Arthur Lanon Neville—“Poppa Funk”—a keyboardist, New Orleans music icon and downright great individual, died July 22 after several years of declining health. He was 81.
Jerry Wexler once described Neville’s ensemble playing “as close to perfect as funk can get.” In addition to an early successful solo career, Neville founded the brilliant funk groups the Meters and the Neville Brothers. Among his many accolades, he won three Grammys, earned a Lifetime Achievement Award last year from the Recording Academy, and in 2002 was given a Lifetime Achievement Award in Music by OffBeat Magazine. Neville announced his retirement last December.
“Art’s playing was the rock of Gibraltar,” said Jimmy Ballero, who played guitar in the earliest version of the Neville Brothers and can be heard on the group’s first album. “In terms of New Orleans music history and influencing other musicians, he was way, way up there. Art made the musicians around him better. He was easy to work with because he told you what to play. He rarely soloed. He played rhythm and filled in the cracks. He never overplayed. That’s why Allen [Toussaint] used him so much. Art didn’t get in the way; he always had good ideas that just added to what was going on in the studio.
“Art was great singer, and he had a real low tone. He loved to play standards and all the old doo-wop stuff. Some nights, between the band’s funk sets, Art would stay behind the keyboard and play that old stuff just by himself. He was just a great cat to work with.”
Neville was born December 17, 1937 at New Orleans’ Charity Hospital. He attended St. Monica’s grade school with James Booker and Allen Toussaint. Although never having music lessons, Neville learned keyboard in Catholic church. At the age of 16, he was recruited by a popular local group, the Hawkettes, and in 1954, the Hawkettes recorded “Mardi Gras Mambo” which became a Carnival standard.
In 1957, Larry Williams, who was in the charts with the hit “Bony Maronie,” hired the Hawkettes to back him on a national tour. The following year, Neville was recruited by Specialty Records A&R Harold Battiste, Jr. Neville’s first record “Cha Dooky Doo” proved to be a solid local hit. Unfortunately, Neville’s career was interrupted when he got his draft notice, winding up as a jet mechanic stationed at a Virginia naval base.
When Neville returned home in 1961, Toussaint hooked him up with Instant Records and wrote the unforgettable ballad “All These Things” for him. In 1965, Neville formed Art Neville and the Neville Sounds, whose nucleus was George Porter, Jr., Leo Nocentelli, and Joseph “Zigaboo” Modeliste. Toussaint recruited the band to be the in-house rhythm section backing Lee Dorsey’s “Working In A Coal Mine,” as well as backing other local artists Earl King, Betty Harris, Danny White and Ernie K-Doe.
In 1969, with some spare studio time, the band cut a handful of funky instrumentals. Rechristening the band the Meters, they lit up the charts and filled the dance floors with “Cissy Strut” and “Sophisticated Cissy,” released on Josie Records. The hits put the band on the road nationally. After several mid-range chart singles and two years later, Josie went bankrupt. Not missing a beat, in 1972 the Meters were signed by Warner Bros. The “new” Meters now incorporated vocals—often by Neville. While at Warner, the Meters waxed five breathtaking albums which literally became the template for New Orleans funk.
By the mid-seventies, because the Meters were a crack/funky rhythm section, New Orleans became a hub of recording activity. Specifically, Allen Toussaint’s and Marshall Sehorn’s Sea-Saint Studios in Gentilly became a magnet for artists far and wide. They worked sessions with LaBelle, Paul McCartney’s Wings, Robert Palmer, King Biscuit Boy, Albert King and Z.Z. Hill, to mention just a few. The Meters also toured the world with Palmer and the Rolling Stones.
A pet project for Neville was recording The Wild Tchoupitoulas album in 1976 that spotlighted his uncle/mentor George “Big Chief Jolly” Landry.
Reviving and popularizing the music of the Mardi Gras Indians, the Meters were joined by Neville’s younger brothers, Aaron, Charles and Cyril. In many ways this album was the inspiration for the formation of Neville Brothers Band. The following year, frustrated by the record company and management, Neville left the Meters along with Cyril, who was a vocalist on the later Meters albums, to form the Neville Brothers band.
The Nevilles packed Tipitina’s and Jimmy’s regularly with their unique Crescent City groove. The people who attended a Neville Brothers set, with Art directing the music, will remember it to their grave. During the breaks, hundreds of people would spill out onto the neutral ground, tired and sweating profusely, and then go back inside to dance some more.
The Neville Brothers would close out the Jazz Fest for two decades. However, initially the Nevilles’ sound didn’t translate nationally—Austin, Texas being an exception—and their fan base consisted of largely locals and New Orleans music fans. It was only after Daniel Lanois produced the atmospheric Yellow Moon album in 1989 in his studio at Chartres and Esplanade that the Nevilles’ career was catapulted into the international stratosphere.
In addition to occasionally playing lucrative Meters reunion sets, Art and his brothers rode the wave into the new millennium. Unfortunately, unsuccessful back surgery in 2001 incapacitated Neville and he was confined to a cane, walker and eventually a wheel chair.
But his mind and musical skills remained razor sharp. He would eventually suffer a debilitating stroke, and spent some time prior to his death in a rehab center.
Arthur Neville is survived by his wife of 33 years, Lorraine; three children, Ian (of Dumpstaphunk), Amelia, and Arthel (daughter of first wife Doris), as well as brothers Cyril and Aaron, and legions of loyal fans and colleagues.
Click here to read a memorial essay about Art Neville, written by John Swenson.