Art Neville, a New Orleans Funk Fixture, Is Dead at 81
By Neil Genzlinger
July 23, 2019
Art Neville performing with the Neville Brothers at the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival in 2009. The group, formed in 1977, closed the festival for many years.Cheryl Gerber for The New York Times
Art Neville, the oldest of the Neville Brothers, the seminal New Orleans band, and a fixture of the Louisiana music scene for 65 years, died on Monday at his home in New Orleans. He was 81.
Among those announcing the death was Louisiana’s governor, John Bel Edwards, who said in a statement that Mr. Neville “took the unique sound of New Orleans and played it for the world to enjoy.” Mr. Neville’s brother Aaron, in a post on his Facebook page, called him “the patriarch of the Neville tribe, big chief, a legend from way way back, my first inspiration.”
The cause was not given, but Mr. Neville had experienced a variety of health problems in recent years. He announced his retirement last year.
The Neville Brothers, formed in 1977, consisted of Arthur, Charles, Aaron and Cyril Neville. The group, working a mélange of musical styles and influences, released a string of albums including “Fiyo on the Bayou” (1981) and “Yellow Moon” (1989).
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Although the band did not generate pop hits, it was known for propulsive live shows. The brothers performed all over the world and for years closed the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival, popularly known as Jazz Fest.
Mr. Neville’s influence, though, predated the Neville Brothers and encompassed a series of groups — the best-known was the Meters — and solo recordings.
“With the Hawketts in 1955, he recorded the Carnival perennial ‘Mardi Gras Mambo,’ ” the singer and music historian Billy Vera said by email. “His early 1960s ‘All These Things’ is the all-time Louisiana slow-dance classic. His Meters’ gem, ‘Cissy Strut,’ was on every bar band’s set list in the early ’70s.”
The Meters in the 1970s, from left: the guitarist Leo Nocentelli, the bassist George Porter Jr., the drummer Joseph (Zigaboo) Modeliste and Mr. Neville. “The Meters may not have created New Orleans funk,” the author of the book “Funk” wrote, “but they certainly showed everyone what it was.”Gilles Petard/Redferns, via Getty Images
Arthur Lanon Neville was born on Dec. 17, 1937, in New Orleans to Arthur and Amelia (Landry) Neville. He played the organ, and in a 2000 interview with The State Journal-Register of Springfield, Ill., he recalled first encountering the instrument when his grandmother took him to a church that she cleaned near his home on Valence Street in New Orleans when he was about 3.
“She was on one side of the altar and I was on the other side, and I seen this big old thing and I said, ‘Aha, I want to find out what this is,’ ” he said. “And I turned the little switch and hit one of the low keys. It scared the daylights out of me, but that was the first keyboard I played.”
For him and his brothers, music was always part of the story.
“Ever since we were kids we were doing this,” he said. “Anything we’d get around we’d beat on and we’d sing.”
Mr. Neville was just a teenager when he joined the Hawketts. He sang lead on the group’s version of “Mardi Gras Mambo,” which had recently been recorded by the singer Jody Leviens, and a local disc jockey persuaded the group to record the song themselves. By 1955 it was charting locally; it went on to become a staple of Mardi Gras season in New Orleans.
“He started his solo career out cutting insane rockin’ R&B songs like ‘Cha Dooky-Doo,’ ‘Oooh-Whee Baby,’ ‘Zing Zing’ and ‘What’s Going On,’ ” Ira Padnos, a historian of the region’s music and founder of the festival the Ponderosa Stomp, said by email.
Mr. Neville spent several years in the Navy in the late 1950s. In the early ′60s he began working with the prolific musician, songwriter and producer Allen Toussaint, made soul records like “All These Things” (1962) and formed a six-piece group, the Neville Sounds, which in 1968 morphed into the Meters. Dave Thompson, in his book “Funk” (2001), called the Meters “the ultimate New Orleans funk combo.”
The band became a fixture in New Orleans clubs, backed bigger names like Dr. John (who died last month) and Robert Palmer on records, and toured with Dr. John, the Rolling Stones and others.
The Neville Brothers in 1981; from left, Charles, Aaron, Art and Cyril. Reviewing a performance that year, one critic said the brothers “rewrote the dictionary of soul, uniting funk, doo-wop, reggae and salsa under the banner of New Orleans rhythm and blues.”Paul Natkin/Getty Images
“The Meters may not have created New Orleans funk,” Mr. Thompson wrote, “but they certainly showed everyone what it was.”
The Meters’ songs, often sampled by later generations of musicians, “became the genetic building blocks of hip-hop,” Dr. Padnos said.
The Neville Brothers’ wide-ranging repertoire included politically tinged songs like “My Blood” and “Sister Rosa” (about Rosa Parks) as well as covers of “Will the Circle Be Unbroken,” Jimmy Cliff’s “Sitting in Limbo” and many more.
The brothers’ live shows were full of energy and innovation. Stephen Holden, writing in The Times, called their 1981 performance at the Savoy in Manhattan “one of the year’s more extraordinary pop events.”
“The four brothers — Art, Charles, Aaron and Cyril — rewrote the dictionary of soul,” Mr. Holden said, “uniting funk, doo-wop, reggae and salsa under the banner of New Orleans rhythm and blues.”
Charles Neville died last year. In addition to his brothers Aaron and Cyril, Mr. Neville’s survivors include his wife, Lorraine Neville; a sister, Athelgra Neville Gabriel; a son, Ian; and two daughters, Arthel and Amelia Neville.
In a 1987 interview with Rolling Stone, Mr. Neville talked about the Neville Brothers’ multifaceted music and drew a comparison to his grandmother’s apple cobbler, made memorable by a secret ingredient.
“You could taste it,” he said, “but you couldn’t identify what it was. That’s what made them apple cobblers so treacherous. That’s the same thing we do with the music.”
A version of this article appears in print on July 24, 2019, Section A, Page 25 of the New York edition with the headline: Art Neville, Part of Family That ‘Rewrote the Dictionary of Soul,’ Is Dead at 81. Order Reprints | Today’s Paper | Subscribe