Cyril Neville was born in 1948, the youngest brother in what has long been considered the first family of New Orleans music, the Nevilles. For many years his genius was occluded by the extremely large shadow of his older brothers Art, Charles and Aaron, but in the long run Cyril’s role as little brother gave him a unique place in New Orleans music history. He got to witness and participate in the classic era of New Orleans R&B, taught by his older brothers, his uncle George Landry a.k.a. Chief Jolly of the Wild Tchoupitoulas, and such family friends as Smiley Lewis, Earl King, James Booker and Allen Toussaint. Yet Cyril was also young enough to be a mentor and influence on younger artists like Def Generation, the first band to merge hip hop with brass band influences, and the New Orleans Jazz Babies, a band that included the future stars Troy “Trombone Shorty” Andrews, Glen David Andrews, Travis Hill and Cyril’s son Omari Neville.
That makes Cyril the real living link between Jolly and Shorty, a New Orleans musician with a solid base in both ’60s R&B and contemporary New Orleans music. Cyril is also one of the New Orleans musicians who has elevated his game in the wake of the devastating 2005 flood following hurricane Katrina. He has been involved in some of the most important and high profile collaborative developments since that time, beginning with the Voice of the Wetlands All Stars, then continuing with the New Orleans Social Club and more recently Royal Southern Brotherhood. All the while he was a key element in bringing the Neville Brothers back together for the family’s historic reunion at the 2008 New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival and the subsequent multi-generational family band, Nevillution. At the same time Cyril has led his own bands, recording two outstanding solo records, the 2007 gem Brand New Blues and the recently released Magic Honey.
During the depression and World War II years the Neville family lived in adjacent shotgun cottages built by Cyril’s grandfather Peg Harris on Valence Street in the 13th ward. Cyril’s earliest memories come from the period after Arthur and Amelia Neville moved their family down to the Calliope projects in 1948. While his older brothers began their musical careers on the benches and porches of the projects Cyril soaked up his first rudimentary lessons.
“My dad had a pretty good singing voice,” Cyril recalls. “My mom basically taught me how to sing from my diaphragm. She would make me sing certain notes and press me on my stomach, show me how to sing it from down there. And a lot of my phrasing, when I was really young and we lived in the projects, Red Tyler used to live next door to us, so I would listen to Red playing everything from alto, tenor to baritone sax. And Charles would start practicing on our side of the wall. So a lot of my phrasing in my singing is a result of listening to what they were playing—Louis Armstrong, for example. He basically phrased the same way he did when he sang or he played the horn anyway.”
In 1954 the family moved back to 1106 Valence Street and Cyril’s musical education began in earnest, listening to his older brothers rehearse in the front room. Cyril remembers spying on family gatherings where his mother, her sisters, their brother George and Art Sr. gathered to play cards, talk and laugh with each other. His eavesdropping took on a more active role when he would peek through the doorway or hide behind furniture while his older brothers rehearsed.
“I was always excited by the music, especially the drums,” says Cyril. “And all the musicians were always real helpful to me. I really looked up to Art. Everything I am, from the way I sing to the way I dress, came from my brother Art. My older brothers and their friends always encouraged me, helped me to become a musician.”
Cyril was an intelligent child who loved to read, but he was an indifferent student who found the lessons he learned from his elders more compelling than what he learned at school. James Booker went to school with Art and was a close family friend. He was an early influence on Cyril, who evolved from being a teacher to a companion.
“Booker was not just my mentor, he was my friend,” says Cyril. “We hung out together. Booker would go out and get one of those black taxicab drivers and he would take the driver to the grocery store, back then it was Schwegmann’s, and he would get the man meat and groceries, take the groceries to the man’s home, leave the man’s wife with some cash money and tell her ‘Look you don’t got to be worrying about him because he’s gonna be my chauffeur for the rest of the weekend.’ I saw him do that a few times. He knew he was royalty and that’s the way he carried himself at all times. Whenever he had on a suit coat he would always have another coat draped over it. He always had an umbrella or some kind of walking cane in his hand. When you were around him you always knew you were blessed.
“Earl King was the same way. I played hooky sitting on Earl King’s front steps listening to him and Red Tyler and I know I learned more sitting there and listening at that than I would have ever learned in some classroom. Booker is the first person I learned about ‘per diem’ from, about asking for per diem or having that on the rider. He taught me a lot about the business. People were always asking me questions about his sexual preferences and about what kind of drugs he used and all and did I do drugs with him. But to look back and have not only my brothers teaching me stuff, but I had Mac, who I didn’t know as Dr. John, he was just Mac, and Jessie Hill, when you were with Jessie Hill you knew you were with someone serious. The way that Dr. John talks, the way that Dr. John treats the English language, basically that was from Jessie Hill, and Papoose.
“And Prince La La, that was another one who was kin to James Andrews and them. The Andrews family has a member in every brass band in the city right now. Several Carnival days I can remember walking down LaSalle Street with Booker. At that time LaSalle Street was an African-American thoroughfare and that turned into Rampart Street, which was another story that I kind of caught the tail end of. I remember going back there with my uncle George, Chief Jolly, and him telling me that was where Louis Armstrong was born in Jane Alley. I used to go back there because I knew the history of that area. They called it the battlefield, that’s where a lot of the Indians came from. When Satch was talking about Back-o-Town, that’s what he was talking about. Any of that stuff now, you can’t find it.”
George Landry, Cyril’s Uncle Jolly, was an enormous figure in the boy’s upbringing. Cyril followed his uncle around, listening to him play the piano at Tipitina’s and the Maple Leaf, listening in on backyard Indian practices and hanging on his every word when he told tales of the old days.
“In addition to being in the Wild Tchoupotoulas, Uncle Jolly was a blues pianist and a great storyteller,” says Cyril. “Like a lot of those other old blues pianists, Uncle Jolly was like a griot, he would tell stories. A lot of songs he knew people know as prison folk songs. On a Friday afternoon, just sitting around, to listen to Uncle Jolly talk with his friends you would hear many stories about people they knew and things they did. On top of that Jolly was the one who told me all about my Indian blood, about where my grandparents were from. My great grandmother was from Haiti and my great grandfather was from Martinique so I learned a whole lot about who I am from him. Him and my mother had a dance team, they did all the ballroom dancing and jitterbug dancing. They used to dance with Louis Prima and Keely Smith. They had a chance to go on the road with them to dance but my grandmother wouldn’t let them go. That’s why my mama and papa let Charles go on the road when he was 15 years old and had a chance to go out with the Rabbit’s Foot Minstrel show.
“Going to different Indian practices I noticed that Uncle Jolly was going to all these different places and even though they were singing the same songs, like ‘Two Way Pocky Way,’ every neighborhood had their own rhythmic texture that they put on it and some other little things they put on it that was different from neighborhood to neighborhood. He listened to all these different little nuances. The same songs but played differently. Most of the songs are about events that happened to a person that really existed. You get people listening to records and they don’t understand this. The music is our cultural history. All of them cats was like griots, passing the information down from one generation to the next. This has all become almost a tourist attraction at this point but the times I’m talking about, it was all a treasure, that’s the way I looked at it. The practices usually happened in somebody’s back yard. You would go there to have the practice. It migrated to neighborhood establishments, like corner bars.”
“Me and Monk met each other at the H&R Bar on Second and Dryades,” says Cyril. “Every carnival, that’s where most of the Indians would go to show off their pageantry. That was one of the most popular spots. Me and my uncle after we got finished practice would go over there. They would have different sets of Indians over there. One was Bo Dollis and the Wild Magnolias. We used to go hang out with them. I grew up uptown and my uncle was part of the uptown Indian culture. At one time the uptown and downtown Indians didn’t mingle, but for some reason they changed that and they would go to each other’s neighborhood. Early on, everybody just knew them all as Indians before anybody thought about recording it. It was a spiritual thing. And it happened very, very early in the morning on Mardi Gras Day so if you came out at like 10 o’clock you had already missed it. They would march from one neighborhood to the next. And everybody would always have food, always have stuff to drink at Indian practice. So it was like, every Sunday for me that was the place to be.”
Cyril remembers his neighborhood as a magic place for conviviality and music.
“My dad was the road manager for my brother Art’s band, the Hawkettes. They were one of the most popular bands in the city. There were always great musicians in that band. They would have rehearsals at our house. Another thing about that neighborhood I grew up in, like most of the neighborhoods in New Orleans, had a whole bunch of musical families like the Alcorn Family, the Moore Family, the Williams family, at different times during the week they would have rehearsals at their houses so it would be the same thing as at our house, the people would gather out on the porch or the front yard to listen to them rehearse, they would dance. Everyplace uptown, downtown, Back-o-Town, had this same kind of vibe going in it.”
Cyril got the opportunity to play with some of the masters of New Orleans R&B at private parties in his neighborhood.
“They used to have a house up on Carrollton Avenue and in the basement of that house I played at parties behind Professor Longhair and James Booker. The people who ran those parties were the same people who helped start Tipitina’s. Tipitina’s at first was a club that we could call our own. There was a time where my Uncle Jolly or anybody could walk in there, sit down at the piano and start playing. WWOZ radio was upstairs over Tipitina’s and there was a hole in the floor. What they used to do is they would be on the air while we were playing downstairs and they would drop a microphone down through that hole and the live show would go out over the air. Everything was musician-friendly then. The back door at Tipitina’s was never closed to local artists.”
Brother Art also let Cyril sit in with his band.
“I was in the Neville Sounds with the cats who became the Meters. They didn’t really become the Meters until they put out ‘Cissy Strut.’ Until then they were Art Neville and the Neville Sounds. That was the first band I ever played drums with. Me and Zigaboo Modeliste were like apprentice drummers for Smokey Johnson at one time. He would play half the gig, then we’d play half of it. It was some experience schooling. Sometimes Smokey decided he needed a break and he would let us play. Because those gigs were like three shows and they would go all night long. Aaron was in the Neville Sounds too. We played this bar called the Nite Cap up on Louisiana and Carondelet. It had been a white bar called the Fun Box and then it changed hands during the time when the Saints football team first started. They had black members on the team but the black members couldn’t go in the French Quarter, couldn’t stay in the hotels downtown and all of this madness, so Mr. Honore, who owned a couple of clubs down in the third ward, he got this club and people who went to the games would bring the black players to be entertained by my brother’s band. By that point I was playing percussion and mostly singing, holding down the front man spot.”
Art’s band was hired to play the Ivanhoe, but only as a quartet. Cyril and Aaron kept the group going at the Nite Cap with new members.
“Me and Aaron kept going as the Soul Machine,” he recalls. “This was before the Meters had made it big. After ‘Cissy Strut’ hit it big and they left and went out on the road to tour. Along with the Soul Machine another band I played in was called Electric Soul Train, with Deacon John and his brother Charles Moore and me and Art. Charles was in that too when it was called Deacon John and the Ivories.”
Though the Meters started as a quartet, once they started recording for Warner Bros. and including more vocals on the records Art brought Cyril into the mix. His vocal performances were not always credited, but he is a big part of the Fire On the Bayou album and started writing songs for the group. Cyril’s role in the band was cemented when the Rolling Stones hired the Meters to tour with them. Art knew the band needed a front man.
“One day I got woken up early in the morning and told I was going out on the road with the Meters,” Cyril recalls. “We were on a bill with the OJs, the Spinners, General Johnson, the Last Poets and Blowfly. I moved up north for a while, then I got a call again to go back with the Meters. This time they were going on tour with the Rolling Stones. So that’s how I made my rock and roll bones. Three world tours with the Rolling Stones. During the time we opened for them, the Meters were at the height of what they did and the Stones were the Stones. We went all over, behind the Iron Curtain and all of that which showed me that the Stones—that’s another word for balls—they had about the biggest balls in the entertainment industry. They’ve done things their own way from the beginning. They didn’t care what anybody else thought about them. Exile on Main Street is like American Music 101. Every style of American music you could think of was on that.
“‘Fire On the Bayou’ was the carryover from the Meters to the Nevilles. That’s how we started shows, just us beating on cowbells and playing tambourines as we came out of the dressing room up to the stage. Eventually it turned into a song. That’s the way we came out on stage in most of the shows we played with the Stones.”
The Meters imploded after making the New Directions album but the timing worked out perfectly when Uncle Jolly put out the call to his family to pitch in on the Wild Tchoupitoulas album project.
“My uncle was invited to do a record with Allen Toussaint and he called us to make it with him. So that record has Chief Jolly and the Wild Tchoupitoulas, the Neville Brothers and the Meters on it. That’s the first time the Neville Brothers all recorded together. We went on the road first as the backup band for Big Chief Jolly and the Wild Tchoupitoulas. We did a couple of shows that consisted of us and Dr. John, Professor Longhair and Earl King.”
Cyril really came into his own as part of the Wild Tchoupitoulas, contributing a new classic to the Black Indian canon, “Brother John,” which went on to become a staple for the Neville Brothers. The long-running family band, a fulfillment of Mama Amelia’s directive to Art to “keep them boys together” became Cyril’s main gig, but not his only outlet. When the Neville Brothers weren’t playing you could catch Cyril leading his own band, the Uptown Allstars, at Uncle Jolly’s old haunt.
“The Uptown Allstars, with Professor Shorthair and Renard Poché, that’s where the song ‘Shake Your Tambourine’ that the Neville Brothers played came from,” Cyril notes. “Then some of them went to California and me and Tim Green and Charles Moore, the Caesar Brothers, Nick Daniels and Mean Willie Green started the reggae version of the Uptown Allstars at Benny’s. We all played music but the people in our neighborhood never got a chance to hear us so we started doing that on Sundays. J. Monque’D used to have his blues show on WWOZ on Monday so he’d go on the air and talk about what happened at Benny’s and it just caught on with the college students. Then a lot of local acts started playing there. Galactic, which was called Galactic Prophylactic back then, started out at Benny’s. There was no telling who might pop up on stage with us. We had some serious jam sessions in there.
“The Allstars were kind of a release valve for us as musicians because we were playing the same stuff with the Neville Brothers almost every night. A lot of the songs that I was writing, the subject matter didn’t fit the so-called profile that the record company wanted the Neville Brothers to have at that time, so they kind of got shoved to the wayside. When Daniel Lanois was producing us I didn’t even bother to bring that stuff to the band. Lanois came down to Benny’s to hear us play and he heard us do ‘Sister Rosa’ and ‘My Blood’ and songs like that. He wanted to know who wrote them and I told him I did. He said I want those songs on the record.”
Fortunately, the Allstars did release an under-recognized masterpiece in 1994, The Fire This Time, a politically-conscious treatise about New Orleans African-American history named after James Baldwin’s The Fire Next Time and clearly influenced by both the Last Poets and Gil Scott Heron.
As the youngest Neville brother, Cyril came of age during the height of the Civil Rights movement and like many others in his generation was radicalized by what he saw growing up and has always been outspoken about it. “Genocide,” the first track on The Fire This Time, was an unapologetic attack on the institutionalized violence of American racism. When the African American population of New Orleans was scattered to the four corners of the country after hurricane Katrina, Cyril continued to hammer on the same themes, but in the wake of this national tragedy his remarks took on added weight. He compared the abandonment of the city’s poor after the flood to ethnic cleansing, a remark that was widely criticized but that was completely consistent with the world view he’d been expressing all along. Ironically, Cyril had warned of the tragedy that befell his hometown earlier in 2005 as part of the remarkable Voice of the Wetlands Allstars recording project, which reunited him with his 13th ward neighbor Monk Boudreaux.
“Not just Monk,” Cyril notes, “but George Porter, Mac, Johnny Vidacovich, Johnny Sansone, Waylon Thibodeaux, Anders Osborne, Tab Benoit, I mean where else on this planet can you get that many leaders together in one band and it all makes sense, where the subject matter and the music fits? Louisiana is the only place that could have happened. Whenever we’re on stage together there’s a kind of electricity that happens that we all bring from our own bands, sort of like what happens with Royal Southern Brotherhood.
That group, which recently cut its second studio album, put Cyril in collaboration with Gregg Allman’s son Devon, the great blues guitarist Mike Zito, bassist Charlie Wooton and drummer Yonrico Scott. With those two groups and his own band touring behind Magic Honey Cyril has had a full touring schedule.
“Magic Honey is one of my best records,” says Cyril. “I waited on some people to be ready to play on that record. I waited until Willie Green’s schedule was clear enough for him to come in. I’ve been waiting for almost 25 years to work again with Cranston Clements again. He was the guitar player for the Neville Brothers back in the day. I was blessed to get Allen and Mac to play on it. The chemistry was right, the sound was electric. All of the songs on Magic Honey were the first take. The idea was to cut everything as it was live, the way they used to cut at Cosimo’s back in the day, when everybody wanted their stuff to sound like it came out of New Orleans. That’s what I feel when I put that record on.”
With all this activity, only one question still hangs in the balance. Will there ever be a Neville Brothers reunion?
“You never know what might happen,” Cyril muses. “I would look forward to another year of the Nevilles closing the Jazz and Heritage Festival, that’s what I’d like to see. Having said that, I’m not letting the grass grow under my feet. Nobody is taking it easy. Aaron just put out a doo wop record produced by Keith Richards and Don Was. Art is still working with the funky Meters and I heard that there was talk of the regular Meters getting back together. But right now for me it’s all about Royal Southern Brotherhood and my solo record Magic Honey.
“I always go back to what I heard the old people say. One of Monk’s favorite lines is ‘It’s a poor rat that ain’t got but one hole to crawl in.’ That’s why my whole life I’ve tried to have as many irons in the fire as I possibly could, keep as many doors open as many windows open at one time as possible.”
An All-Star Tribute to Cyril Neville as OffBeat’s 2013 Best of the Beat Lifetime Achievement Honoree takes place at the 2013 Best of the Beat Music Awards on Saturday, January 18, 2014. The live musical performance will feature Art Neville, Charmaine Neville, Rockin’ Dopsie Jr, Papa Mali, Yadonna West, James Andrews and many more! The event happens at Generations Hall (310 Andrew Higgins Drive) in New Orleans’ Warehouse District from 6 p.m. until 1 a.m. The awards begin at 8 p.m. with Cyril Neville’s musical tribute at 11 p.m. Tickets are on sale now in OffBeat.com’s web store here through January 17, or available at the door the night of the event. More Info.