Donald's Encyclopedia of Popular Music


NEVILLE Brothers, The

New Orleans-based R&B clan, stirring together many elements of black music: Arthur Lanon Neville (b 17 December 1937; d 22 July 2019) keyboards, vocals, percussion; Charles (b 28 December 1938; d 27 April 2018), sax, percussion; Aaron (b 24 January 1941) vocals, keyboards, percussion; Cyril (b 10 January 1941) vocals, percussion. The front row was augmented with assorted sidemen playing keyboards, electric guitar, bass and drums. Their sister Athelga had sung with the Mel-Tones, the forerunner of the Dixie Cups; Aaron's son, Ivan Neville, went on to a solo career as a keyboardist, writer and vocalist, doing session and concert work for Keith Richards and the X-Pensive Winos (his If My Ancestors Could See Me Now '88 was on Polygram). In New Orleans the 'second line' referred to the mourners or keeners who followed funeral ceremonies; the marching band played funereal music on its way to the cemetery, but purged the sorrow on the way back, and this spirit is at the centre of the music of Lee Dorsey, Allen Toussaint, Professor Longhair, Mac Rebennack, the Nevilles and many others.

Various combinations of Nevilles made classics '54-67 such as Art's Hawketts on 'Mardi Gras Mambo', made cheaply at radio station WWEZ in New Orleans '54 (anthologized on Mardi Gras In New Orleans '76 on Mardi Gras Records, which also includes Professor Longhair, Bo Dollis and the Wild Magnolias, Al Johnson and Earl King); it became an annual staple of the Mardi Gras 'Indian' celebrations, but of royalties there were none. Teamed with local reedman/ arranger Harold Battiste on Specialty '56, work documented on Mardi Gras Rock 'n' Roll '90 and Art Neville: His Specialty Recordings 1956-58 '92, both on Ace. Art and Aaron worked with Larry Williams on hits 'Short Fat Fanny' and 'Bony Moronie' '57; Art was replaced by Aaron in the Hawketts '58-60 while he served in the US Navy. Aaron made singles such as 'Over You' (a cover of the Sam Cooke song), 'Every Day' (written while in jail); they worked with Toussaint, recording his songs (written under the nom-de-plume 'Naomi Neville') such as 'Let's Live', 'Waiting At The Station', 'Wrong Number (I Am Sorry, Goodbye)', all on Rhino anthology Treacherous. When Specialty moved to the West Coast '60 Joe Banashak bought their contracts for his Instant and Minit labels but cash was still elusive. Aaron had no. 1 R&B hit (no. 2 pop) with 'Tell It Like It Is' '66, title track of a Par-lo album '68 (reissued by Ace with added track 'Those Three Words') and a staple of anthologies such as Treacherous and History Of New Orleans Rock 'n' Roll, both on Rhino.

Art formed the Neville Sound c.1967 which became the Funky Meters, then the Meters, with Leo Nocentelli (b 15 June 1946) on drums, Joseph 'Zigaboo' Modeliste (b 28 December 1948) on guitar and George Porter Jr on bass, backing artists like Lee Dorsey on 'Ride Your Pony' and 'Get Out Of My Life, Woman', as well as Rebennack (as Dr John) on 'Right Place, Wrong Time', LaBelle on 'Lady Marmalade', Robert Palmer (alongside Little Feat) on Sneaking Sally Through The Alley and Paul McCartney. On their own they had six pop hits '69-70, all produced by Toussaint and Marshall Sehorn, including 'Sophisticated Cissy' and 'Cissy Strut'. Albums inclded The Meters, Look-Ka Py Py and Struttin' '69-70 on Josie, Best Of on Virgo and Cissy Strut on Island, Charly compilations Here Come The Metermen and Second Line Strut. Signing to Reprise did not bring commercial breakthrough, though they covered Neil Young's 'Birds' on Cabbage Alley '72; Rejuvenation '74 reprised 'Hey Pocky A-Way'; Fire On The Bayou '75 included the anthemic title track and the Hawketts' 'Mardi Gras Mambo' as well as new member Cyril Neville; Trick Bag '76 covered 'Honky Tonk Women'. The Rolling Stones hired them as an opening act but that didn't work, nor did an attempt at psychedelic soul with Tower of Power horns on New Directions '77 on WB (though 'Be My Lady' made Hot 100).

Rounder raided the archives for Good Old Funky Music '90, Look-Ka Py Py '90 and Meters Jam '92, gleaning such tidbits as their cover of Curtis Mayfield's 'People Get Ready', 'Big Chief', 'Voodoo' and the Beatles' 'Come Together'. Modeliste played on Professor Longhair's Houseparty New Orleans Style on Rounder (the so-called 'lost sessions' '71-2) with Snooks Eaglin, George Davis and others. They returned to their New Orleans roots as The Wild Tchoupitoulas '76 on Island: Mardi Gras had begun as revelry permitted by French slave-owners, slaves forming mock Indian tribes, forerunners of today's Golden Eagles, Yellow Pocahantas etc: the historically violent celebrations became song contests; the Tchoupitoulas were captured in Les Blank's film Always For Pleasure (Flower Films) and on one spell-binding album, using eidetic, often supernatural imagery: 'I walked though fire and I swam through mud/Snatched feathers from an eagle/Drank panther's blood' ('Meet De Boys On The Battlefront'). Their songs have been covered by David Lindley in the USA, the London Apaches in UK; 'Iko Iko' was derived from Sugar Boy Crawford's 'Jock-A-Mo' and would be covered by the Dixie Cups, Dr John and the Grateful Dead. 'Brother John' was dedicated to John Williams, chief of the Apache Warriors tribe and former singer with Huey Smith and the Clowns. The Wild Tchoupitoulas lineup included Charles Neville after his sideman's career in jazz and blues, the first time all four brothers recorded together. Their repertoire was heard in the film The Big Easy '87.

They finally became the Neville Brothers; The Wild Tchoupitoulas had sold only modestly but alerted Capitol Records, where their debut The Neville Brothers '78 was produced by Jack Nitzsche but failed to do them justice. Fiyo On The Bayou '81 on A&M (on Demon UK '86) captured them better, with Jimmy Cliff's 'Sitting In Limbo', reworking of 'Brother John'/'Iko Iko' and Nat Cole hit 'Mona Lisa' (dedicated to Bette Midler) and 'The Ten Commandments Of Love' (later also included on Aaron's Orchid In The Storm '86 on Passport in USA/Demon UK). Legal problems dogged the release of Neville-ization '84 on Black Top in USA and '85 on Demon in UK; made '82 in the Tipitina Club in New Orleans, it captured their raw energy on material such as Duke Ellington's 'Caravan' and a remake of 'Tell It Like It Is'. (Neville-ization II on Spindletop '87 however was a disowned disaster; there was also a Live At Tipitina's Vol. II on Essential.) The anthology Treacherous paid them proper tribute, including 'I Love Her Too', Aaron's contribution to the film Heart Beat, a flawed biopic of Jack Kerouac and Neal Cassady. Uptown on EMI America '87 was too consciously commercial, guests including Jerry Garcia, Ronnie Montrose and Carlos Santana, a wan and voguish impersonation of themselves; symptomatic was release of 'Whatever It Takes' on a 12" single with four disco-targeted mixes. They signed to A&M '88, where Aaron crooned his way through the 'Mickey Mouse March' on Hal Willner's Disney tribute Stay Awake, but the first real A&M fruit was the immensely successful Yellow Moon '89 produced by Daniel Lanois. That year Aaron Neville contributed to Lanois's Acadie and Linda Ronstadt's Cry Like A Rainstorm (the Neville/Ronstadt duet 'Don't Know Much' reaching the British top ten) and the Nevilles did a patois version of their 'My Blood' retitled 'San Nou Ki La' on the Haitian anthology Konbit -- Burning Rhythms Of Haiti on A&M.

Yellow Moon reinvigorated a band whose strength had been sapped by their long struggle; they each brought varying musical tastes to the party, resulting in live shows drawing on Mardi Gras traditions, reggae, mainstream pop, lush ballads, jazz and vintage R&B. Individual Nevilles were still active in other areas: Charles served up the dull Charles Neville And Diversity '90 on the budget Laserlight label, ranging from tunes by Charlie Parker to Antonio Carlos Jobim and Fats Waller to self-penned numbers; more impressive was Aaron's Ronstadt- and George Massenburg-produced Warm Your Heart '91, its opening five songs ('Louisiana 1927', 'Everybody Plays The Fool', 'It Feels Like Rain', 'Somewhere, Somebody' and 'Don't Go Please Stay') a sensuous experience to play over and over again. The Brothers' next was Brother's Keeper '90, a stronger album than Yellow Moon, including Aaron's rendition of 'Bird On A Wire' (appearing in a film of that name that year); but Family Groove '92 was a pale shadow haunted by Yellow Moon. Aaron Neville's Soulful Christmas '93 was the sort of album that goes in sidewalk sales when spring cleaning arrives, while Live On Planet Earth '94 returned to the concert memento formula, recorded in North America, Japan, Australia, New Zealand, Europe and Israel. Aaron's To Make Me Who I Am '97 was more good singing on so-so songs. The heart of the Neville Brothers beat faster in live performance, where they were peerless. Two-CD With God On Our Side on A&M was an anthology of 20 years.