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The Undeniable Funkiness Of Joseph “Zigaboo” Modeliste

(Above) The Meters onstage at San Francisco’s famed Fillmore Auditorium, November 18, 2005 – a reunion few people thought possible

The New Yorker recently hailed him as “one of the greatest drummers in pop history.” Now while that may be a large proclamation to live up to, mention the name “Zigaboo” and most drummers will testify that it’s the God’s honest truth and get a bit misty-eyed. Zig’s earthy, innovative style, built from syncopated grooves and distinctive behind-the-beat melodic rhythms, has earned him a place in the hallowed halls of legendary skinsmen.

The Meters were New Orleans’ answer to Booker T. & the MG’s, and although they never achieved the same kind of commercial success as the MG’s, the “almost famous” quartet became the thing that legends are made of: cult heroes with a legion of die-hard fans worldwide and the reverence of their musical peers to boot. In their 11-year history from 1966 to ’77, the fab-four — Modeliste along with bassist George Porter Jr., guitarist Leo Nocentelli, and keyboardist Art Neville — had some heady milestones. They backed numerous legends on stage and in the studio — including Paul McCartney, Professor Longhair, and LaBelle (although it was Herman Ernst, not Ziggy, on drums on their signature “Lady Marmalade”) — and played on classic albums like Robert Palmer’s Sneakin’ Sally Through The Alley and quintessential sides like Dr. John’s “Right Place, Wrong Time.” Their single “Hey Pocky A-Way” made it into Billboard’s Pop Top 40 in ’74, and more recently Rejuvination was heralded by Rolling Stone magazine as one of the greatest albums ever. Their grooves are some of the most sought-after samples in the hip-hop world, and a slice from “Oh, Calcutta” (a remake of a Broadway show tune off their Look-Ka Py Py) can be heard on the hit “1 Thing” by Amerie and is included on the soundtrack from the movie Hitch. At the peak of their success, The Meters opened for the Rolling Stones’ 1975 and ’76 tours — and it was quite literally on the plane home to the Crescent City that the group combusted from the pressures of fame internally and the mismanagement and greed of their support system externally.

In the early ’90s, a splinter group dubbed the Funky Meters formed with keyboardist Art Neville and bassist George Porter Jr., and they recorded and toured extensively for over a decade. But the original amalgamation of four was kaput seemingly forever.

Funkify Your Life

Folks not fortunate enough to have witnessed the forefather’s indigenous funk first-hand back in the day could still get an earful thanks to a plethora of reissues on Sundazed and Rhino. But to ever hear the band live again? Many who were familiar with the band’s explosion and later implosion knew that it would take an act of God — or the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival’s founder and CEO Quint Davis — to put the pieces back together again. There was a valiant reunion attempt in 2000 at San Francisco’s Warfield Theatre, orchestrated by a group of friends and fans, but it was short-lived until the 2004 reunion at the Jazz Fest. Finally, in the latter part of 2005, with their crowned prince of the skins holding forth in the back, the group reunited and rolled through Boston, Las Vegas, San Francisco, and New York, weaving their way through three decades of classic material — from “Sophisticated Cissy” and “Hey Pocky A-Way” to “Look-Ka Py Py” and “Africa” — with the greatest of ease. This latest tour offered a glimpse and a promise of more to come (if they can get the business plan in place).

“Using the facilities he had,” Modeliste reflects, “that is, the New Orleans Jazz Festival, Quint approached me about January of last year about doing a Meters reunion at the Festival in May. That went well, and then after that, they wanted to put together some dates. I’m the type that, I’ll believe it when I see it. You get it together, let me know, I’ll be happy to be a part of it. Before the Katrina disaster, we had a bit of a skull session in New Orleans with three members to put some dates together for the remainder of 2005. Then Katrina came, and any plans we had for anything more were affected. But it’s not often that you get a chance to put a band back together with all the original members still living. So that was an opportunity I thought I couldn’t pass up. Plus, I was going to play with the band I learned a great deal from. So it was two-fold for me: a good opportunity to get back out there and to work again as The Meters, and it was also a handsome endeavor, and I really enjoyed myself.”

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