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Saturday, March 19, 2011

The Neville Brothers: 57 Years Of Music

I have always loved the Neville Brothers. I love their heritage. I love their togetherness. I love their N'awlins funk. I love their various forms over the years such as theWild Tchoupitoulas and the Meters. I love their great catalog of songs like "Hey, Pocky Way" and "Tell It Like It Is" and "Arianne" and "Fiyou On the Bayou" and "Washable Ink" and "Yellow Moon" and "Sister Rosa" and "Wake Up." I love Art; I love Charles; I love Aaron; I love Cyril -- I love them alone and I particularly love them together as The Neville Brothers. I can't imagine any popular music lover who has not experienced the scope of the Brothers.

Here is musical family that has stood together through the perils of the music business. They have not just survived, but they have unselfishly stood tall and contributed to American musical innovation. These guys are the real deal, not some prefabricated, hollow group. Their ancestry roots them firmly in the music of New Orleans, and they have shown many influences of their musical environment. Count their experience as 57 years of playing music.

The Neville Brothers display unbelievable talent as a group, but 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.

I saw them in Columbus, Ohio, at the festival for Ameri-Floral. Everything they performed was wrapped in positive energy and hopeful expression. Not only did the band play great, infectious music but also they displayed searing, positive messages that held great meaning in their own lives.

The result was a rhythmic vibe that brought the entire audience out of their seats. Deeper and deeper into the performance, the brothers layered their musical story, a tale that had its beginning in the 50's and continued strong into the 21st century. Each member of the family was eager to spread his particular joy of this collective music.

Something special resonated in the performance I saw that night: here was perhaps the greatest band of musical brothers doing exactly what they were ordained to do -- stand together and share their music with the rest of the world. How could anyone mistake that the group bond had been built on the diverse, individual talents of these brothers? A bloodline was evident and vital to the collective message. The message was that hope, deliverance, and goodness survive, and musicians can employ music to draw all positive qualities out. The key is to keep on pushing on. 

Some Neville Background

The same cultural mix that formed New Orleans also makes up the Neville family heritage - African, American Indian, French, Spanish and Caribbean. The family's involvement with music goes back to the mother of the Neville brothers, Amelia Landry, who with her brother George, formed a dance team called Landry & Landry.

They were so good that another of New Orleans' musical sons, Louis Prima, offered them a job on the road with his band. Amelia's and George's parents didn't think much of the idea, so they had to give up their chance at the big time. Amelia later married Arthur Lanon Neville, Sr., and settled down to raise a family. Originally they lived on Valence Street, Uptown, 13th Ward. During World War II, the family moved to the Calliope housing project, but only stayed a few years before moving back Uptown.

Neither Amelia nor Arthur played any instruments, they loved music, and always had music in the house. They had friends who were musicians, and Arthur used to go fishing with Smiley Lewis of  "I Hear You Knockin'" fame. Arthur worked as a Pullman Porter, cab driver and merchant marine.

Arthur's brother-in-law, George Landry, was also in the merchant marine, and the two of them would bring home records from the foreign ports they visited, and tell the children of their adventures. This was an inspiration to the four Neville boys, who left home early to test their independence, and seek their fortunes. Since "Big Arthur" was a music fan, he encouraged his children to become involved in music. Out of the six Neville children (four boys and two girls), five either sang or played instruments. While the accomplishments of the Neville sons are well known, their sister Athelgra also had a brief singing career with the Dixie Cups.

While they received support and encouragement from their parents, they couldn't help but absorb the music going on all around them in New Orleans. As children in the Calliope projects, Art, Charles and Aaron recall singing the street chant "Hey Pocky Way" while keeping time on cigar boxes. As they grew older, their Uncle George Landry would play an important role in opening the world of the black Mardi Gras Indians (the Wild Tchoupitoulas) to them, and even bringing the brothers together to form the Neville Brothers as a group.

The Neville Brothers As We Know Them

The story starts in the Fifties. "In 1954, Art was seventeen and I was six," says Cyril. "That's when Art formed the Hawketts. I think of that line from "Shake, Rattle and Roll" - 'I'm like a one-eyed cat peeping in a sea food store.' That was me, hiding behind the couch, listening to art rehearsing the Hasketts. Man, that was the most exciting thing I'd ever heard in my life."

"The real excitement came when we cut a song called 'Mardi Gras Mambo,'" adds Art. "The original version was country style. We funked it up and, just like that, it hit big. Fifty years later they're still playing it. Never got paid. But who cared? We had us a record."

Art broke out of the Hawketts, segueing into a brief solo career at Specialty Records which, like all Neville history, was the product of chance. "By chance," he remembers, "Harold Battiste played me a county song called 'Cha Dooky-Do." He asked me to give it a different beat. I did. Then I forgot about it until I 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 Touissant brought Aaron to Minit Records. "Over You," written by Touissant, 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 eign played on the 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. Or at least half-smiled. "I was digging ditches when this cat told me about this 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."

From that beginning, the Neville Brothers continued to hone their craft in one form or another: Art Neville and the Neville Sounds, the Meters. Sometimes the bands featured various mixtures of the brothers.

But it took the death of their beloved mother Amelia to change that. "Before she passed," says Art, "she told me, "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 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 till now - for twenty-eight productive years - the group has stayed together recording, touring and securing their reputation as first-rank showmen and shamans.

"After our Capitol record," says Aaron, "we went without a deal for a couple of years. Producer Joel Dorn shopped us to a bunch of labels but 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 Dord produce our first A&M album, Fiyo On the Bayou, in 1981."

Then came legendary producer Daniel Lanois who helped solidify the sound and the testament of the Neville Brothers. The rest is history.

Each Brother 

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. He still lives in the same Thirteenth Ward block of Valence Street where he and his siblings were raised in New Orleans. 

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 balls-out R&B, uncut bayou funk and militant social consciousness. As a writer, percussionist and powerhouse singer, he has made his mark as the most fiery brother and impassioned keeper of the Neville flame.

In addition, a second generation of Nevilles also began making their mark on music. In 1988, Aaron's son Ivan, a member of Keith Richards' backing band the Xpensive Winos, released his solo debut, "If My Ancestors Could See Me Now." The legacy lives and continues generation after generation. Anyone familiar with the Brothers wouldn't expect less.

Listen to the Neville Brothers. You will not be wasting your musical time. They are not close to ending their incredible careers 57 years into the journey.

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