How Music has Impacted George Porter, Jr.'s Life

I've read that your parents were both music lovers. What impact did you parents love for music have on your development as a young musician?

Not as much as I would have thought, but my dad liked jazz... he liked the saxophone players. He wasn’t into what you would call progressive jazz. He was the Stanley Turrentine and Dexter Gordon type, the mild laid back players. My mom was just basically into R&B.  She loved New Orleans and liked the Earl King and Ernie K Doe type of stuff.  We were at St. Catherine School where the organ player was a firm believer that music could keep young people out of trouble. I guess I showed early on that I was going to be trouble. So Gus, the organ player, told my mom she should get my brother and I instruments. My mom got us both violins when we were about 6 or 7. That lasted only about 2 months. My dad didn’t like the {imitating screeching noises while playing an imaginary violin and laughing}. He wanted no part in that. He said we got to get these things out of here! And he did. At that point though I wanted to play something so my grandmother gave me a guitar for my 8th birthday. That was pretty much the seed because once I got that guitar, it was nonstop. I slept with that thing.

Would you say that was the moment you realized music would be the path you chose for your life or was there another moment later on that happened that made you realize this is what you would be doing?

No, that wasn’t the moment. I thought that playing the instrument was keeping me off the streets because I’d come home and play, ya know? I had no clue that this would still be happening, that there would’ve ever been The Meters or working with Allen Toussaint and all those wonderful people I grew up around. That came about 6-7-8 years later when I got to meet the people whose music I had been listening to on WBOK as a kid. Earl King, Ernie K Doe, Johnny Adams, Benny Spellman, Lastie Brothers. All of those are my teachers. Frank Moton, Walter Washington. I met Walter when I was 16, he was playing in a club called the 808 with a guy Frank Moton, a saxophone player. The bass player that was playing that gig, he was a good player, but he just didn’t have motivation. He would play with one hand and have a cigarette and a drink in the other. That would be considered my real move as a professional player. I sat in one night when I was just 16 years old, and I ate him up. I just scooped him. It was playing blues and jazz and swing kind of stuff, and it was somewhere during the 3rd set (they used to do three 1 hour sets back then) they would cut Walter loose and then we were playing some of the serious blues.

Can you describe your artistic creative process as it relates to writing music?

I don’t know how to explain that because I don’t know if I have discovered that yet because I’m still working really hard at learning how to write a piece of music that is going to live as long as some of the stuff I have already created. On my own, I’m looking to be that prolific writer that I was a part with the group The Meters. 

I’ve read that you’ve got upwards of 2000-3000 cassette tapes of gigs that y’all would listen to the day after a show…

That’s close. When I started recording live music, (I) was recording the live gigs, and it was on the first cassette player…that flat cassette player where it pops up and you stick the cassette in. I always listened because I always wanted to know what I did and how it went. The Meters weren’t quite interested in listening, but I always was and it lived with me. I lost a lot of cassettes during the early years of being very poor, you know those cassettes got reused. There wasn’t a new cassette so I just grabbed one of the old ones so a lot of those early Meters’s gigs got stepped on. But ya know, I think I’m pretty close man. Now I do have about 2000 DAT tapes, every gig I played I recorded when they had the original DAT recorders. Since the hard disc recorders have come into play, I have filled over the last 6-7 years...about 12 terabytes.

Would you say listening back to those gigs helped you in the creative process of maybe hearing something that you did that maybe you have never done before that might have turned into a new song?

Oh yeah, yeah absolutely. When you played a song, the creative thing (that) happens is what happens after the song has played…in the jam section of the song. There is something. It may not have happened but one time during the entire jam process, but that one little lick (is there) and you say "oops, there it is!" In this digital world we live in now, I can just go in, snap it out, and put it somewhere else. I can take it and go back and try and make that a whole piece of music. Absolutely. 

The music you have created with the Meters, Allen Toussaint, Earl King, Lee Dorsey, and Irma Thomas, just to name a few, and the music you continue to create with the Funky Meters and the Running Pardners has become synonymous with “the sound of New Orleans.” What does it mean to you to be an integral part of a musical scene that is so influential that it defines the sound of a city as storied as New Orleans?

It is very humbling I believe. When I was coming up and hanging out at the Dew Drop when I was 16-17 years old getting to hang near the Earl Kings, Eddie Bos, those guys ya know. It was cool. I was a sponge. I wanted to learn. Earl King was probably the first guy to become somewhat of a nurturer. He didn’t tell me what to do. He told me what not to do. By the time I got to meet Allen [Toussaint], I was still developing as a player but playing with Art, Zig, and Leo at the time when I met Allen, knowing what to play and when not to play got more instilled in my fabric because that was something Allen preached as well. His words were, "it's not what you play, it’s what you don’t play that makes this groove happen." Who would have ever thought man? I would have never thought I would be 68 years old this year (and) I am in that position that those guys were in when I was that young guy sitting around staring at them. I’m that senior citizen. It’s very humbling. Very humbling.

Why do you think music is so important to the people and culture of New Orleans?

I call it E.M.D. Eat. Music. Dance. We need all 3 of them. We love eatin’. You gotta dance. The one in the middle is music. Boom. That’s it. As Earl, would say, BAM! Earl would always come up and say “hello!” He’d be talking and make a statement, make a point, and say “Hello! Listen there, I just gave you an idea.” 

Allen Toussaint once stated, “Music is everything to me short of breathing. Music also has a role to life you up-not to be escapist but to take you out of misery.” With that being said, how has music gotten you through hard times in your life?

When I had just come out of treatment, I got out and I got a call to come play a gig with Charmaine Neville, Reggie Houston, and Ameci Miller on top of Jax Brewery and the band stand was up on the bar. I had been out of the treatment center for 12 hours. On the break, my wife called me and told me they had just found my dad dead. It was like I was sitting on top of a bar, all this liquor and booze right there, and the only thing that kept me from drinking was the music. Music has kept me alive. Although it brings me to all the places I really shouldn’t be, it’s the fact that living through music is more important to me than dying doing drugs. If I fall and start drinking then it won’t be long before I start snorting, and it’s a death sentence. It really is and I know that. So I have chosen music and life. The life of a musician can be compared to a roller coaster at times, with high points and lows, with no certain guarantees that you’re even going to stay on the tracks. Many musicians have become jaded over brief periods of time in the industry, but it comes through very clearly after 50 years that you are still in love with playing music.

What can you attribute the happiness too through all the ups and downs during your career?

Well I think it’s probably because there is still some adventure musically. One of the things that has happened today are the jam band concepts. They have opened another door for players that want to just go out and live on the edge with “unrehearsed music” so to speak, just playing ya know. I believe today I have immersed myself deeply in that jam band community. The Porter Trio is about that. The first 40 minutes of the set is just music coming off the top of our heads, listening to each other, and playing off each other. When I go back and listen to those gigs, there’s music there. There’s music that can be refined into songs. Sometimes some of the stuff I listen to I say Wow, we shouldn’t touch it, we should leave it as it is and do it as it is. Now it won’t get “any airplay” because it’s 20 minutes long. It’s inspired though by what happens when three people get into tune and listen and hear one another and play off each other which creates that added adventure of music. There weren't no rehearsal rooms back in the ol’ days, way way back. It was a teaching thing. Grandfather passed it through the blood genes to you and you just played it. Today’s music has gotten a little too refined for me. Today, a band leader can go into a studio and play an entire record without a band with him. It’s a little impersonal. I do write music sequences to get stuff out of my head, but that stuff gets replaced by real players quickly.

If you could single out the one greatest moment in your musical career, what would it be?

Oh wow. Well ya know, I would probably just have to reach back to about two weeks ago when the Funky Meters played with Irma and Allen at the BBQ Fest. With Allen passing away yesterday, it was a totally different way for you to start thinking about your longevity. I was on the road in the hotel outside of the airport when I got the word at three o’clock in the morning.  It was the fact that being out here is being  by yourself and alone. That is some scary stuff sometimes. You can be out with the band, ya know, the whole band is there, but when it all ends it’s you alone in that room. Damn. What was the question. [laughing] There were probably bunch of great moments. But seeing Art Neville and Allen sing "All These Things" together at the BBQ Festival, wow. I just never thought that would be our last time ever playing with him, you know it was like something you couldn’t ever conceive. 

If you had a message to send the youth of New Orleans that were interested in getting off the streets and playing music, what would you tell them?

I don’t know if it has anything to do with playing music. I had a wonderful message told to me when I was a kid, and every now and then it pops up back to me. “Pay attention kid, you might learn something.” And’s that kind of what I’ve been living by. And even when I’m in the world of teaching if I’m paying attention to the students, I learn something. There’s something about all those individuals sitting in front of me trying to absorb what I’m passing on. There’s something about that innocence that we as older people have somewhat forgotten. The innocence of what we do. The music has to be innocent. It has to feel innocent. It feels alive when it is innocent.

Pick your poison. Vinyl, CDs, or Cassettes. What do you like to listen to when you listen to music at the house?

For me, it’s pretty much digital. I have a turntable. I bought it a year ago. I have it hooked up to the system upstairs. It’s one of those turn tables that sends out digital information so I was going to take all my wife’s favorite vinyls and drop them on a CD for her. That damn thing ain’t worked yet man [laughing]. As much as I would love to say vinyl, I think I have to continue growing with the times so listening to digital music is more likely so that would be my poison.

And if you were to sing one karaoke song for us right now, what would it be? 

[Laughing] They All Ask for You! [Pointing and laughing] Yes indeed.