Funk star Leo Nocentelli: ‘Segregation leaves an indelible stain on your brain’

You can’t pin Leo Nocentelli down. When I ask the legendary funk guitarist how his extraordinary solo album Another Side has come to be released after 50 years in oblivion, he tells the whole story in a seven-minute monologue, but when I try to confirm his age, no dice.

“It’s not important,” he says in a river-deep Louisiana accent. “I could say I’m 20, I could say I’m 85. Look at me. How old do you think I am?”

He does look a decade younger than I think he is, so I go for a polite 65. He looks a bit disappointed. “I was thinking you were going to say younger but that’s OK, I’m flattered.”

Nocentelli is on his sofa in New Orleans, wearing sunglasses and a beret. He returned to his home town five years ago after more than three decades in Los Angeles, “tired of the redundancy of great weather”. In the background, his wife Pesuky occasionally jogs his memory, not that he needs much help. He’s a vibrant storyteller, buoyed by the warm reception to the album he thought was lost for ever.

In 1971, Nocentelli’s band, the Meters, were the kings of New Orleans funk thanks to tight, playful hits such as Cissy Strut, but they were between record deals, so Nocentelli started to write some songs to sell to other artists before deciding to record them himself. Wise, companionable and exquisitely played, the songs hit the same folk-soul sweet spot as his contemporaries Bill Withers and Terry Callier but Nocentelli credits his “country-and-western funk kind of thing” to his obsession with James Taylor’s album Sweet Baby James. “I’m hoping that James gets a whiff of this,” he says.

Songs such as I Want to Cry were about his own frustrations and heartbreaks but most, he says, were just stories. “One interviewer said, ‘The song You’ve Become a Habit is about a prostitute. How was that, Leo?’ I said, ‘I never had no relationship with a prostitute!’ I just thought, how would a person feel? How would he tell this story?”

He worked in Cosimo Matassa’s Jazz City Studio, a cavernous converted second-floor warehouse reached via a rope-operated elevator. He attributes the record’s spacious ambience to that “big, hollowed studio”. With his fellow Meter George Porter Jr on bass, the “unbelievable” jazz player James Black on drums and the New Orleans R&B kingpin Allen Toussaint on occasional piano, he recorded nine original songs plus a sparkling cover of Elton John’s Your Song. “It wasn’t meant to be an album per se. It was just raw takes.” When Reprise Records picked up the Meters, their chief songwriter got distracted and the demos stayed on the shelf for decades.

The mothballing didn’t haunt Nocentelli; in fact, he rarely thought about it. When Hurricane Katrina inundated Toussaint’s Sea-Saint Studios in 2005, Nocentelli assumed the tape was gone. “I said, ‘Oh well, so be it.’ It wasn’t that important to me. It was an afterthought.”

Thirteen years later, however, cratedigging Beastie Boys associate Mike Nishita snapped up 16 boxes of Sea-Saint tapes at a swap meet in Torrance, California. It turned out that they had been salvaged from the flood and kept in a storage facility in Hollywood until the owner defaulted. Nishita realised this priceless trove included the only surviving copy of a completely unknown album by funk’s greatest guitarist. He shared his find with the reissue label Light in the Attic and the surviving artists. “It was great to hear those songs again,” Nocentelli says. “The majority I completely forgot about.”

Nocentelli was born, it turns out, in 1946. His father gave him a $2.98 ukulele when he was eight and he was a guitar prodigy by 12. “When kids was on the block getting high and drinking and hanging out with girls, I was in my little room trying to stretch my fingers,” he says.

Jazz was his first love but he followed the money. By his mid-teens, he was on the road with Otis Redding (“a very kind man”) and playing uncredited session guitar for Toussaint and Motown. Between 1964 and 1966, he served in the US army at Fort Riley, Kansas, but before he could be sent to Vietnam he received an honourable discharge on account of being his family’s main breadwinner. On his return to New Orleans, he joined George Porter, drummer Zigaboo Modeliste and keyboardist Art Neville in a band known as the Neville Sounds.

Segregation still reigned in the clubs of Bourbon Street. At the Ivanhoe, the Neville Sounds would play for a whites-only crowd inside and a spontaneous second audience outside. “We would look out the window and there’s 200 Black people standing in the street, dancing to our music,” Nocentelli recalls.

The memory of segregation still stings. “When I was a kid I had to get out of my seat on the bus to let a white person sit down. If a white person is walking on the sidewalk, I have to get off and walk in the street. It leaves an indelible stain on your brain. Even now if I walk into a Denny’s, I remember a time when I couldn’t do that. You hurriedly dismiss them but you never lose those thoughts.”

He disappears for a bathroom break and returns to pick up the story while sucking on an orange ice lolly.

In 1969, the Neville Sounds mutated into the Meters, the most important funk pioneers this side of James Brown. They backed the likes of Dr John and Labelle (Nocentelli points at a platinum disc for Lady Marmalade) and attracted some heavyweight fans. Led Zeppelin once asked the Meters to play a party at Jazz City – or at least it sounded like a party. “We all got dressed up,” Nocentelli remembers, “then when it comes time to play, where’s all the people at? In come these three guys and that was it. They were the audience!”

In 1975, Mick Jagger invited them to open for the Rolling Stones. Fans who had queued for hours to get front-row seats were not necessarily funk-curious, Nocentelli says. “You want to see the Rolling Stones after all that time. It could be Jesus Christ; you don’t want to see Jesus Christ. A couple of times we had to duck bottles and cans. We knew we had to bear down to get the audience to accept us.”

The Meters broke up after 1977’s New Directions with more credibility in the bank than money. Since then, there’s been session work, sporadic reunions, a lifetime achievement Grammy and the unexpected windfall of becoming one of the world’s most sampled bands, from Public Enemy’s Timebomb to Amerie’s 1 Thing. “Sampling, praise the lord, was the slickest thing that happened to the Meters,” Nocentelli says.

Shortly before his death in 2015, Toussaint performed a tribute to Nocentelli in New Orleans, a song called Leo in the Key of F. “I will take that song to my grave,” Nocentelli says. He croons two verses while tapping out a tabletop rhythm with his lolly stick. “He’s a Meter man, of the Meters band,” he sings. “The whole world knows Leo … Nocentelli.”

Does he think his career would have panned out differently if Another Side had been finished and released in 1971?

He shrugs it off. “That doesn’t even exist in the mental and spiritual equation. Everything was supposed to happen the way it happened. When I went in the studio it was already preordained what this record was gonna be, spiritually, and it took 50 years to show it. And here it is.”

Comments are closed.