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Leo Nocentelli’s long-lost folk-funk album sees the light of day, 50 years later

Guitarist Leo Nocentelli’s “Another Side” — recorded in 1971 — is one of the most unlikely album releases of 2021. (Photo by Michael P. Smith, © The Historic New Orleans Collection)

“It’s incredible, I’m pinching myself,” Leo Nocentelli, the consummate funk guitarist, explains by phone from his New Orleans home. He’s talking about the release of “Another Side,” his first solo album, and he can’t help but sense divine intervention.

“It has to come from a blessing, from the creator,” Nocentelli says. “I don’t know that this has ever eventuated in the history of the music industry. You have a 50-year-old record that looks like it’s just being released.”

Through his work in the 1960s and ’70s as a member of the Meters and regular studio guitarist for Allen Toussaint, Nocentelli helped build the Crescent City’s modern R&B sound and bring it to the world. He held down classic singles by local legends like Lee Dorsey, wrote the Meters’ best-known riffs including “Cissy Strut,” and went on to record with the likes of Paul McCartney, Patti LaBelle and Stevie Wonder. Nocentelli’s songs have been sung by Etta James and the Neville Brothers and sampled by hundreds of hip-hop artists. Yet the fact that we’re discussing “Another Side” is even more unbelievable to him.

Nocentelli recorded the album almost as a lark in 1971 at Cosimo Matassa’s Jazz City Studio, the city’s great music-making room at the time. With Toussaint on piano, the Meters’ George Porter Jr. on bass, and drum duties split between their bandmate Zigaboo Modeliste and local legend James N. Black, he recorded what he now says were meant to be demos. Nocentelli played acoustic guitar with this band during occasional sessions over two months, and then his regular work picked back up. Forever a sideman in the great New Orleans tradition, Nocentelli forgot all about his unfinished solo project for almost a half-century.

“I didn’t give it any mind,” he says. “I assumed it got swallowed by 10 or 12 feet of water in Sea-Saint,” Toussaint’s own famed studio, which was opened in 1973 and lost to Hurricane Katrina in 2005. But then the calls and emails started coming in summer 2019.

The Los Angeles Times broke the news about an improbable find at a swap meet in Torrance, Calif.: multiple boxes full of tape reels, all from Jazz City and Sea-Saint, apparently saved from the storm and left in an L.A. storage unit. All told it came to about 3,000 hours of music by the Meters and many other artists, almost all of it unreleased. Nocentelli only learned of the discovery when contacted for the article, and the news got better from there. His demo tapes were in good condition and the tracks legally belonged to him, so there wasn’t any such obstacle to releasing the music.

Out now on Light in the Attic Records, “Another Side” is now the first public product of that incredible flea market find. It’s a warm, youthful, openhearted album full of character songs about work and love, and on top of that, it’s a fascinating bit of alternate history. Turns out that one of the most influential and recognizable guitarists of his era could have also been another Bill Withers or Bobbie Gentry, mixing Southern storytelling with indelible hooks and rich musicianship. It took a disaster in his hometown for this music to ever see the light of day, and now there’s a whole new side street in Leo Nocentelli’s already winding, fascinating career.

“The only way I can think of it is spiritual,” Nocentelli says. “Good things can come out of tragedy.”

It's not entirely surprising that the tapes wound up at the Roadium Open-Air Market, a massive and long-standing institution in L.A.'s South Bay neighborhood near Redondo Beach. The Roadium is a typical endpoint for the city's abandoned storage unit hauls, so a lot of film and music industry gems end up among its vendor booths. It's a natural destination for crate diggers and audiophiles, guys like Mike Nishita, who is nearly 60 and has been prowling the Roadium since childhood, when he bought hip-hop vinyl at a booth that was the first to sell Dr. Dre's mix tapes.

He found the mystery New Orleans stash in January 2018 and barely believed it. He started texting pictures to Mario Caldato Jr., a lifelong friend who, like Mike’s brother “Money Mark” Nishita, worked early and often with the Beastie Boys and continues to produce artists from all over the world. Caldato saw “Sea-Saint” and texted back: “Buy it all.”

Once they combed through the goods in Nishita’s garage, they took the most interesting tapes to Caldato’s studio to listen back on his machines.

“We pinpointed Leo because it looked like a complete album,” Nishita says. “I couldn’t believe how good it was. It’s very organic. There’s mistakes, there’s human nature. It’s an honest record, and for the age he was, it’s a pretty heavy record.”

By this point they had involved Matt Sullivan, the founder and owner of Light in the Attic, a label that specializes in vinyl reissues of rare albums. Sullivan and his company have a way of making record-collector hits out of rediscovered artists such as Donnie and Joe Emerson and Rodriguez, who became the subject of “Searching for Sugarman” after Light in the Attic’s reissue of his music.

Other times the label will lavish attention on underappreciated legends like Betty Davis or Karen Dalton, but Leo Nocentelli presents a different kind of project: a completely unheard record by an artist that had a long, fortunate career.

“It’s really unique in the reissue world,” Sullivan says. “That’s my favorite kind of project, something that’s new, something that’s a discovery.”

For Nishita, Caldato and Sullivan, this is an unforeseen opportunity to pay back an artist they have all admired for years. As early hip-hop heads, they heard Nocentelli’s unmistakable, down-home feel all the time on records by N.W.A and A Tribe Called Quest, then grew to love his music on its own terms as soul and funk aficionados. There’s even a sample of the Meters’ “Hey Pocky A-Way” on “Paul’s Boutique,” the epochal Beastie Boys album that Caldato engineered.

And they all appreciate how hard “Another Side” is to classify, how rich it is with ideas. Caldato calls it “a funky folk record.” Sullivan hears “Bobby Charles, that swampy New Orleans singer-songwriter music. Maybe a little Leon Russell, Southern soul. It’s hard to blend styles like that, and he makes it sound totally natural.”

For his part, Nocentelli says it's "country-western," noting his love for Kenny Rogers and the First Edition's "Reuben James." But he points to a sole inspiration for "Another Side," one that's surprising coming from the king of tight funk riffs: James Taylor.

He explains: The Meters formed in the mid-1960s and got their first label deal from Josie Records, which released their first three albums and then went bankrupt.

“During that hiatus, I started listening to other music,” Nocentelli explains. “I got fascinated by ‘Sweet Baby James’ and ‘Mud Slide Slim and the Blue Horizon,’ ” Taylor’s star-making albums. “I loved his chord progressions and how he moved through things. I immediately started writing songs and got a band. Then we got a Warner Brothers contract.”

On Warner, the Meters went from great session men to touring stars. As the Sea-Saint house band, they backed every act that came through that room. After Mick Jagger heard them play at a Paul McCartney party, they toured with the Rolling Stones in 1975 and 1976. And their own LPs from this era, including “Cabbage Alley” and “Rejuvenation,” are storehouses of wonderful rhythmic ideas and inexhaustible dance music.

Nocentelli’s guitar playing was light and clean, a remnant of his early ambition to play jazz. In the ’70s, his tone was closer to Grant Green than Eddie Hazel. No big effects, no wah-wah fireworks. Instead, the Meters strutted, turning down the volume and finding unlikely, hip-turning melodies in complex syncopations.

Indelible as that sound was, it didn’t capture the full range of Nocentelli and his bandmates’ natural range as New Orleans players.

“When I was coming up as a player, in order to survive you had to learn how to play different genres from one gig,” he says. “I might play three or four gigs a day. Dixieland, R&B, jazz, I’ll play country and western.”

That’s how he explains the uncategorizable “Another Side.” He was in his mid-20s at the time, playing constantly, aflame with ideas. Some of his songs were “personal things,” but for many of them, he grabbed inspiration from everywhere, anything to keep up with the rush of creativity he felt after hearing Taylor.

“You’ve Become a Habit,” a mellow soul song about the narrator’s affection for a prostitute, was inspired by the Jack Lemmon and Shirley MacLaine film “Irma la Douce.” “Riverfront,” which comes closest to approximating the Meters sound in nearly acoustic style, is Nocentelli’s retelling of his friend Aaron Neville’s career hauling bananas before he paid his bills with music.

What he came up with, in his estimation, is “folk, and it has the funk in it too.”

Nocentelli calls Nishita “Miracle Mike” for rescuing the record and adding, for now, one new chapter to the already voluminous musical history of New Orleans. But the story of “Another Side” is as unique as its songs.

“It’s like a long-lost love,” says Nishita. “They got split up and reunited.”