Irreversible Brain Taint from Segregation: Leo Nocentelli

Posted by Mike Schumacher

Leo Nocentelli is impossible to pin down. When I ask how the renowned funk guitarist’s astonishing solo record Another Side came to be published after 50 years in obscurity, he gives me the whole tale in a seven-minute monologue, but I can’t confirm his age.

“It’s not important,” he adds, his Louisiana accent thick as a river. “I could tell you I’m 20, or I could tell you I’m 85. Take a look at me. “What do you think my age is?”

I choose a courteous 65 since he seems to be a decade younger than I believe he is. He seemed dissatisfied. “I was expecting you to say younger, but that’s fine; I’m flattered.”

In New Orleans, Nocentelli is sitting on his couch, sunglasses and a beret on his head. After more than three decades in Los Angeles, he returned to his hometown five years ago, “tired of the redundancy of great weather.”

Pesuky, his wife, periodically jogs his memory in the background, not that he needs much assistance. He’s a lively storyteller, spurred by the positive response to an album he feared he’d lost forever.

Due to tight, playful singles like Cissy Strut, Nocentelli’s band, the Meters, were the kings of New Orleans funk in 1971, but they were between record deals, so Nocentelli began writing songs to sell to other singers before choosing to record them himself. The songs are wise, companionable, and gorgeously performed, hitting the same folk-soul sweet spot as Bill Withers and Terry Callier, but Nocentelli attributes his “country-and-western funk kind of thing” to his infatuation with James Taylor’s album Sweet Baby James. He adds, “I’m hoping James gets a whiff of this.”

I Want to Cry was about his personal frustrations and heartbreaks, but most of his songs, he claims, were merely tales. “‘The song You’ve Become a Habit is about a prostitute,’ one interviewer claimed. ‘How did it go, Leo?’ ‘I’ve never had a relationship with a prostitute!’ I said. How would a human feel, I wondered? “How would he tell this story?” I wondered.

Cosimo Matassa’s Jazz City Studio, a vast converted second-floor warehouse reachable by a rope-operated elevator, was where he worked. He credits the album’s vast atmosphere to the “big, hollowed studio.”

He recorded nine original songs and a brilliant rendition of Elton John’s Your Song with his fellow Meter George Porter Jr on bass, the “unbelievable” jazz guitarist James Black on drums, and the New Orleans R&B master Allen Toussaint on occasional piano. “It wasn’t supposed to be an album in the first place.” “It was just raw takes,” says the narrator. The Meters’ lead composer became preoccupied once Reprise Records signed them, and the recordings sat on the shelf for decades.

Nocentelli was unconcerned about the mothballing; in fact, he hardly thought about it. Nocentelli feared the recording was lost after Hurricane Katrina flooded Toussaint’s Sea-Saint Studios in 2005. “‘Oh well, so be it,’ I answered. It didn’t matter to me at all. It was a spur-of-the-moment decision.”

Mike Nishita, a cratedigging Beastie Boys associate, bought 16 crates of Sea-Saint recordings at a swap meet in Torrance, California, thirteen years later. They were discovered to have been saved from the flood and stored in a Hollywood storage facility until the owner failed.

Nishita discovered the lone surviving copy of a totally unknown record by funk’s best guitarist among this rare hoard. He informed the remaining artists and the reissue company Light in the Attic about his discovery. Nocentelli comments, “It was great to hear those songs again.” “I completely forgot about the majority.”

It turns out that Nocentelli was born in 1946. When he was eight, his father got him a $2.98 ukulele, and by the age of twelve, he was a guitar prodigy. “I was in my little room trying to stretch my fingers when kids on the block were getting high, drinking, and hanging out with girls,” he adds.

His initial passion was jazz, but he followed the money. He was on the road with Otis Redding (“a very nice man”) by his mid-teens, and he was playing uncredited session guitar for Toussaint and Motown. He served in the US army in Fort Riley, Kansas, from 1964 to 1966, but was honorably discharged before being deployed to Vietnam because he was his family’s only earner. When he returned to New Orleans, he formed the Neville Sounds with George Porter, drummer Zigaboo Modeliste, and pianist Art Neville.

In the bars on Bourbon Street, segregation still ruled. The Neville Sounds would perform at the Ivanhoe for a whites-only audience inside and a spontaneous second audience outside. “We’d look out the window and see 200 Black people dancing in the street to our music,” remembers Nocentelli.

Segregation has left an indelible mark. “When I was a kid, I had to get out of my bus seat to make room for a white person.” If there is a white person on the sidewalk, I must exit and stroll in the street. It leaves a permanent mark on your mind. Even today, when I go inside a Denny’s, I recall how I used to be unable to do so. You dismiss them quickly, yet those ideas remain.”

He departs for a toilet break and reappears, munching on an orange ice lolly, to resume the narrative.

The Neville Sounds morphed into the Meters in 1969, making them the most prominent funk pioneers since James Brown. They supported artists like Dr. John and Labelle (Lady Marmalade has a platinum disc), and they drew in some serious admirers.

The Meters were reportedly requested to perform a party at Jazz City — or at least it seemed like a party – by Led Zeppelin. “We all dressed up,” Nocentelli recalls, “but where are all the people when it’s time to play?” Then these three gentlemen appeared, and that was the end of it. They were the people in the crowd!”

Mick Jagger asked them to open for the Rolling Stones in 1975. Nocentelli claims that fans who waited in line for hours to secure front-row tickets were not necessarily funk-obsessed. “After all that time, you want to see the Rolling Stones?” It may be Jesus Christ, which you don’t want to see. We had to dodge bottles and cans a couple of times. We realized we had to put in a lot of effort if we wanted the public to embrace us.”

After 1977’s New Directions, the Meters split up with more credibility than cash in the bank. Session work, irregular reunions, a lifetime achievement Grammy, and the unexpected windfall of being one of the world’s most sampled bands, from Public Enemy’s Timebomb to Amerie’s 1 Thing, have all followed since then. “Sampling was the slickest thing that happened to the Meters, praise the Lord,” Nocentelli adds.

Toussaint paid homage to Nocentelli with a song called Leo in the Key of F in New Orleans shortly before his death in 2015. “I’ll sing that song until I die,” Nocentelli adds. With his lolly stick, he taps out a tabletop beat while singing two lines. He sings, “He’s a Meter man, of the Meters band.” “Everyone knows Leo… Nocentelli.”

Is he certain that his career trajectory would have been different if Another Side had been completed and published in 1971?

He dismisses it with a shrug. “In the mental and spiritual equation, that doesn’t even exist.” Everything was meant to unfold in the manner that it did. It was already predetermined what this album would be spiritually when I got into the studio, and it took 50 years to reveal it. And now it’s here.”

Thanks to at The Guardian whose reporting provided the original basis for this story.

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