“Wheee!” grinned a delighted new fan, marveling at the beautiful bundle of human sound and motion. “You make me tired just looking at you.”
Charmaine Anita Neville is a multi-talented, impressive entertainer. Actually, she’s overwhelming. Charmaine takes the stage like a precocious four-year-old commanding a lump of silly putty to be first a dinosaur, then an airplane, a pancake and now a green, valentine heart “just for you, mommy.” Her magic transforms a small, claustrophobic, smoke-filled nightclub room into a bright, expansive joy-filled world.
As good as her band is (and they are so good that a lesser talent would be easily overshadowed), once Charmaine ascends to center stage she commands total attention.
While most people are flabbergasted by her energetic gyrations—her style might be dubbed aerobic-funk—it’s her unique singing style that really entrances. Whether giving new twists to old lyrics or wordlessly improvising over a familiar melody, Charmaine never does any song the way it’s usually done. Without exaggeration, the best description of Charmaine’s vocalizations is to note that she is usually unusual. This potent mixture of explosive energy and unique singing are quickly winning heaps of critical praise.
Remembering that adoring fan who was worn out just looking at Charmaine, the stellar performer laughs and utters one word: “Good.” Why, “good?” Charmaine’s answer is immediate, honest and revealing. “I want people to like me. I want people to have a good time.”
“I don’t want to be known as just a singer;” explains Charmaine flashing her trademark, enthusiastic smile, “I’m an entertainer.” And make that entertainer with a capital “E.”
Who can resist her spirited performances: finely braided hair flying in all directions, high kicks above her head, expert percussion-playing on tambourine and cowbell, a high clear voice that swoops and giggles, shouts, moans and croons?
Vogue magazine couldn’t. After a one-night performance in New York, they called her back to feature her in their tres chic pages.
“I wasn’t even in the door good. My bags were still packed when the phone rang. They said don’t unpack. Catch the next plane back.”
When New Orleans’ staid daily paper, the Times-Picayune, decided to jazz up their image and employ lots of color, more graphics and a complete design makeover, who was the logical choice to project their new pizzazz in the T-P’s arts & entertainment magazine? Charmaine Neville.
Moreover, unlike some models who are photogenic to the max, but who don’t come across well on television, Charmaine does it all with equal aplomb.
Charmaine is the reigning princess of New Orleans music, the heiress apparent to Irma Thomas, the city’s well-known R&B vocalist. But Charmaine’s range and ambitions are broader than her predecessor. She’s appeared in numerous television commercials and may be regularly performing in California and at Caesar’s and Harrah’s in Atlantic City.
She has an exotic, different kind of beauty. The camera caresses every curve of her feline strut and lovingly lingers on the sculptured face which proudly displays her South Louisiana mixed black and native American ancestry.
But Charmaine’s beauty is more than skin deep. She’s an articulate and intelligent spokesperson who is not afraid to speak up for the less fortunate or to speak out on social issues.
After many years of paying dues in small clubs and backyards, Charmaine is now attracting international attention. In the fall of 1988, all of America had an opportunity to experience Charmaine on record as well as on both the silver screen and the tube.
Charmaine is the featured vocalist with Ramsey McLean & The Survivors on a recent fall release from Rounder Records, “Jump Jazz-The New New Orleans Music.”
She was featured vocalist on the soundtrack of the Warner Bros. movie, “Everybody’s All American,” which stars Dennis Quaid. She also recently completed a 90-minute PBS video spotlight called “Lonesome Pine Special.”
Recent performance tours have taken her overseas, and she has numerous offers to go back. On the local front, there’s as much work as she can handle.
At least twice a week (usually Monday and Thursday nights) she’s at Snug Harbor with her band, which she sincerely refers to as her “musical family.”
“Amasa and Reggie, man, those guys, wow, what can I say!” People usually say their show is a knockout as Charmaine and company blissfully cross all known musical boundaries. One minute it’s jazz, then it’s pop or rock or country or “whatever. It’s all me. I just do whatever I feel like doing.”
Most people recognize the “Neville” name as a major genetic force in the DNA of the New Orleans sound. However, it would be a mistake to assume that Charmaine couldn’t miss because she was born with a musical silver spoon in her mouth.
Her distinctive high-cheeked, full-lipped, almond-eyed face is memorable—but inside of Charmaine there are memories of a childhood that included separation from her family and years when “I was so hungry, I had to knock on people’s doors and ask for something to eat.”
It wasn’t until she was thirteen that Charmaine first met her famous uncle, singer Aaron Neville, at a pool party in Audubon Park.
“People think I had it made because I was a Neville but they just don’t know. Most people don’t know what it’s like to be placed into a foster home at two years old. Most people don’t know what it’s like to be diagnosed as a problem child because you run away from abusive foster parents. Most people don’t know what it is to be sent to a school in Texas far away from family and friends.”
But then again, most people are not Charmaine Neville. “Some people think I’m rich but that’s only because they don’t really know me. One lady even asked me why I wasn’t driving a Mercedes.” Charmaine Neville is New Orleans’ brightest star today because she has worked hard and overcome obstacles that would have crushed a person of lesser determination. The lady is obviously a survivor.
“I can remember lying to get a job. I’d tell them I had experience and I knew how to do the job. Then, when I got the job, I would go to the library and read up on what I was supposed to do. I would teach myself whatever I had to learn.”
Born on March 31, Charmaine’s an Aries, the chief fire sign of the zodiac—fearless, determined and self-confident. Self-described as an impulsive and spontaneous person, she is the dynamic mother of two young sons.
As her life has testified, artistic achievement is not simply a question of how much talent we have, but rather of how much determination we have to use our talents. Undoubtedly, Charmaine Neville represents the best of what New Orleans has to offer the world.
Editor’s Note: Kalamu Ya Salaam is a New Orleans writer, jazz radio host and music producer. “The New New Orleans Music,” a three-volume survey of contemporary New Orleans jazz which he produced, is currently available on the Rounder Record label.