The Meters were better known —and better paid —as New Orleans' finest backup band than as a self-contained feature act. Their lean, peppery R&B gave a funky flavor to recordings by out-of-towners like Paul McCartney and Labelle, but on their own, their rhythms were too tricky, their vocals too understated, and their sound altogether too spare to reach a broad audience.
When Art Neville formed the group in 1967, he had been a prominent musician in New Orleans for almost 15 years. He was still in high school when, leading the Hawketts, he cut the 1954 Chess single "Mardi Gras Mambo," which made them a popular regional act and is still pressed every year for Mardi Gras. He had put out a handful of regional hits as a soloist —"Cha Dooky Doo" and "Ooh-Whee Baby" on Specialty in the late '50s, and "All These Things" on Instant in 1962 —before he formed Art Neville and the Sounds with his brothers Charles and Aaron as singers, guitarist Leo Nocentelli, bassist George Porter, and drummer Ziggy Modeliste around 1966. They played local clubs until producer Allen Toussaint and his business partner Marshall Sehorn hired them, minus Charles and Aaron, to be the house rhythm section for their Sansu Enterprises in 1968. As such, they backed Lee Dorsey, Chris Kenner, Earl King, Betty Harris, and Toussaint himself on stage and in the studio in the late '60s and early '70s.
Concurrently, the quartet performed on its own as the Meters. Their popularity was not limited to New Orleans, and their hits —mostly dance instrumentals —included "Sophisticated Cissy" (#34 pop, #7 R&B, 1969), "Cissy Strut" (#23 pop, #4 R&B, 1969), "Look-Ka Py Py" (#11 R&B, 1969), and "Chicken Strut" (#11 R&B, 1970).
In 1972 the Meters signed with Reprise Records, retaining Toussaint as their producer and Sehorn as manager. The major label did not bring about a commercial breakthrough —in fact, the moderate hits gave way to minor hits —but the Meters were widely heard, if not recognized, on albums by Dr. John, Robert Palmer, Jess Roden, Labelle, King Biscuit Boy, and Paul McCartney and Wings. They backed Dr. John on tours in 1973 and King Biscuit Boy in 1974, and opened shows for the Rolling Stones on the Stones' 1975 American and 1976 European tours.
In 1975 the Meters joined George and Amos Landry —members of a Mardi Gras ceremonial "black Indian tribe," the Wild Tchoupitoulas, and uncle and cousin, respectively, to Neville —to record The Wild Tchoupitoulas (Island, 1976). Aaron, Charles, Art, and Cyril Neville contributed vocals to the sessions, reuniting the Neville Sounds for the occasion. Shortly before that album's release, Cyril joined the Meters. A year later, the group cut ties with Toussaint and Sehorn, complaining that it was denied artistic control. For New Directions, the Meters teamed with San Francisco producer Dave Rubinson, but that album was not to their satisfaction either, and in 1977, when Toussaint and Sehorn claimed the Meters name, the band broke up. Art and Cyril joined Aaron and Charles as the Neville Brothers, while the other band members found freelance work in New Orleans. Modeliste drummed for Keith Richards and Ron Wood on their New Barbarians tour in 1979.
The Meters re-formed in 1990 with drummer Russell Batiste taking over for Modeliste, who had moved to L.A. and become a session player. In 1994 founding member Nocentelli left the band, reportedly because of disagreements with Art Neville over whether or not the band should be compensated for samples lifted from their back catalogue by contemporary hip-hop groups. Brian Stoltz, who replaced Nocentelli, had played with the Neville Brothers. The Meters continue to tour. In 1995 Rhino released Funkify Your Life, a two-CD compilation of the group's early Josie and Warner Bros. sides. In November 2000 Porter, Neville, Nocentelli, and Modeliste reunited for a one-night-only concert in San Francisco, marking the first time in 20 years that the quartet all shared the same stage.
This biography originally appeared in The Rolling Stone Encyclopedia of Rock & Roll (Simon & Schuster, 2001).