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 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).
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,’” singer and music historian Billy Vera said by e-mail. “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.”
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, Illinois, 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 three.
“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 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 e-mail.
Mr. Neville spent several years in the Navy in the late 1950s. In the early sixties he began working with the prolific musician, songwriter and producer Allen Toussaint, made soul records such as 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 such as Dr. John (who died last month) and Robert Palmer on records, and toured with Dr. John, the Rolling Stones and others.
“The Meters may not have created New Orleans funk,” Thompson wrote, “but they certainly showed everyone what it was.”
The Meters’ songs, often sampled by later generations of musicians, “became the generic building blocks of hip-hop,” 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,” 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, Art 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, Neville talked about the Neville Brothers’ multi-faceted 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.”
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