music. I think if there was an opportunity to use The Meters whether it was an individual or whatever, some of the artists did it. Like, Peter Gabriel called me and asked me to play on an album called Us. And there was two songs. I did about six or seven tracks, because sometimes they’ll have you do a lot of tracks, but they might not use but two or three of them. A couple of the tracks that I did on the Us album, there was a song called “Digging in the Dirt” and a song called “Steam.” And “Steam” came out and was a big single. And he asked me to do that, I guess, because of my guitar style and my style fit the track. So, I was glad to do that.
And Robert Palmer came down, him and Lowell George. That was the first time I met Lowell, and this was when Little Feat was really starting to get their thing together. He brought Lowell down and introduced me to Lowell, and we did Sneakin’ Sally Through the Alley, that album with Robert. This is a little trivia a lot of people don’t know: Lowell came and asked if we played on a couple of songs for Little Feat, he’ll play on a couple of ours. So, there’s a song called “Just Kissed My Baby” that’s on the Rejuvenation album that’s got a slide guitar on there ...
That’s Lowell George?
That’s Lowell George. To this day, I don’t know. I think it was just a typo. I spread the word, you know. I don’t know why there’s not any credit on the album, Rejuvenation. And then, I just heard a couple of tracks we did with Lowell, before he was dead and I completely forgot about, but they’re out on the Internet. I don’t know how they got it, but I heard it.
I have to ask you about the HBO show Treme, which is all about New Orleans, post-Katrina. Have you seen any of it?
Oh yeah, I watch it all the time.
What did you think about it? I’m not from there, so I have no idea how well they captured things.
It’s almost better that you’re not from there. If you’re from there and you grew up there, like me, and you’re hearing all these catchy phrases and all the street names … I like the show, but as a guy who’s from there, it’s kind of over the top for me. But to you, or somebody else, it’s really great because they’re learning about New Orleans. I think the production is really good. I know they played “Hey Pocky A-Way” on one of the episodes, so that was cool. And, all the people that’s on there, the musicians, I grew up with those guys – Deacon John and Trombone Shorty and Kermit [Ruffins] and Donald Harrison. Those guys are very dear to me, so it’s good to see those guys on that show.
You can’t argue with the talent there.
No, New Orleans is a helluva place. I can’t believe that I was born and raised there and when I look at it, unbelievable. It’s contagious. There’s not too many places that you can say have their own music. You can’t go and say, I’m going to play some Atlanta music tonight. Or I’m going to play some Wisconsin music. Or some L.A. music. But you can say you’re going to play some New Orleans music. There’s another place that comes to mind, Memphis music. When you say New Orleans music, you know what the person is talking about.
One last question: any chance of a full Meters reunion in the future?
Well, you never know, man. We’re all still living, we’re still agile, we’re still playing. The last thing we did was in ’06. There has been some talk. With enough finances, we could probably get these four crazy guys together. There’s issues. There always will be issues. But we’ve been able to look past them. I’ll put it like this: I’m in hope that we will get together and do something again, for a lot of reasons. I’m hoping for that day. When all four of us get on that stage, it’s a different thing. We come from four different backgrounds, we have different ways of thinking completely. But when it comes down to music, we’re all on the same page.