Saxophonist Charles Neville — forever known to fans as “Charlie, the horn man”—was the secret ingredient in the Neville Brothers’ mix, the brother whose jazz instincts took them to another level. Neville, who died last month of pancreatic cancer at age 79, was also a link to the fabled days of the Dew Drop Inn, where he began performing in the ’50s.
As the one Neville who didn’t sing and seldom talked onstage, Charles may not have gotten as much spotlight as his brothers Art, Aaron and Cyril. But his instrumental tunes, which bridged the gap between bebop and modern funk, were a key part of Nevilles shows; and the sax/guitar duel on “Yellow Moon” was a consistent highlight. Charles was also front and center on “Healing Chant,” the Yellow Moon instrumental that gave the Nevilles their only Grammy as a group.
The second son of Arthur Lanon Neville Sr. and Amelia Neville, Charles left the family’s Valence Street home at age 15 to tour with the Rabbit’s Foot Minstrel Show. As part of the Dew Drop house band he later played with Johnny Ace, Jimmy Reed, Little Walter and other legends, before serving in the Navy 1956-58—a period that he said was highlighted by his getting stationed in Memphis and discovering Beale Street. There he met B.B. King and Bobby Blue Bland, with whom he toured on sax, and was also a touring member of Larry Williams’ band. The ’60s and early ’70s found him playing countless jazz and R&B sessions, ultimately moving to New York.
Harder times came as well: Though he acknowledged a decades-long struggle with heroin addiction, it was a marijuana charge that landed him at Angola during the early 1960s. During his incarceration he worked on his music, playing with James Booker among others. At the behest of his uncle George Landry (Big Chief Jolly), Charles returned to New Orleans to take part in 1976’s landmark Wild Tchoupitoulas sessions that led to the Brothers’ formation as a band, and in 1986 he embraced sobriety; his avuncular presence became one of the Nevilles’ trademarks. In a recent OffBeat interview, George Porter Jr. noted that Charles was an inspiration to him when he too was getting sober.
Charles’ work outside the Neville Brothers attests to his far-ranging musical interests. 1990’s aptly titled album Diversity, recorded with a band of that name, reinvents Gershwin, Jobim and Charlie Parker material along with a handful of originals, in a lineup that includes violin, cello and harp. A little-known fact is that the signature song made famous by Leigh “Lil Queenie” Harris, “My Darlin’ New Orleans,” was written by Ron Cuccia, Neville and Ramsey McLean. It was recorded live at the Contemporary Arts Center in July 1979 by Cuccia and the Jazz Poetry Group, of which Charles was a co-founder. Later in the ’90s he co-founded the Songcatchers, a band fusing African, Indian and Native American music, and appeared with them on Peter Gabriel’s WOMAD tour. His final solo work, Safe in Buddha’s Palm, continued his interest in the spiritual aspects of jazz.
Charles’ daughter Charmaine Neville has also emerged in the past few decades as a top-flight jazz vocalist. Though the Neville Brothers played their last official show at the Saenger Theater during Jazz Fest 2015, Charles continued to tour as a regular member of brother Aaron’s band. In recent years he spearheaded a jazz circuit in western Massachusetts, where he moved with his wife Kristin later in the ’90s. Among his many area gigs was the Springfield Jazz & Roots Festival, which is produced by Kristin’s nonprofit, Blues to Green. A benefit for Charles was held last February at Northampton’s Academy of Music, including Branford Marsalis and Aaron among others.
Tributes to Charles began pouring in during the first weekend of Jazz Fest, where one of his musical colleagues, the great saxophonist Charles Lloyd, began his set with an “ascension” piece in Neville’s honor. “We go back a long way, Charles—thank you for the love and kindness,” tweeted Harry Connick Jr.
In his own tribute, Mac (Dr. John) Rebennack credited Charles with carving his first walking stick.
His brothers also paid tribute. Said Aaron Neville on Facebook, “My dear brother Charlie the horn man, just want you to know that if I would’ve had the choice of picking my brothers, I would definitely choose you. You were a great brother. You’ll always be in my heart and soul, like a tattoo.” Added Cyril Neville in an official statement, “My brother… is not only a great musician but one of the most amazing human beings that ever lived. He brought love and light everywhere he went. I will miss his physical presence but his spirit will continue to guide me.”