THE POPPA FUNK RESUME
- 1937—Born December 17 in New Orleans at Charity Hospital.
- 1944—Attends St. Monica School with classmates James Booker and Allen Toussaint.
- 1954—As a member of the Hawkettes, Art records “Mardi Gras Mambo,” originally a country-swing song recorded by Jody Levens.
- 1956–Art records “Cha Dooky-Doo” for Specialty Records.
- 1957—Art tours with Larry Williams.
- 1958— Art is stationed with U.S. Navy in Virginia Beach.
- 1962–Art records “All These Things” (written by Allen Toussaint) for Instant Records.
- 1967–Performs at the Nitecap with Art Neville and the Neville Sounds, featuring brothers Aaron and Cyril, saxophonist Gary Brown, drummer Joseph “Zigaboo” Modeliste, guitarist Leo Nocentelli and bassist George Porter, Jr. The band secures a gig requiring a four-piece ensemble at the Ivanhoe on Bourbon Street and the quartet continues as the Meters.
- 1967–The Meters release the first of three albums on Josie Records
- 1972–The Meters sign with Warner Brothers/Reprise. Five albums ensue: Cabbage Alley (1972), Rejuvenation (1974), Fire On The Bayou (1975), Trick Bag (1976), New Directions (1977)
- 1975-76—The Meters open for the Rolling Stones on American and European tours.
- 1976—The Wild Tchoupitoulas, featuring all four Neville Brothers, their Uncle Jolly (George Landry) and the Meters, is released on Island Records. Critic Robert Christgau calls it “the most sheerly likable album in all of history.”
- 1978—The Neville Brothers released on Capitol Records.
- 1979—The Meters disband.
- 1981—Fiyo On The Bayou released on A&M Records.
- 1984—Neville-ization, produced by Hammond Scott and Barry Wilson and recorded live at Tipitina’s in 1982, released on Black Top Records.
- 1986—Treacherous: A History of the Neville Brothers released on Rhino Records.
- 1987—Uptown, featuring Keith Richards, Jerry Garcia and Carlos Santana, released on EMI America Records.
- 1988—Art and Lorraine Neville married at Jimmy Buffett’s home
- 1989—The Meters reunite for Jazz Festival performance without Zigaboo. Leo departs band in 1992.
- 1989–Daniel Lanois produces Yellow Moon at his Esplanade Avenue studio. The album’s “Healing Chant” wins the Nevilles a Grammy for Best Rock Instrumental.
- 1990—Brother’s Keeper released.
- 1992—Family Groove released.
- 1994—Live On Planet Earth released.
- 1996—Mitakuye Oyasin Oyasin /All My Relations released.
- 1996—Art wins Grammy for Best Rock Instrumental Performance for “SRV Shuffle” with Jimmie Vaughan, Eric Clapton, Bonnie Raitt, Robert Cray, B.B. King, Buddy Guy and Dr. John.
- 1999—Valence Street released on Columbia Records.
- 1999—Uptown Rulin’: The Best of the Neville Brothers released on A&M Records.
- 2000—The Brothers, a biography of the Neville Brothers, published by Little, Brown and Company.
- 2000—All four original Meters reunite at the Warfield Theatre in San Francisco.
- 2000—Art records “Micky Fick” for Organ-ized: An All-Star Tribute to the Hammond B-3 Organ, released on Windham Hill Records.
- 2003—The funky Meters’ Fiyo At The Fillmore released on Too Funky Records, a label jointly owned by Art and George Porter, Jr.
- 2003—Art receives the OffBeat Best Of The Beat Lifetime Achievement Award.
Art Neville, the recipient of this year’s OffBeat Best Of The Beat Lifetime Achievement Award, is known and loved by his fans as “Poppa Funk,” an apt designation considering his patriarchal role in the New Orleans music community. For nearly fifty years, Orleanians have danced and celebrated to his musical accompaniment, commencing with the immortal “Mardi Gras Mambo” in 1954, continuing with the Meters in the ’60s and the Neville Brothers in the ’70s, up to the immediate now, jamming with his guitarist son Ian on recordings as delicious as any he’s previously created.
Over a year ago, Art submitted to back surgery and the recovery process is ongoing. He is involved in physical therapy three times a week. He can walk, with some difficulty, and continues to endure severe physical pain. Much of the time he is confined to a wheelchair.
“In my life, I don’t even remember being sick, other than what I am right now,” Art explains in the living room of his Valence Street home, the morning after returning from a Neville Brothers gig at a floating casino in the Mississippi Delta. “And this is not really sick—I’m not as mobile as I was, put it like that. And I feel bad sometimes—that’s just being old. My hands still work. My ears don’t bother me, even though, with George [Porter, Jr.] and Leo [Nocentelli], we played really really loud.
“I’m trying to get myself back in one piece. I’m still blessed because I could’ve been like some of my buddies I know that don’t have nobody. Some of my musician friends, once they fall, there’s nobody here to help ’em up.
“It’s been a steady upward climb. I lost my ability to walk, probably, but I’m getting around and the Lord saw fit to let me keep my hands and I can still play. I’ve got my brains and we’re gonna do some more things. I’m not finished with music at all. I’m not in debt—that’s blessed, at my age. You don’t have to have a whole lot of money stashed away. Mainly all of this is because of my wife Lorraine. I’m not saying that just because she happened to walk in the door…
“We met at a show. I knew her from some mutual friends. I kept her laughing, she kept me laughing. After about two years of being friends, fate decided we wound up together. It’s been great ever since. Whatever she tells me, most of the time she’s right. It’s good when you have somebody who’s not afraid to tell you, I don’t think this is such a great idea.
“Where I am right now, I owe a lot of this to my family—my brothers, sisters. My son Ian and my little girl Amelia [named after the Neville Brothers’ mother, Amelia Landry Neville] play a major part. I have my daughter Arthel [a CNN anchor based in Atlanta and married to percussionist Taku Hirano] and my son Michael [a St. Charles Avenue streetcar driver]. The family keeps me together, keeps me balanced.
“We’ve got this place me and my brother Aaron put together—it’s not a studio for commercial use but we’ve got everything that any other studio has. It’s a workshop for the Nevilles, the baddest studio in the city. It’s called Neville-Nevilleland. That sounded good to me ’cause that’s where I live—I live in Neville-Nevilleland, in the Thirteenth Ward. This is Neville-Landryland ’cause my mother’s name was Landry, my Uncle Jolly was a Landry.
“All my great-aunts, my uncles, my mother’s people, my daddy’s people—all of ’em lived right around here. I remember standing down the street by my house with my father. His cousin was telling him the Japanese just bombed Pearl Harbor. I must’ve been mighty small. I remember looking up at the sky, looking for Japanese airplanes.
“I remember we used to attend that Methodist church down the street with my grandmother—my daddy’s mother. My mother was Catholic, my daddy was Methodist. The first keyboard I ever turned on was in that church. My grandmother used to clean the pulpit. She was in there cleaning it one day and I guess she was babysitting me ’cause I was in there with her. She went to one side and all of a sudden I was on the side where the organ was. A-ha! Something told me to turn it on. I reached up and pressed a bass note and it scared the daylights out of me!
“I never took any piano lessons. Everywhere I’d get around a piano, I wanted to play it. My aunt had a piano in the house down the street. They would always tell me, ‘You’re playing that barrelhouse music!’ I didn’t know what they meant but at that time, in the barrooms, the beer came in barrels and they called the bars barrelhouses.
“We didn’t have much radio back then. I just liked to play. I played on all the black keys at one point [hums boogie-woogie rhythm]—that’s all I could play. Anytime I got around anybody’s home that had a piano and Uptown here, just about every other person, if they were able to afford a piano, they had one in their house. I found everybody who had pianos Uptown and I would always get to be friends with ’em and go visit their houses and get on the piano and play.
“The first inspiration I had on the piano was James Booker. Me and James Booker was attending St. Monica’s. Booker used to play for the High Mass in church—that’s when the Mass was done in Latin. To play the High Mass, you had to be playing some serious keyboards. Him and I were good friends. That’s what inspired me to want to play.
“He recorded some records when we were teenagers for Peacock records—‘Cool Turkey’ and ‘Gonzo.’ Don Robey [produced them], bless his soul. I started playing B-3 [organ] a long time after Booker was playing it. The Peacock records really enthused me—Booker was playing some stuff that was just…Booker is the one that really influenced me to want to play piano and when he played organ, I wanted to play organ.”
“MARDI GRAS MAMBO”
As the 1950s dawned, the Neville family moved into the brand-new Calliope housing projects.
“We was living in the Calliope projects then, right before we moved back Uptown. 1206 South Rocheblave. The projects was a special place. It wasn’t the same thing then like it is now. We all had new houses. They were very, very comfortable. Everybody knew each other.
“I remember the guys in the Hawkettes coming back there in an old car—George Davis, Carroll Joseph the trombone player, Israel Bell—nicknamed ‘Sticks,’ August Fleury and John Boudreaux. They heard about me playing around town with another band—Charles’ band, the Turquoise. I think Leo Morris [now known as Idris Muhammad] was in the band. He grew up right around the corner—all of our people was related some kind of way.
“So the Hawkettes came down to the projects and asked me if I would play with them. Mac ‘Lil’ Millet was the keyboard player with ’em and for some reason, Mac left and went with Fats Domino. He was kin to Fats Domino, too.
“I went to a couple of rehearsals with the Hawkettes, made a few gigs with ’em, the band started really hitting it. The band was great! The whole time, it was really, really good. We were on the road as children, traveling around Louisiana and Mississippi.
“It wasn’t like it is now at all back then. You’d go play for a white high school. You’d come out, get in your car, they got a card on your windshield: ‘The Klan’s eyes are on you!’ That Jim Crow bigotry hatred stuff—it’s still. It ain’t never gonna go away until we blow ourselves up. That’s the solution for it. And it’s gonna happen.
“Jack the Cat was a disc jockey on WWEZ. He got hold of ‘Mardi Gras Mambo’ [originally a country-swing song by Jody Levens, a white artist] and he knew about the Hawkettes. He said he wanted to get some young black dudes to record it. We happened to be the young black dudes so we recorded it. I don’t know what happened to it. We didn’t know anything about contracts, about none of this. We just wanted to cut the song and it’s still around today. That’s the cold part about it. We never seen no money, no nothing. They even put my name on it now—that’s really sad. I never got paid one penny. But that’s part of life. We was in high school—that was very hip, having your song on the radio. It was very satisfying. I was proud, it was something to be proud of.
“The Hawkettes worked a lot. Then Larry Williams came up and heard us at the Bantam Club in Prairieville. Girls with big skirts, dudes with greasy, slick hair—it was like Happy Days. We used to play all of Larry’s songs and he heard about it ’cause he was looking for a band at that point. I sounded just like him. He was amazed when he heard us do his songs. I wound up going on the road with him. He came up here and asked my mother, ‘Can I take your son and his band out on the road with me?’
“I’m driving a ’54 Ford station wagon with ‘Hawkettes’ written on the side of it. We went to places that we never thought we were ever gonna go to—places that was really far, far away from home. Chicago, on a show with Edie Gorme. Billy Williams—‘I’m Gonna Sit Right Down And Write Myself A Letter.’ We played some places that was amazing. Screamin’ Jay Hawkins on a show with the Spaniels. We played with so many do-wop groups, I can’t even remember the names of all of ’em. Larry was doing ‘Bony Maronie,’ ‘Short Fat Fannie,’ ‘Dizzy Miss Lizzie.’ We was riding high, high then.
“Larry Williams, Johnny ‘Guitar’ Watson—that’s like my big brothers. They were very much an influence on some of the things that I did and they were people that were like family. My mother and my father knew ’em, uncles and aunts knew ’em, everybody knew ’em. In fact, we probably were some kind of relation together. Larry’s grandmother used to live on Basin Street.
“I came home in 1957 and my mother said, ‘I’ve got a letter for you—a big beige envelope.’ She opened it and it was a draft notice—drafted my ass into the Navy.”
“The Meters started at the Nitecap [a club on Louisiana Avenue]. Charles was in New York. It was Art Neville and the Neville Sounds. How we got that gig I can’t really remember. I know we were playing here, playing there. The cat at the Nitecap gave us three nights a week. We started doing some recording for Allen [Toussaint] and Marshall [Sehorn]. Allen used to come in there and watch us and listen to us.
“Allen went to St. Monica, too. We used to play for the girls at St. Mary Academy, dances at St. Peter Clavier and Corpus Christi down in the Seventh Ward. Allen had a band called the Flamingoes and we had the band called the Hawkettes. Snooks [Eaglin] played with Allen—Snooks was cold-blooded, bad. Snooks was bad ever since he was born really, to tell you the truth. He didn’t get a break ’cause there wasn’t nobody here to give him a break, what he really should’ve had. Everybody exploited him. Snooks could play anything. I played with Snooks many times—me and Snooks and [drummer] Smokey [Johnson]. Just a trio. Snooks plays so much guitar—he could play rhythm and a line and sound like he’s playing a bass line at the same time. Some great stuff.
“It was just a magical, enchanted situation that was happening. I never thought that we’d be recording with Toussaint as a producer. When it came to the Meters, he didn’t really produce any of it physically. He was in there with us at some points. He was the inspiration on how to do certain things. But most of that Meters stuff was the Meters. Leo was very influential in some of the later stuff we did. But the early stuff that we did, where everybody just shared the whole thing evenly together, that was the magic part to me. That’s the music that’s still here. That’s the music that’s gonna always be here, after we’re all gone.
“When we worked the Nitecap, we used to play anything that was recorded. Anything that was popular, we played—no matter what it was. Any kind of music. If it’s good, it’s good. We’d always take it and put out own little niche to it. That’s what made us sound different.
“Like I always tell cats, nobody don’t care if you can play a thousand notes in one bar. You have to play the right note at the right time. Silence is also part of music.
“We just got together and rehearsed, put stuff together, and after a while, after doing that first stuff we did—that Josie stuff, we wound up going on the road. Marshall put something together and sent us out on the road. Oh boy…”
Much to the Meters’ surprise, they discovered that they had a large gay following, apparently attracted by two of the Meters’ instrumental singles, “Cissy Strut” and “Sophisticated Sissy.”
“I was so dumb I didn’t even know that was what was happening. We had them little dashikis on that Leo’s wife had made for us—real pretty material.”
The success of the Meters, in Art’s estimation, was strictly a joint effort: “I really cherish the good part about it. I got a chance to play with some good musicians. These guys were so bad—Zigaboo, George and Leo. That was a blessing in my life to play with them.
“Somebody would have an idea and we’d put it together. The thing about it was there wasn’t nobody reading no music so they didn’t bring no charts. You couldn’t do it by yourself—nobody. It was everybody’s effort that made the songs happen.
“My Uncle Jolly [George Landry, Art’s mother’s brother]—as a child, I thought he was my daddy’s brother. They were merchant seamen together. Jolly was the one who was always sharp all the time. He’s the one whose eyes looked like they were always half-closed. I just liked him. The way he talked.
“I got a chance to live with him before he died. He would tell me all kinds of stuff, sit down and talk to me. I would say things that would trigger some kind of memory off of him. He would start telling me stories and information that I got from him that stayed with me. Wasn’t no educated, university kinda information but what it was was more valuable than anything I had heard.
“That’s how the Neville Brothers got back together, doing the Wild Tchoupitoulas with him. He said, ‘Man, this is what your mother and father would’ve always wanted. If you can get together as a family, that’s when you’re gonna be successful.
“Something was happening with the Meters at that point that I really didn’t appreciate so I just told ’em, ‘Well, I’m bowing out.’ It’s like when you don’t want to take stuff real seriously…if you don’t have an idea where you’re going or where you are now. If you don’t know where you are now, how you gonna figure out where you’re gonna go? You gotta know where you are right now. You’ve gotta be able to appreciate what you’ve got right now. It was my opinion that the Meters didn’t know where they wanted to go and somebody did see what could have happened but they listened to somebody that didn’t have no clue of what was going on. If they couldn’t own it, they wanted to break it up.
“That’s why I got with my brothers. The Wild Tchoupitoulas—that happened to be the Meters and the Neville Brothers. Mick Jagger told us at one point, ‘Man, this is the winning combination right here—y’all can’t see that?’ The Meters couldn’t see it. I saw it way back then.”
THE MONKEY FEEDERS
For years, Art’s fans have been clamoring for the Art Neville Solo Album, the ultimate tour-de-funk-force. The disc is now underway: “I can do it here in my house. At our studio, we’ve got high-definition Pro Tools. What I do is record some of it here in my house and bring it to the studio and balance it on the Pro Tools and take if from there. If I want to put live musicians on it, I could. That ‘Micky Fick’ thing you heard, that was Brian Stoltz playing guitar on there. I played all the other stuff and I used Steve Gadd—one of the drum CDs he had out—and I just emphasized off of him what I wanted to play on the keyboards. I can do all this stuff myself. I can cut a whole thing by myself but this time, I’ll use my son Ian ’cause he’s bad. He and Aaron got the same birthday. He’s a good son. I’ve been blessed with that.
“The music will be my contribution to what we did as the Meters, when we were all free before everybody got involved in worrying about how to split the money up. When we were splitting it up evenly, that’s some of the best stuff that we did.
“My little girl—Amelia Jane—she was saying something one day and she was trying to say the funky Meters and she said it backwards. She said the Monkey Feeders so that might be the name of it. This is what I want to do on my own. I’ve been getting a lot of input from other people. Just like you said, ‘Man, why don’t you do your own record?’ Well, I’m doing it. It’ll just take me a little time.
“I had a little backslide here. I think the Lord stopped me for a reason ’cause I was painting myself too thin. So now I can sit here and do what I want to do. I’ve got any program I want to use. I’m familiar with the computer enough that I can do my stuff myself, I don’t have to ask nobody nothing.
“Computers is the thing today. If you don’t know about computers, you’re gonna be lost. You’re gonna be like a ball lost in the high weeds. You gotta know computer stuff ’cause this is running the whole planet now and you’d better be up on it. If not, you’ll be one of them people that’s always, for the rest of your life, working for somebody else for less than minimum wage or minimum wage.
“Record companies are not gonna buy us no more. They’re looking for them little girls so they can sell sex—that’s what they’re doing. And you have another generation out there which is an art form—that hip-hop stuff is great! I saw a thing on C-Span with Farrakhan and I had never really got into listening to Farrakhan. I heard him talking to all these major players in the hip-hop world, a whole auditorium full of ’em.
“He said, ‘Now you’ve got something in your hand—you’ve got responsibility now. You’ve got kids all over the world emulating you. They want to dress like you, they talk like you…now you’ve gotta give them something to think about. Give ’em a message. You don’t need to show ’em how to degrade women, how to make babies because nobody needs no information like that.’
“What Farrakhan said was great. You’ve got kids all over the world, nations that are at war with each other—they’re still digging on that same hip-hop music. The young people are gonna be the only ones that’s gonna be able to stop the old people from destroying this world. We need to try to get together with some peace. There’s a lot of black kids and white kids over there ready to die for that shit. And they’re serious. I remember when I was in the Navy, if you would’ve pointed me at anything, that’s the enemy. He’s destroyed. You ain’t taking no prisoners. Like I used to say with the Meters all the time on a gig: We ain’t taking no prisoners tonight! School is in session, y’all!
“I just hope for the sake of the young people that these people wake up. They’ve got young people in all them other countries that don’t feel like all the old, jaded people feel. Anytime you’ve got kids willing to strap bombs on themselves and blow themselves up, somebody done did them people something unjust. They ain’t just evil like that.”
ENCHANTED NEW ORLEANS
“Radio didn’t make us. Fortunately, when you perform, everybody understands what we’re doing. They appreciate the differences between Cyril, Charles, Aaron and myself. Together, it’s a whole ’nother deal. We give ’em a little bit of everything. We always promote New Orleans.
“New Orleans is enchanted. New Orleans has a blessing on it ’cause we should be underwater, under 30 feet of water. We can go walk up Valence Street and you get to a certain point and you’re looking up at the river. We’re in a bowl. The only thing that saved us all this time is somebody be doing some serious praying.
“That’s the angels—things you don’t see. They’ve got a lot of stuff that’s unseen that we can’t see, that we ain’t gonna never know about what it is until we make that jump. I know, for a fact, that somebody’s been watching out for us. There’s no doubt in my mind. Some of the same spirits or angels—whatever they are–they’re looking out for New Orleans.
“We’ve got the demons down here, no doubt about it—they’re here. Some of ’em you can recognize and some of ’em you can’t recognize. But basically, all the way around, I think New Orleans is a special, enchanted town. I look at New Orleans like the village that the Hobbits lived in, Middle Earth. I’m serious.
“I’m a man but I’m still a kid at heart. I remember all my childhood stuff and I’m seeing it happen all over again with my children. It’s joyful.
“There’s some other folks that was involved in my life. Like Bill Graham, for instance. Bill was a dear friend. When we started performing out in the San Francisco area, he used to come to all the shows. He’d come backstage and talk with us and hang out. Him and I liked the same music, the same groups. I remember the last time I spoke with him, we were doing an outdoor show and Booker T. was playing. Bill and I were onstage together, talking about how great the band sounded. That was part of my influence with the organ—listening to Booker T. Come to find out he was listening to me, too. It’s a trade-off thing—everybody is into everybody else.
“Bill Graham was actually, genuinely a fan. He loved the music and he had the ability and he had the facilities to help all these people. He came backstage once and told me, ‘You know what—they should make a Neville pill. Whenever I feel bad, down, or whatever, I listen to the Nevilles and it brings me up.’
“I thank all the musicians that I’ve performed with over the years. Unfortunately, to put all of their names, you’d have to have a whole book.
“It’s been a joy. As a little kid, I never had the slightest imagination that this would last this long and that I would be sane enough to do what I’m doing. I’m still not finished, not finished at all.”