Leo Nocentelli is a truly unique figure in the history of guitar playing. This forefather of funk is perhaps the greatest rhythm guitarist to ever walk the planet. His sound has deeply influenced a range of historic artists from Paul Simon to Earth, Wind & Fire to the Red Hot Chili Peppers. During the 1960s Nocentelli created a deeply personal vocabulary of scratches, stutters, stops, syncopations, muting — amazing muting — stabs and bends plus picking effects that made his guitar sound like a horn or a chicken.
As a member of the Meters — a band he co-founded with keyboardist Art Neville, bassist George Porter, Jr. and drummer Zigaboo Modeliste in 1965 and that grew and developed as the primary session players for songwriter Allen Toussaint’s Crescent City productions — he played on hundreds of singles and albums that helped lay the groundwork for modern rock, blues and R&B. These range from Lee Dorsey’s rollicking New Orleans groovers “Ride Your Pony” (1965) and “Working in the Coal Mine” (1966) to Dr. John’s early ’70s masterpieces In the Right Place and Desitively Bonnaroo to Labelle’s pre-disco smash ”Lady Marmalade.”
Then there’s the raft of largely instrumental albums and hit singles under the Meters’ own name. Meters numbers like the Nocentelli penned 1969 hit “Cissy Strut” and 1975’s “Fire on the Bayou” helped bring the unfiltered grooves of New Orleans’ music to the world and played a vital role in that city’s explosion of cultural tourism.
Never content to rest on his foundation of timeless work, Nocentelli has ceaselessly pushed himself to be a versatile player. Today his “trick bag,” to use a term borrowed from the great New Orleans songwriter Earl King, includes a, supremely deep well of licks that extend to fusion and textural music.
In recent decades Nocentelli has been dividing his time between New Orleans, Los Angeles and the stages and studios of the world. His session credits also embrace recordings by Peter Gabriel, Bonnie Raitt, Sarah McLaghlan, Boz Scaggs, Robert Palmer, Etta James, Kip Hanrahan, Stevie Wonder, Albert King, Sting and Robbie Robertson — an incredibly diverse roster.
Now, at age 67, Nocentelli has been nominated for the Rock ‘n’ Roll Hall of Fame as a member of the Meters — for the second time.
“I’m as elated about this as any artist would be,” Nocentelli says when we connect by phone one mid-October morning. “You’re not eligible until you’ve been a contributor for over 25 years. I have been a contributor for over 50 years.”
Nonetheless, this is the second year in a row the Hall of Fame’s committee has nominated the Meters, and Nocentelli expresses dismay in the weight he feels the Hall of Fame’s on-line polling of fans carries in the final decision.
“When voting is on the Internet, you can have fans who are eight, nine, 10, 11, 16 voting. That’s not a bad thing, but they have no idea who the Meters are.”
Which explains why groups like 2012 inductees the Red Hot Chili Peppers — whose tune “Hollywood” seems built directly on the framework of the Meters’ “Africa” — get in with one nomination, while innovative, historic artists like the Meters and the Paul Butterfield Blues Band, who are also getting their second nod this year, do not. For the record, the Meters’ have also been a favorite source of samples for hip-hop artists, including the Beastie Boys, Big Daddy Kane, Run D-M-C, Ice Cube, Cypress Hill, Public Enemy, LL Cool J, N.W.A., Queen Latifah and Heavy D.
“If we don’t get it this year, it’s almost embarrassing,” Nocentelli observes. “There’s a committee that inducts NFL hall of famers, a committee that inducts baseball hall of famers and so on. It’s a group of peers and experts. I think the Rock ‘n’ Roll Hall of Fame should operate the same way.”
Point taken. And you can help Nocentelli and his fellow Meters be part of next year’s induction ceremony by voting via the Rock ‘n’ Roll Hall of Fame’s Online Fan Poll.
But that’s not all we spoke about. Nocentelli, a lifelong Gibson artist who started on anES-175 in the ’60s, was eager to discuss the “Bourbon Street” ES-335 made especially for him by the Gibson Custom Shop in Nashville.
Q: What’s special about the ES-335 “Bourbon Street” model?
A: The only thing that’s different is cosmetic. It’s got a standard ES-335 neck and electronics. But here’s the story. I’m from New Orleans, Louisiana — the home of Mardi Gras. So the guitar is the colors of Mardi Gras: purple, gold and green. The body is purple, the binding is gold and the pick guard is green. The guitar has my name on the truss rod. And It is great sounding. They made two prototypes for me. I love them and play them exclusively. I feel it’s an honor for me and I’d like to see more people be able to get them and maybe continue my legacy with this instrument. I’d be honored to have a production model come out before I die.
Q: Your guitar style is so personal. How did the method of playing you displayed during the ’60s and ’70s, before you started branching out into fusion and beyond, get into your head and your hands?
A: It came from growing up in New Orleans. New Orleans is special. It has its own sound; it’s own beat. Plus, when I started I didn’t want to sound like anybody else. I started learning on an ES-175 and my view of what I wanted to be was a Charlie Christian, a Wes Montgomery, a George Benson… I wanted to be a jazz guitarist. But I started playing around town — playing funk, R&B or whatever — and writing started to infiltrate my style. I wrote “Cissy Strut” two years before we recorded it. It was a melody in my head. It has a jazz kind of feel to it, because it involves a lick that incorporates the bass playing in synch with the guitar, which was almost unheard of then in R&B. So I started applying the songs I wrote to how I performed live.
Q: I think of you as a link between Jimmy Nolen, who developed the James Brown band’s signature guitar style, and later jazz players.
A: There you go! I don’t think there’s a person walking on two legs that can play rhythm better than me. I’ve always had a knack, with the Meters and any other recordings I’ve been involved in, to know what a track deserves when I hear it. I know how to compliment it rhythmically. And that’s what I do best.
I’ve been playing guitar since I was eight years old. Whatever you do — play the guitar or be a truck driver – things change, your body changes, and you evolve. My entire history of playing has been a natural process of evolution. I listen to some of the old Meters recordings and other sessions from those days, and I think that if I still played that way now, I would quit. I had to progress.
Q: Your muting technique is such an important and unique part of your sound. How do you mute?
A: The emphasis is really on the right hand. I’m palming the strings, pressing them down just right to dictate how much tone and how much of the note I want to come out.
Q: What amp do you use today?
A: When I’m in the studio I don’t use an amp. I go straight into the board. They only way I like to play rhythm is without distortion — it has to be crystal clear. And you can’t do that with an amp. They start to distort.
But live I’ve been using Mesa Boogies for the past 10 years. I use two Mesa Boogie Lone Stars wired up so one amp is a slave to the other, but with a chorus pedal I get a beautiful stereo effect.
Q: Tell me about your new project with Peter Gabriel?
A: Well, it started because I was writing a lot of hip-hop tracks, because the Meters have been sampled so often, and I was giving them to a lot of major hip-hop artists. I did an album of those tracks in 2008 called Rhythm & Rhymes, Part 1, and I had Dr. John, Stanton Moore, George Duke and other artists I’m friends with play on it. I was the vocalist. It didn’t do anything commercially, but there was a lot of good music on there and I wanted to so more with it. So I sent the track “Roll On,” that I did with Dr. John, to Peter Gabriel. I said, “Peter, man, I want you to sing on this thing.” And Peter flipped out over the track and put his vocals on there, along with mine, so it’s a vocal duet with me playing guitar. I did the same thing for some of the other tracks — with me and George Duke, and I had Kirk Whalum put some sax on another one.
But Peter loved the song so much that he’s thinking about putting a single out with him and me doing the duet together. If that happens it would be one of the slickest things that’s happened to me in my career. Peter is such a nice person and a unique vocalist. You know, I played on “Digging in the Dirt,” “Steam,” “Kiss That Frog” and other songs on his album Us. We developed a very high mutual admiration for how both of us approach music.
Q: You’ve worked with an amazing array of artists, both with the Meters and as a studio and touring musician. Is there one track you cut that you feel really defined your sound?
A: “Lady Marmalade” with Patti LaBelle and “Sneaking Sally Through the Alley” with Robert Palmer. Those songs incorporated the future of my playing, because they incorporated single-note rhythms and chord rhythms, too. Especially “Sneaking Sally Through the Alley.” That’s one of my favorites.
A lot of people don’t know all the stuff I’ve played on, not to mention the samples. There have been more than 400 samples with giant rap artists. Eminem just sampled the Meters for his song “Berzerk.” It’s unreal.
And that brings me back to the people voting for the Rock ‘n’ Roll Hall of Fame inductees. They don’t know that the hip-hop song they love has a sample of the Meters music.
Q: Are the Meters touring now?
A: Art plays with us when he can, but he’s been back and forth in the hospital, so the emphasis on dates now is on me, George and Zigaboo. We’ve developed a group called the Meter Men. We hired a keyboardist and we’ve been using Page McConnell from Phish lately. But there are plans of doing some touring JoJo Hermann from Widespread Panic and maybe John Medeski. Herbie Hancock might even come do a gig with us as a special keyboardist. All of that is in the future for the Meter Men, but we want Art back whenever he can make it. Nothing beats the original!