Lena and Charles Neville
GUEAX TIGERS! Charles Neville and a fellow cajun from New Orleans. 
I ‘m a Wild Tchoupitoulas from the 13th Ward. Blood shiffa-hoona I won’t be barred. I walked through fire and swam through mud. Snached the feather from an eagle and drank panther’s blood. – The Wild Tchoupitoulas, Meet Me Boys On The Battlefront
Over the decades a lot of folks in the music business have claimed to be “outlaws,” but only a small handful really were.
The Neville Brothers on the other hand, were the real deal. If Chuck Berry rang the door bell of White America and James Brown pushed his way in when it opened, then the Neville Brothers swarmed through, set the house on fire and danced on the dining room table. They may not have had the most hits of their 70’s band classmates, but being the funkiest band from the blackest city in America had a ripple effect thru multiple genres of the music industry that forever changed the game. And in 2017 the four brothers from the 13th Ward of New Orleans celebrate 40 years of tipping the scale with their Mardi Gras Indian infused New Orleans funk across the globe.
The tradition the Mardi Gras Indians of New Orleans began where “Congo Square” in the 18th Century, where West African slaves were bought and sold and at times allowed to go to drum, dance and buy goods. It was there that Africans began to imitate the dress of the local indigenous population, the Chitimacha Native American tribe in an attempt to win them over and form an alliance against the one oppressing the both, the white man. Instead, the “Black Indians” of New Orleans formed various groups that would at times, fight among themselves, usually on Mari Gras day when they would march and dance in each other’s orbit before the main parade began. When Buffalo Bill’s Wild West wintered in New Orleans from 1884 to 1885 and Black Indians became exposed to the traditional wear of Native Americans from the western plains, they began to incorporate them into their own Mardi Gras costumes. In the early 1900’s, ostrich plumes replaced chicken feathers and disagreements between tribes were worked out with dance off instead of knife fights.
The Neville Brothers, Art, Charles, Aaron & Cyril Neville grew up in Mardi Gras Indian culture. Their uncle George Landry aka Big Chief Jolly founded the Wild Tchoupitoulas tribe of the 13th Ward.
The four Neville Brothers bond is blood and their blues-soaked deep pocket funk  grooves  is the basis of their greatness and their exalted place in music history.


Art, the oldest is called 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 and still lives in the same 13th Ward block of Valence Street where he and his siblings were raised in New Orleans.

Charles is a year younger than Art. He is a devout student of bebop and Buddhism who plays 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 lived in Memphis for a spell and came 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 youngest Neville Brother. He is a radical – a rougher, tougher blend of R&B, bayou funk mixed with 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.

The story of the the Neville Brothers starts in the 1950’s. “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 60’s for the Nevilles was as turbulent as the decade. Avoiding the gritty details lets just say the Nevilles brothers fought the law and the law won and moved in and out of hard habits. But in 1966,  Aaron, caught a big brake. “I was digging ditches when this cat told me about this new label, Par-lo,” In November 1966, the track was issued as a single which peaked in early 1967 at No. 2 on the US Billboard Hot 100 (behind “I’m a Believer” by the Monkees) and No. 1 on the US Hot R&B/Hip-Hop Songs chart.[2] the personnel on the original recording included George Davis arranging and playing Baritone Sax, Emory Thomas on trumpet, Deacon John on guitar, Alvin Red Tyler on tenor sax, Willie Tee on piano and June Gardner on drums. “I went over to Cosimo’s studio, that had more history than Sun Records in Memphis, and cut “Tell It Like It Is . 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,” Arrn said.

Overwhelmed by success, Aaron moved in Florida a while. When he moved back to the Big Easy, Art formed Art Neville and the Neville Sounds, which, for the first time, put Cyril out front – 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, reconfigured Sounds became the Meters – Art, drummer Joseph Zigaboo Modeliste, bassist George Porter, Jr. and guitarist Leo Nocentelli.

The Meters live on as funk legends. “I modeled the band after Booker T. and the MG’s,” says 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 immortality. At one point, Cyril became the fifth Meter. But by the mid-Seventies, the four Neville brothers had not still recorded as a unit.

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. The instrumentation was provided mainly by the Meters, Art & Cyril Neville, Leo Nocentelli, George Porter Jr., & Joseph “Zigaboo” Modeliste. The album was also produced by Allen Toussaint and stands as one the great records of the 1970’s.

 That first taste of togetherness led to The Neville Brothers a year later, their debut album on Capitol.  
“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.”


“Fiyo was a heavily Meters-influenced project,” adds 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 young daughter Whitey to do background while I sang lead on “Sitting In Limbo.'”

“Fiyo didn’t really sell,” says Charles, “which meant we went years with out 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, states 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 hand 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,” says Art, “I like Family Groove best. I sang a song called “On The Other Side Of Paradise” that had an island lilt. ‘I get away from city life,’ it said, ‘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.”

When I walked into The Guthrie Center in Housatonic, Massachusetts I could see Charles Neville of the legendary Neville Brothers on stage blasting sheets of tonality  out of his alto sax during the sound check before the evening show.. It echoed throughout the halls of what was once a church which Alro Guthrie, son of folk singing icon Woody Guthrie, turned into a charming concert hall in 1991. 

I was about to open the glass door and walk into the main hall when grey haired dude in a worn Hawaiian shirt stuck his arm out to block the door.
“Excuse me, the soundcheck is closed, can I help you?” Guthrie Center operations manger George Laye said
After explaining I was with Black Star, Laye shifted gears.
“Your with Black Star News? Well in that case, you can do whatever you want.” Gearge said with a smile. 
Charles and I spoke about life being a Neville Brother and their many 2nd set performances with the Gratful Dead.  
“We started playing with the Grateful Dead on New Years eve, 1985,” Charles recalled. “Those were some crazy shows.” The Nevilles also opened for the Rolling Stones in the 1980’s and Mick Jagger and Keith Richards will admit, they watched the Neville Brothers on the entire tour.
“Everybody in the industry digs us,” Art said. “Every other band, bands I love, bands I look up to, they looking at us the same way. The Stones  those cats was onstage watching us every night.”


Unfortunately, the Neville Brothers have not performed since their farewell show at the Hollywood Bowl on July 24, 2012. 

“The older we’ve gotten,” says Charles, “the more adamant we are about forging our own production and focusing on songs that express our innermost beliefs..” .

The Nevilles continue to provoke, entertain and excite audiences around the globe. Each of the four brothers have pursued projects of their own. Aaron has forged a highly successful solo career. Art tours with an offshoot group he calls the Funky Meters. For years Cyril has led the Uptown All stars and Charles has recorded a series of critically acclaimed jazz records. 

Yet the heart of the matter is family. Family brings them together. Family keeps them together. Family is everything. Without Family, there is a gaping void. With family, there is the miracle of Neville Brothers music, four brothers, bonded by blood, creating some of the funkiest sounds this world has ever heard.

Special thanks to George Laye and the Guthrie Center.

The Grateful Dead with the Neville Brothers – New Years Eve 1987-88

The Wild Tchoupitoulas


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *