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The Meters

The Meters

Funk group

Although the Meters polished their skills as a backing band, their original work as a recording act—particularly a few dozen instrumental sides recorded in the late 1960s—served as a vital influence on the development of funk. Infusing the soul combo format with the wild syncopations of their native New Orleans, they introduced new rhythmic possibilities, and their seemingly telepathic communication produced a groove that appeared both locked-in and loose. After courting mainstream audiences with mixed results in the 1970s and partially metamorphosing into the Neville Brothers, the group fragmented and has performed with rotating personnel ever since. Indeed, the rights to the Meters name and many of their recordings remained in dispute into the 1990s, and the group eventually bifurcated into two: the sporadically appearing original quartet, and an offshoot known as the Funky Meters.

Keyboardist Art Neville, the eldest of a prodigiously musical group of brothers, began his musical career in New Orleans in the mid-1950s. With his band the Hawketts, he recorded "Mardi Gras Mambo," an instant smash in the Crescent City that has since become a standard part of the town's yearly Mardi Gras festivities. He was soon offered a solo deal by Specialty Records and was able to earn a living recording and performing with the Hawketts.

After a stint in the Navy, Art joined his brother Aaron to form an ensemble called the Neville Sounds, which soon included younger brother Cyril as well as the three musicians who would form the nucleus of the Meters. Bassist George Porter Jr. and drummer Joseph "Zigaboo" Modeliste, the latter having briefly been a Hawkett, were cousins, while guitarist Leo Nocentelli had been a hot session player for Motown Records in Detroit, recording with major acts like the Supremes in his teenage years. Aaron Neville scored a solo hit with 1966's "Tell It Like It Is," and the group backed him on tour. Then, in 1967, the Neville Sounds split up; Aaron and Cyril became part of The Soul Machine, while Art Neville, Porter, Modeliste, and Nocentelli branched off on their own.

Honed Sound in Tough French Quarters

That quartet, lacking a permanent moniker, honed a mixture of R&B dance tunes and a bit of jazz in the crucible of the nightclub scene in New Orleans's French Quarter, working long nights for little pay at places like the Nitecap and the Ivanhoe. "It was a six day a week thing, ten o'clock at night till four in the morning," Art told Melody Maker in a 1976 interview, adding, "We'd always improvise a lot to keep it from being monotonous, doing it every night. We'd always try something else."

Such improvisation refined the tight grooves for which the group would become known and injected the spice of New Orleans rhythm, particularly the syncopated "second-line" beat, into the hit songs they trotted out for the dance crowd. Art played organ exclusively, supported by the complex interaction of the Porter-Modeliste rhythm section and what Rolling Stone called Nocentelli's "inspired rock & roll guitar, which is almost ghostly in its thin-sounding tone and eerie dissonances."

New Orleans impresario Allen Toussaint, an old friend of Art's, saw the group play and was sufficiently impressed to sign them to his record company, Sansu. The label, co-founded by Toussaint and local producer Marshall Sehorn, aspired to become for New Orleans what the Stax label had been for Memphis and Motown for Detroit, namely, a soul music or rhythm-and-blues hit factory.

Thus, like Stax, which used the organ-guitar-bassdrums firepower of Booker T. & The MG's as its house band, Sansu deployed Art Neville's groove-heavy foursome as the backing group for a variety of performers, including Lee Dorsey, Ernie K-Doe, and many others. "We never knew who the artist was going to be," Porter recalled to Musical Gumbo: The Music of New Orleans authors Grace Lichtenstein and Laura Dankner. "Allen would spell the music out, and then he'd find the artists and make the artists fit the track."

For the Record . . .

Members include: David Russell Batiste (joined reunited group, c. 1989), drums; Joseph "Zigaboo" Modeliste (born on December 28, 1948), drums; Art Neville (born on December 17, 1937, in New Orleans, LA), keyboards, vocals; Cyril Neville (joined group, 1975), percussion, vocals; Leo Nocen telli (born in 1946), guitar; George Porter Jr. (born in 1947), bass; Brian Stoltz (joined reunited group, c. 1994), guitar.

Group formed in New Orleans, LA, 1967; worked as session players for Sansu Records; released instrumental single "Sophisticated Cissy," 1967; signed with Josie Records, released debut album, Cissy Strut, 1969; signed with Reprise Records, released Cabbage Alley, 1972; backed such artists as Lee Dorsey, Pointer Sisters, Neville Brothers, Dr. John, and Robert Palmer, 1960s-1970s; toured with Rolling Stones, 1975; disbanded, 1977; Art and Cyril Neville joined Neville Brothers, 1977; reunited periodically with various personnel, 1980s and 1990s; Art Neville and George Porter formed the Funky Meters with David Batiste and Brian Stoltz, 1994; original Meters held major reunion concert, San Francisco, 2000; Funky Meters recorded Fiyo at the Fillmore, 2001.

Awards: Named Best Rhythm and Blues Instrumental Group by Billboard and Record World magazines, 1970.

Addresses: Agent—Elevation Group, 360 17th St., Ste. 200, Oakland, CA 94612. Website—The Meters Official Website: http://www.funkymeters.com.

The quartet recorded a few singles under Art Neville's name, and in 1967 cut a track that would establish them as serious contenders in the R&B world. Called "Sophisticated Cissy," the insinuating funk tune became a smash, and Sehorn immediately inked a deal for the group with Josie Records. The label insisted that the band adopt a pithy name, however, and after several suggestions were picked out of a hat, "the Meters"—one of Toussaint's entries—won out. More hits followed, notably "Cissy Strut," which, like "Sophisticated," based its groove on the stride of local drag queens.

Unknowingly Made the Charts

In 1969 the band released its debut album on Josie, also called Cissy Strut. Unbeknownst to the group, the title cut reached the number four position on the Billboard rhythm and blues chart. "We played six nights a week from six o'clock to five o'clock in the morning for almost two years and we didn't know we had a hit record," Art Neville told Lichtenstein and Dankner. Such omissions of information on the part of Toussaint and Sehorn, both of whom profited knowingly from the record's success, sowed seeds of bitter discord down the line. The two of them, as Rolling Stone observed, "produced the records, managed the band and owned both the studio where the records were made and the songs' publishing rights." Meanwhile, as Neville noted in Melody Maker, the band endured "the bottom of the barrel type touring, the chitlin' circuit. Out of the way clubs where the promoters would run out with the money."

Despite their travails, the Meters earned a degree of recognition; Billboard and Record World dubbed them the best rhythm and blues instrumental group of 1970, the year they released Look-ka Py Py. Ben Sandmel, in his liner notes for the album's 1990 Rounder reissue, quoted Porter's recollection about the disc's percolating title track: the key riff came "from a burnt piston in the engine of our van," the bassist revealed. "It kept going 'ooka-she-uh, ooka-she-ah,' over and over. Leo and Zig started singing along to it, and beating on the seats. Zig would beat on the roof, too, 'cause it had such a great bass drum sound. Then Art started singing 'bom she bom bom,' and we worked the whole thing out right there in the van."

This anecdote speaks volumes about the intuitive group process that listeners found so compelling in the Meters, who signed on with Reprise Records in 1972. Though their debut on the label, Cabbage Alley, fared poorly, their 1974 album Rejuvenation—a Toussaint-produced effort—became something of an instant classic. "Although the Meters draw freely from a variety of sources, they make a music uniquely their own," enthused Jim Miller of Rolling Stone, adding that the recording "shows off the full extent of the Meters' skills, by including ballads as well as extended improvisation." Sampled frequently by hip-hop DJs, Rejuvenation included such classic tracks as "Jungle Man" and "Africa."

Reached Tenuous Heights

In between these Reprise albums, the Meters backed up New Orleans pianist Dr. John on an album that included the hit "Right Place, Wrong Time," and also backed Robert Palmer on Sneakin' Sally Through the Alley. The year 1975 saw the Meters expand to a quintet with the addition of Cyril Neville, the youngest of the Neville boys, on percussion and vocals. Around that time, the band also performed at a lavish Los Angeles bash hosted by ex-Beatle Paul McCartney, and landed a high-profile opening spot on that year's tour by British rock superstars the Rolling Stones. All this success, Art Neville regretfully explained in Musical Gumbo, affected the easy chemistry of the Josie days. "Some of the attitudes changed," the organist recalled. "You know, heads went to swelling up." Various band members had begun using drugs as well.

Toussaint and Sehorn continued to profit from their management of the Meters, collecting publishing rights and royalties from Reprise and paying the group only after recording and other expenses had been recouped. The Meters' 1975 album, Fire on the Bayou, sold insufficiently to put them in the black, and they fared no better with the following year's Trick Bag. In 1977 the Meters recorded what would be their final album, New Directions, produced without Toussaint; that same year they were bumped from the television program Saturday Night Live 's Mardi Gras installment.

The Meters soon broke up and descended into a protracted legal battle over ownership of the band's name and rights to their recordings. Periodic reunions occurred, and the litigation was ultimately concluded with all parties but Modeliste satisfied. The drummer was replaced by David Russell Batiste. Modeliste and Nocentelli also performed together periodically in the ensuing years (sometimes as "Zig and Leo"), while Porter, like his bandmates, became a respected session player. Art and Cyril joined Aaron and the rest of the Neville Brothers, who became a much more financially successful act than the Meters had ever been.

Yet the Meters left a profound legacy, marked in part by several dozen samples, many of them uncredited, that appeared on hip-hop recordings. Rounder's early 1990s reissues Look-ka Py Py, The Meters Jam, and Good Old Funky Music provide ample evidence of what latter-day funkateers like the Red Hot Chili Peppers had been saying all along: that the New Orleans foursome had been an integral and largely overlooked part of funk history. "Acts as diverse as the Jackson Five, George Clinton and his Funkadelic colleagues, and Prince clearly listened well to the sinuous syncopations of the Meters," attested authors Lichtenstein and Dankner. And as Sandmel declared in his liner notes, "Few other bands have ever balanced such subtle understatement and suspenseful use of silence with such powerful, creative funk." The writer went on to offer a tempting challenge to listeners: "Just try to keep still once the music starts."

Reunited in 2000

That had always been a challenge during the Meters' live appearances as well, and the lure of a Meters reunion occasionally proved to be too much for the original members to resist. The most notable reunion came on November 11, 2000, at San Francisco's Warfield Theatre, after a reconciliation among the group members at the 1999 New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival. The Meters' drawing power was such that 2,200 tickets at a minimum price of $85 each sold out quickly. A follow-up concert in Memphis the following April fell through, but further reunions, conditional on the fragile health of keyboardist Art Neville, were discussed.

The Meters' name also lived on after the formation in 1994 of the Funky Meters, a group featuring Porter and Art Neville, along with new drummer Batiste and former Neville Brothers' guitarist Brian Stoltz. That ensemble toured widely in the 1990s and early 2000s, playing a circuit of large theaters and dance halls like Chicago's House of Blues and San Francisco's Fillmore. The Funky Meters recorded an album, Fiyo at the Fillmore, in 2001. In 2004 they participated in a "Make It Funky" concert at the Saenger Theatre in New Orleans, which was filmed for later release as a documentary that surveyed the history of modern New Orleans music. A segment of the concert and film were devoted to the Funky Meters, an appropriate honor for a band that had become a true New Orleans funk tradition.

Selected discography

Cissy Strut, Josie, 1969.

Look-ka Py Py, Josie, 1970, reissued, Rounder, 1990.

Struttin', Josie, 1970.

Cabbage Alley, Reprise, 1972.

Rejuvenation, Reprise, 1974.

Fire on the Bayou, Reprise, 1975.

Trick Bag, Reprise, 1976.

New Directions, Reprise, 1977.

Good Old Funky Music, Rounder, 1990.

The Meters Jam, Rounder, 1990.

Uptown Rulers: The Meters Live on the Queen Mary, Rounder, 1990.

Fundamentally Funky, Charly, 1994.

Funkify Your Life: The Meters Anthology, Rhino, 1995.

(As the Funky Meters) Fiyo at the Fillmore, Too Funky, 2003.

Also appeared on recordings by Lee Dorsey, Ernie K-Doe, the Pointer Sisters, Dr. John, the Neville Brothers, Robert Palmer, and others.

Sources

Books

Lichtenstein, Grace, and Laura Dankner, Musical Gumbo: The Music of New Orleans, Norton, 1993.

Rees, Dafydd, and Luke Crampton, Rock Movers & Shakers, Billboard, 1991.

Periodicals

Cash Box, June 9, 1990.

Down Beat, December 1990.

Guitar Player, April 1991.

Melody Maker, May 29, 1976.

Rocky Mountain News (Denver, CO), March 8, 1996, p. D16.

Rolling Stone, May 11, 1972; September 12, 1974; September 8, 1977; August 8, 1991.

Times-Picayune (New Orleans, LA), November 15, 2000, p. Living-1; April 27, 2001, p. Lagniappe-12; October 26, 2001, p. Lagniappe-24; May 2, 2003, p. Lagniappe-12; April 27, 2004, p. Living-12.

Online

"Biography," Funky Meters Official Website, http://www.funkymeters.com (December 14, 2004).

"The Funky Meters," William Morris Agency, http://www.wma.com/funky-meters/summary (December 14, 2004).

"The Meters," All Music Guide,http://www.allmusic.com (December 14, 2004).

Additional information for this profile was obtained from liner notes by Ben Sandmel to Look-ka Py Py, Rounder Records, 1990.

—Simon Glickman andJames M. Manheim

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The Meters

The Meters

Funk/R&B band

Honed Sound in Tough French Quarter Gigs

Unknowingly Made the Charts

Reached Tenuous Heights

Selected discography

Sources

Although the Meters polished their skills as a backing band, their original work as a recording actparticularly a few dozen instrumental sides recorded in the late 1960shas served as a vital influence on the development of funk. Infusing the soul combo format with the wild syncopations of their native New Orleans, they introduced new rhythmic possibilities; their seemingly telepathic communication produced a groove that appeared both locked-in and loose. After courting mainstream audiences with mixed results in the 1970s and partially metamorphosing into the Neville Brothers, the group fragmented and has performed with rotating personnel ever since. Indeed, the rights to the Meters name and many of their recordings remained in dispute into the 1990s.

Keyboardist Art Neville, the eldest of a prodigiously musical group of brothers, began his musical career in New Orleans in the mid-1950s. With his band the Hawketts, he recorded Mardi Gras Mamboan instant smash in the Crescent City that has since become a standard part of the towns yearly Mardi Gras festivities. He was soon offered a solo deal by Specialty Records and was able to earn a living recording and performing with the Hawketts.

After a stint in the navy, Art joined his brother Aaron to form an ensemble called the Neville Sounds, which soon included younger brother Cyril as well as the three musicians who would form the nucleus of the Meters. Bassist George Porter, Jr., and drummer Joseph Zig-aboo Modélistethe latter having briefly been a Hawkettwere cousins, while guitarist Leo Nocentelli had been a hot session player for Motown Records in Detroit, recording with major acts like the Suprêmes in his teenage years. Aaron Neville had scored a solo hit with 1966s Tell It Like It Is, and the group backed him on tour. Then, in 1967, the Neville Sounds split up; Aaron and Cyril became part of The Soul Machine, while Art Neville, Porter, Modéliste, and Nocentelli branched off on their own.

Honed Sound in Tough French Quarter Gigs

That quartetlacking a permanent monikerhoned a mixture of R&B dance tunes and a bit of jazz in the crucible of the nightclub scene in New Orleanss French Quarter, working long nights for little pay at places like the Nitecap and the Ivanhoe. It was a six day a week thing, ten oclock at night till four in the morning, Art told Melody Maker in a 1976 interview, adding, Wed always improvise a lot to keep it from being monotonous, doing it every night. Wed always try something else.

For the Record

Members include David Russell Baptiste (joined reunited group c. 1989), drums; Joseph Ziga-boo Modéliste (born December 28, 1948), drums; Art Neville (born December 17, 1937, in New Orleans, LA), keyboards, vocals; Cyril Neville (joined group 1975), percussion, vocals; Leo Nocentelli (born 1946), guitar; and George Porter, Jr .(born 1947), bass.

Group formed in New Orleans, 1967; worked as session players for Sansu Records; released instrumental single Sophisticated Cissy, 1967; signed with Josie Records and released debut album, Cissy Strut, 1969; signed with Reprise Records and released Cabbage Alley, 1972; backed such artists as Lee Dorsey, the Pointer Sisters, the Neville Brothers, Dr. John, and Robert Palmer, 1960s-1970s; toured with the Rolling Stones, 1975; disbanded, 1977; Art and Cyril Neville joined the Neville Brothers, 1977; reunited periodically with various personnel under several names, 1980s and 1990s.

Awards: Named best rhythm and blues instrumental group by Billboard and Record World magazines, 1970.

Such improvisation refined the tight grooves for which the group would become known and injected the spice of New Orleans rhythmparticularly the syncopated second-line beatinto the hit songs they trotted out for the dance crowd. Art played organ exclusively (having demanded one from the tony Ivanhoe), supported by the complex interaction of the Porter-Mod-eliste rhythm section and what Rolling Stone called Nocentellis inspired rock & roll guitar, which is almost ghostly in its thin-sounding tone and eerie dissonances.

New Orleans impresario Allen Toussaint, an old friend of Arts, saw the group play and was sufficiently impressed to sign them to his record company, Sansu. The labelco-founded by Toussaint and local producer Marshall Sehornaspired to become for New Orleans what the Stax label had been for Memphis and Motown for Detroit, namely a soul music hit factory.

Thus, like Stax, which used the organ-guitar-bass-drums firepower of Booker T. & The MGs as its house band, Sansu deployed Art Nevilles groove-heavy foursome as the backing group for a variety of performers, including Lee Dorsey, Ernie K-Doe, and many others. We never knew who the artist was going to be, Porter recalled to Musical Gumbo authors Grace Lichtenstein and Laura Dankner. Allen would spell the music out, and then hed find the artists and make the artists fit the track.

The quartet recorded a few singles under Art Nevilles name and then, in 1967, cut a track that would establish them as serious contenders in the R&B world. Called Sophisticated Cissy, the insinuating funk tune became a smash; Sehorn immediately inked a deal for the group with Josie Records. The label insisted that the band adopt a pithy name, however, and after several suggestions were picked out of a hat, the Metersone of Toussaints entrieswon out. More hits followed, notably Cissy Strut, which, like Sophisticated, based its groove on the stride of local drag queens.

Unknowingly Made the Charts

In 1969 the band released its debut album on Josie, also called Cissy Strut The title cut reached the Number Four position on the Billboard R&B chartunbeknownst to the group. We played six nights a week from six oclock to five oclock in the morning for almost two years and we didnt know we had a hit record, Art Neville told Lichtenstein and Dankner. Such omissions of information on the part of Toussaint and Sehorn, both of whom profited knowingly from the records success, sowed the seeds of bitter discord down the line. The two of them, as Rolling Stoneobserved, produced the records, managed the band and owned both the studio where the records were made and the songs publishing rights. Meanwhile, as Neville reminded Melody Maker, the band endured the bottom of the barrel type touring, the chitlin circuit. Out of the way clubs where the promoters would run out with the money.

Despite their travails, the Meters earned a degree of recognition;Billboard and Record World dubbed them the best rhythm and blues instrumental group of 1970, the year they released Look-ka Py Py. Ben Sandmel, in his liner notes for the albums 1990 Rounder reissue, quoted Porters recollection about the discs percolating title track: the key riff came from a burnt piston in the engine of our van, the bassist revealed. It kept going ooka-she-uh, ooka-she-ah, over and over. Leo and Zig started singing along to it, and beating on the seats. Zig would beat on the roof, too, cause it had such a great bass drum sound. Then Art started singing bom she bom bom, and we worked the whole thing out right there in the van.

This anecdote speaks volumes about the intuitive group process that listeners found so compelling in the Meters, who, in 1972 signed on with Reprise Records. Though their debut on the label, Cabbage Alley, fared poorly, their 1974 album, Rejuvenation aToussaint-produced effort, which, like its predecessor, featured Arts singingbecame something of an instant classic. Although the Meters draw freely from a variety of sources, they make a music uniquely their own, enthused Jim Miller of Rolling Stone, adding that the recording shows off the full extent of the Meters skills, by including ballads as well as extended improvisation. Sampled frequently by hip-hop DJs, Rejuvenation includes such classic tracks as Jungle Man and Africa.

Reached Tenuous Heights

In between these Reprise albums, the Meters had backed up New Orleans pianist Dr. John on an album that included the hit Right Place, Wrong Time and Robert Palmer on his Sneakin Sally Through the Alley. 1975 saw the Meters expand to a quintet with the addition of Cyril Neville, the youngest of the Neville boys, on percussion and vocals. Around that time, the band also performed at a lavish Los Angeles bash hosted by ex-Beatle Paul McCartney and landed a high-profile opening spot on that years tour by British rock superstars the Rolling Stones. All this success, Art Neville regretfully explained to Lichtenstein and Dankner, affected the easy chemistry of the Josie days. Some of the attitudes changed, the organist recollected. You know, heads went to swelling up. Various band members had begun using drugs as well.

Toussaint and Sehorn continued to profit from their management of the Meters, collecting publishing rights and royalties from Reprise and paying the group only after recording and other expenses had been recouped. The Meters 1975 album, Fire on the Bayou, sold insufficiently to put them in the black, and they fared no better with the following years Trick Bag. In 1977 the Meters recorded what would be their final album, New Directions, produced without Toussaint; that same year they were bumped from the television program Saturday Night Lives Mardi Gras installment.

The Meters soon broke up and descended into a protracted legal battle over ownership of the bands name and rights to their recordings. Periodic reunions occurred, and the litigation was ultimately concluded with all parties but Modéliste satisfied; the drummer was replaced by David Russell Baptiste. Modéliste and Nocentelli also performed together periodically in the ensuing years (sometimes as Zig and Leo), while Porter, like his bandmates, became a respected session player. Art and Cyril joined Aaron and the rest of the Neville Brothers, who became a much more financially successful act than the Meters had ever been.

Yet the Meters left a profound legacy. Rounders early 1990s reissues Look-ka Py Py, The Meters Jam, and Good Old Funky Music provide ample evidence of what latter-day funkateers like the Red Hot Chili Peppers had been saying all along: that the New Orleans foursome had been an integral and largely overlooked part of funk history. Acts as diverse as the Jackson Five, George Clinton and his Funkadelic colleagues, and Prince clearly listened well to the sinuous syncopations of the Meters, attested Musical Gumbo authors Lichtenstein and Dankner. And as Sandmel declared in his liner notes, Few other bands have ever balanced such subtle understatement and suspenseful use of silence with such powerful, creative funk. The writer went on to offer a tempting challenge to listeners: Just try to keep still once the music starts.

Selected discography

Cissy Strut (includes Sophisticated Cissy and Cissy Strut), Josie, 1969.

Look-ka Py Py, Josie, 1970, reissued, Rounder, 1990.

Struttin, Josie, 1970.

Cabbage Alley, Reprise, 1972.

Rejuvenation (includes Jungle Man and Africa), Reprise, 1974.

Fire on the Bayou, Reprise, 1975.

Trick Bag, Reprise, 1976.

New Directions, Reprise, 1977.

Good Old Funky Music, Rounder, 1990.

The Meters Jam, Rounder, 1990.

Uptown Rulers: The Meters Live on the Queen Mary, Rounder, 1990.

Funkify Your Life: The Meters Anthology, Rhino, 1995.

Also appeared on recordings by Lee Dorsey, Ernie K-Doe, the Pointer Sisters, Dr. John, the Neville Brothers, Robert Palmer, and others.

Sources

Books

Lichtenstein, Grace, and Laura Dankner, Musical Gumbo: The Music of New Orleans, Norton, 1993.

Rees, Dafydd, and Luke Crampton, Rock Movers & Shakers, Billboard, 1991.

Periodicals

Cash Box, June 9, 1990.

Down Beat, December 1990.

Guitar Player, April 1991.

Melody Maker, May 29, 1976.

Rolling Stone, May 11, 1972; September 12, 1974; Septembers, 1977; August 8, 1991.

Additional information for this profile was obtained from liner notes by Ben Sandmel to Look-ka Py Py, Rounder Records, 1990.

Simon Glickman

Cite this article
Pick a style below, and copy the text for your bibliography.

  • MLA
  • Chicago
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"The Meters." Contemporary Musicians. . Encyclopedia.com. 18 Dec. 2017 <http://www.encyclopedia.com>.

"The Meters." Contemporary Musicians. . Encyclopedia.com. (December 18, 2017). http://www.encyclopedia.com/education/news-wires-white-papers-and-books/meters

"The Meters." Contemporary Musicians. . Retrieved December 18, 2017 from Encyclopedia.com: http://www.encyclopedia.com/education/news-wires-white-papers-and-books/meters