The music world runs shy of superlatives when it comes to New Orleans first family of funk, the Neville Brothers. Their lineage is purebred, from Art’s syncopated keyboard contributions with the original kings of Louisiana funk, the Meters; Aaron’s nimble, angelic voice and imposing presence; Cyril’s fire and percussive drive; and Charles’ melodic saxophone.
Through some 16 recordings – including their newest Walkin’ in the Shadow of Life - and a powerful live show, the brothers not only honor all that is true and good about the deep musical soul of New Orleans, but continue to fuse old-school with the new for a powerful blend of heart-stopping funk, astute social commentary, and pure joy.
The differences between the four Neville Brothers are as dramatic as the similarities that unite them. The source of the similarities is passionate funk, a feeling for blues-soaked deep pocket grooves that is the basis of their greatness and exalted place in our cultural history.
Art is the oldest. They call him Poppa Funk for a reason. He formed the first band. As both inspired singer and blistering keyboardist, his role models were Fats Domino and Bill Doggett. Art is the Founding Father.
Charles is a year younger than Art. His religions are bebop and Buddhism. His instrument is the saxophone. At fifteen, he was the first brother to leave home and hit the road, playing with everyone from the Rabbit Foot Minstrels to B.B.King. They called him “The Boy Wonder of Sax.” He went to Memphis and returned home with a new stew of blues.
Aaron is a believer, a devout Catholic, who worships at the shrine of St. Jude, patron of lost causes. Aaron's vocal aesthetic is downright angelic, an extraordinarily sweet mixture of Gene Autry yodeling and Golden Age gospel crooning. Along with Sam Cooke and Marvin Gaye, he is classified as one of the seminal soul singers.
Cyril is the baby, a generation younger than his big brothers. His attitude is radical - a rougher, tougher blend of R&B, uncut bayou funk and miltant social consciousness. As a writer, percussionist and owerhouse singer, he has made his mark as the most fiery brother and impassioned keeper of the Neville flame.
The story starts in the Fifties, when Art was seventeen and Cyril was six. That's when Art formed The Hawkettes. The real excitement came when they cut a song called “Mardi Gras Mambo”, whose original version was country style. They funked it up and, just like that, it hit big. Fifty years later they're still playing it.
Art broke out of The Hawkettes, segueing into a brief solo career at Specialty Records. Harold Battiste played him a song called “Cha Dooky-Do” and asked him to give it a different beat. Art did, then forgot about it until he was in boot camp and someone said they were playing it night and day in Chicago.
Back in New Orleans in 1960, writer/pianist/producer Allen Toussaint brought Aaron to Minit Records. “Over You”, written by Toussaint, was a local hit. “The label said it never left Louisiana,” says Aaron, “but years later when I met the Rolling Stones they said they heard it all over England.”
In 1962, Toussaint wrote another song for another Neville - “All These Things” - recorded by Art. “While the future was being played on radio, Art remembers, “I was running an elevator at Gaucho's department store on Canal Street.”
The Sixties were strange for The Nevilles. In many cases, the brothers fought the law and the law won. They moved in and out of hard habits. But in 1966, fortune smiled on Aaron. “I was digging ditches when this cat told me about the new label, Par-lo,” he explains. “I went over to Cosimo's studio, that had more history than Sun Records in Memphis, and cut “Tell It Like it Is”. It took off like a rocket - Number One smash coast to coast. But the label was falling apart, which meant no money for me. The only way to cash in was to tour. Art became my manager and played piano behind me. This was our first time in the national spotlight on the same bill as Otis Redding, the Drifters and the Manhattans. I was pumped but too crazy to handle it all. My mind was a traffic jam.”
Overwhelmed by success, Aaron hid out in Florida, while Art formed Art Neville & The Neville Sounds, which put Cyril out front for the first time, singing and dancing in the superstar style of James Brown. Aaron joined the Sounds, only to drop out, along with Cyril to form the Soul Machine. Meanwhile, the reconfigured Sounds became the Meters - Art, drummer Joseph Zigaboo Modeliste, bassist George Porter Jr. and guitarist Leo Mocentelli.
The Meters live on as funk legends. “I modeled the band after Booker T and the MGs,” said Art, “but added some swamp fever of my own.” For the next eight years, they would record a series of classics “Cissy Strut”, “Look-Ka Py Py”, “They All Ask’d for You” - which have achieved mortality. At one point, Cyril became the fifth Meter. But by the mid-seventies, the four Neville brothers still had not recorded as a unit.
It took the death of their beloved mother, Amelia, to change that. “Before she passed,” said Art, “she told me to keep them boys together.” Through the unifying power of their mother's brother, Uncle George Landry, who headed a Mardi Gras Indian Tribe as Chief Joy, the inevitable finally happened. Aaron puts it simply: “When Jolly called us together, it was like a call from God.” The result was the miraculous The Wild Tchoupitoulas, the landmark project from 1976. That first taste of togetherness led to the Neville Brothers a year later, their debut album on Capitol. From then’til now, for thirty productive years, the group has stayed together recording, touring and securing their reputation as first-rank showmen and shamans.
“After our Capitol record,” said Aaron, “we went without a deal for a couple of years. Producer Joel Dorn shopped us to a bunch of labels by everyone passed. It wasn't until Bette Midler heard us at Tipitina's in New Orleans and sang our praises that Jerry Moss of A&M paid attention. He let Dorn produce our first A&M album, Fiyo on the Bayou, in 1981.”
“Fiyo was a heavily Meters-influenced project,” added Art, “with a different twist. Dorn added some New York session musicians to our mix. I also like how he got Cissy Houston and her daughter, Whitney, to do background while I sang lead on “Sitting in Limbo.”
“Fiyo didn't really sell,” said Charles, “which meant we went years without a deal. Finally, in 1989, A&M decided to take another chance on us. That was Yellow Moon, produced by Daniel Lanois.”
“Lanois was the baddest outside producer the Nevilles have ever known,” stated Cyril. “He came to New Orleans and turned a house on St. Charles into a studio. Art brought in a stuffed bobcat, some big ol' rubber snakes and thickets of moss to hang from the ceiling. Lanois had the voodoo vibe going strong; he had psychics dropping by; he let us hang loose; he encouraged using all sorts of sounds - crickets, the whistling wind, you name it - to catch our family flavor. Of the twelve tunes on Yellow Moon, we wrote seven.”
“Of the records we made in the Nineties,” shares Art, “I like Family Groove best. I sang a song called “On the Other Side of Paradise” that had an island lilt. It said, ‘I get away from city life, leave behind trouble and strife . . . Sweet Lorraine, she’s my best friend, she's my wife.’ That's pure autobiography. The brothers are best when we're writing out of our lives.”
Charles reflects, “The older we’ve gotten, the more adamant we are about forging our own production and focusing on songs that express our innermost beliefs.”
Their most recent record, Walkin’ in the Shadow of Life, makes that case. “Rivers of Babylon” and the title track are proof-positive that in the fourth decade of their creative life the brothers are stronger than ever.
The Nevilles continue to provoke, entertain and excite audiences around the globe. Their similarity/diversity dynamic continues on its paradoxical path. They play together; they play apart. Each pursues his own projects. Aaron has forged a highly successful solo career. Art tours with an offshoot group he called the Funky Meter. For years, Cyril has led the Uptown Allstars. Charles has recorded a series of critically acclaimed jazz records. Yet, the heart of the matter is family. Family brings them together, keeps them together - and is everything. With family, there is the miracle of Neville music, four brothers, bonded by blood, creating some of the funkiest sounds this world has ever heard.