Instrumentals do not get much funkier than "Cissy Strut," the Meters' 1969 R&B hit that epitomizes the term "funky drummer." In fact, the Meters may be the biggest band you've never heard of, as they have played with everyone from Allen Toussaint to Paul McCartney. While they never experienced massive mainstream success, their down-home recordings have transformed into soul classics.
The Meters' story begins in the mid-sixties, when keyboardist Art Neville (part of the revered Neville family, a New Orleans institution) formed the group. While still in high school, Neville first formed the Hawkettes, who recorded a handful of singles on the Chess label. In 1966 he founded another band, this time with vocalists and brothers Aaron and Charles. This act, now called Art Neville and the Sounds, also featured guitarist Leo Nocentelli, drummer Joseph "Zigaboo" Modeliste, and bassist George Porter. After months of playing local nightclubs, they were eventually signed with Sansu Enterprises, the New Orleans label run by Toussaint and Marshall Sehorn. The duo had one demand, however: they did not need any vocalists. So minus Aaron and Charles Neville, the group rechristened themselves the Meters and officially launched their careers.
The band first gained experience backing Sansu artists such as Earl King, Lee Dorsey, Chris Kenner, Betty Harris, and Toussaint. While they built a reputation as a solid rhythm and blues band, they recorded instrumentals for the small label Josie Records. Their debut 1969 singles "Sophisticated Cissy" and "Cissy Strut" became surprise soul hits, both cracking the top ten on the R&B charts. Scoring again a year later, they reached number 11 for the songs "Look-Ka Py Py" and "Chicken Strut." In 1972 the Meters joined Reprise Records, and while their streak of top 20 hits faded, the 1970s proved a lucrative time for them. They appeared on Robert Palmer's Sneakin' Sally through the Alley, opened for the Rolling Stones, and even played at the release party for Paul McCartney and Wings' Venus and Mars album. When sampling became a common practice in the 1980s and 1990s, the Meters became a go-to band for rap and hip hop artists.
According to a 2002 interview for Sundazed.com, guitarist Nocentelli wrote "Cissy Strut" as a set opener for the Meters. "So I went into my little garage studio and I started picking out a song, and eventually a song came out," he explained. While playing a French Quarter club called the Avenue, the Meters began using it as their opening number. Toussaint frequented the club, and one night approached them, asking "'What was that? What was that song? Have you guys recorded the song before?' And I told him, 'I just introduced it to the guys and we just started playing it. And he said, 'Would you guys like to record the song?'" he recalled. According to Nocentelli, Toussaint subsequently dubbed the song "Cissy Strut."
While "Cissy Strut" is mostly an instrumental (except for the "ah-yah!" introduction), it holds the listener's interest through Modeliste's strong and highly rhythmic drum playing, Porter's pulsating bass, and Nocentelli's scratchy rhythm guitar. The recording holds a charmingly homemade feel, an organic quality that sounds a step above a garage band. The Meters simply establish a groove and ride it for slightly over three minutes: nothing fancy, just good, old fashioned, sloppy funk. In short, it remains a delight.
The Meters may have never achieved massive success, but they established themselves as "musicians' musicians," gaining the respect of blues, soul, and rock artists. "Cissy Strut" serves as just one example of their tightness and overall funk prowess.