For the third time in less than two months, the city of New Orleans has lost an essential figure in its rich music lineage with the passing of the legendary Art Neville on July 22 at the age of 81 (the Big Easy said goodbye to Mac Rebennack and David Bartholomew this past June). The eldest brother of the legendary Neville family died following “years of declining health,” according to a report on NOLA.com, who broke the story.
“It was peaceful,” Kent Sorrell, Neville’s longtime manager, said in a statement. “He passed away at home with his adoring wife Lorraine by his side. He toured the world how many times, but he always came home to Valence Street.”
As a founding member of The Meters and The Neville Brothers, Neville took his twin affinities for East Coast doo-wop and the New Orleans-born piano style of Professor Longhair and Fats Domino and seeded a career in music that spanned over a half-century and impacted the direction of everything from R&B to hip-hop to jam-band rock to funk-punk to the Rolling Stones. And while Neville himself stopped recording new music in the late ’00s, he never quit the road, touring with a modern incarnation of the Meters, now called The Funky Meters, up until last year when his health started to get the best of him.
Choosing 11 songs to represent such a magnificent and game-changing career as Art Neville’s is a task as heavy as the grooves on Cabbage Alley, but these classic tunes demonstrate just what a loss the music world suffered with the departure of this undeniable founding father of American funk.
The Hawketts, “Mardi Gras Mambo”
Neville was on the edge of seventeen when he began hanging out with the guys in the Hawketts and became a full-time member in 1954. This song, originally written the year prior by Frankie Adams and Lou Welsch and to be sung in the country & western style, was retooled with a calypso beat and enriched with Neville’s youthful, Longhair-inspired delivery of key lines like “Down in New Orleans where the blues was born, it takes a cool cat to blow a horn.” Sixty-five years later, “Mardi Gras Mambo” remains one of the theme songs to the Fat Tuesday experience down in NOLA.
Art Neville, “You Won’t Do Right”
“Plenty of potential,” remarks the review in Cashbox Magazine for Neville’s 1963 single for the Instant Records label. Written by Naomi Neville (fellow New Orleans sonic architect Allen Toussaint working undercover), this mid-tempo gem clearly signifies Neville’s love for the sound of groups like The Coasters and The Drifters while also giving an early shine to his uncanny abilities on the organ.
Art Neville, “Hook, Line and Sinker”
Edwin Joseph Bocage, better known to deep soul heads as Eddie Bo, should see his name mentioned as regularly as Rebennack, Bartholomew and even Neville in terms of the roots of New Orleans funk and soul music. In fact, during the mid-60s, Bo was the funkiest cat of them all, a trait reflected in this 1966 collaboration with Art Neville that sounds like Otis Redding zapped with voodoo magic.
The Meters, “Hand Clapping Song”
“Cissy Strut” might be the definitive Meters funk jam on a universal level. But in the rap world, this deep groove from the band’s 1970 LP Struttin’ reigns supreme, having been sampled over 90 times by artists such as A Tribe Called Quest, J Dilla, Gang Starr, Black Eyed Peas, Redman, Eric B. and Rakim and Danny Brown. And once the original kicks in, the familiarity greets you like a dear old friend.
The Meters, “Fire On the Bayou”
This song was a massive staple for the Neville Brothers during their reign in the ’80s and ’90s, even saluting the tune on their second LP, 1981’s Fiyo On the Bayou. But The Meters did the tune way dirtier as the title track to their classic 1975 LP, which was more RHCP than Grateful Dead vibe-wise.
The Meters, “It Ain’t No Use”
For serious funk heads, 1974’s Rejuvenation is absolute peak Meters. And while it houses two of the group’s most famous songs in “Hey Pocky A-Way” and “Africa,” the album’s proper highlight is this 11-minute workout that solidified the band’s ability to stretch out the funk as deftly as James Brown and Mandrill.
The Meters, “Disco Is The Thing Today”
The last two studio Meters LPs, 1976’s Trick Bag and its 1977 follow-up New Directions, were largely derided by music critics at the time (and even in present day). Yet with fresh ears, both records deserve a reassessment. Especially Trick Bag, which jumps at you right out of the gate with a cooking “Disco Is The Thing Today,” a song that showed us NOLA could burn down the dance floors kinetically as Gamble and Huff in Philly.
The Wild Tchoupitoulas, “Brother John”
The first time all four Neville brothers worked together was on this sole 1976 album on the Island subsidiary Mango Records by the Mardi Gras Indian tribe The Wild Tchoupitoulas, captained by “Big Chief Jolly” George Landry on lead vocals. The album features call-and-response chants that were traditional to the tribe, and when augmented with the musicianship of all four Nevilles (who are also Landry’s beloved nephews), you get an amazing burst of color, culture and creative harmony like “Meet de Boys on the Battlefront,” a variation of Lord Invader’s 1943 calypso hit “Rum & Coca Cola.” Landry’s braggadocio is more South Bronx than Big Easy, especially when he’s busting lyrics like, “I walked through fire and I swam through mud/Snatched the feathers from an eagle, drank panther blood!” Take that, Charlie Sheen.
The Neville Brothers, “Midnight Key”
The Neville Brothers’ 1987 album Uptown is rarely spoken about and is largely overshadowed by its Grammy-winning 1989 successor Yellow Moon. But one can hope in this post-Stranger Things world we live in, their underrated third LP will be welcomed with kinder ears for its unabashed era-specific production. But few can argue the merits of the electrifying “Midnight Key,” featuring saxophonist Branford Marsalis (fresh off recording his best solo album of the ’80s in Random Abstract) going toe to toe with a cagey Keith Richards, full of piss, vinegar and a cache of dark rock tunes that would become 1988’s Talk Is Cheap.
The Neville Brothers, “Will The Circle Be Unbroken”
Daniel Lanois’ 1989 is largely defined by his work on Bob Dylan’s undercover masterpiece Oh Mercy. But the producer’s best presentation of that year is undoubtedly Yellow Moon, arguably the best album recorded by The Neville Brothers. And where the Aaron and Cyril Neville-written instrumental “Healing Chant” earned the siblings a Grammy Award, the true heartbeat of this record is in the version of the 1907 Christian hymn which, in the hands of these four brothers, unearths the sorrow in lyricist Ada R. Habershon’s words.
Art Neville, “Baby Please Don’t Leave Me”
One of the last things Neville recorded in studio was this loving cover of Fats Domino’s 1953 single for a 2007 Domino tribute album, Goin’ Home, which Vanguard Records produced in the wake of the New Orleans icon’s rescue from his Katrina-ravaged home in 2005. It’s beautiful to imagine a teenage Neville, just months or weeks before he would meet the Hawketts and kickstart a life in music, picking up this 45 at his local record shop and wearing it out. As one of the last studio cuts we’re likely to hear from Art Neville, it’s a fitting bookend to such a storied career.