“We’re the brothers/We’re the funky four/funk to the Valence/from the Calliope/like to sing and dance/in the neighborhood/we’re bad as lightning/and we’re loud as thunder/When you hear the Brothers/your body got to move“–The Neville Brothers, “Real Funk”
The Neville Brothers’ familial bonds have kept them together as the Funky Four, even as each Brother has nurtured successful solo careers and side projects. Cyril leads his own “second-line reggae” band, The Uptown All-Stars; Charles has recorded acclaimed jazz albums and collaborated with musicians from the Native American community; Art scored solo success in the ’50s for Specialty Records with tracks like “Cha-Dooky Do” and went on to found The Meters; and Aaron recaptured the glory spawned by his 1967 smash hit “Tell it Like it Is” in a string of duets with Linda Rondstat and a steady stream of contemporary solo albums. But the Neville Brothers band has remained the common musical thread in their lives. Ever since they first united on record in 1976 for the landmark Wild Tchoupitoulas album, they’ve come to symbolize the musical and cultural diversity of New Orleans. They first recorded as The Neville Brothers for their eponymous 1978 Capitol Records debut, and have released a steady stream of compelling albums, including the Grammy-winning efforts Fiyo on the Bayou and Yellow Moon.
On February 16–Mardi Gras day–the Neville Brothers will release their new album, titled Valence St. It’s their debut for Columbia Records, and stands as one of the strongest and most diverse albums in the Nevilles canon. Valence St. boasts classic sensual New Orleans second-line grooves (“Real Funk,” the title track), adventurous multi-cultural explorations (“Over Africa,” “If I Had a Hammer”), and the first single is a heavenly ballad from Aaron (“A Little Piece of Heaven”). But the record has its share of surprises as well, including a hip-hop collaboration with Wyclef Jean, a pair of heartfelt ballads sung by Cyril, and arguably Art’s finest vocal performance ever, a mournful, gospel-like reading of Richard Thompson’s “Dimming of the Day.”
Valence St. is the sound of four brothers, four distinct musical personalities, coming together and celebrating their individual and collective roots.With Valence St. waiting in the wings, the four Brothers each talked to OffBeat about the new album, their individual inspirations, and the forces that have kept The Neville Brothers going strong for over two decades.
The youngest of the brothers, Cyril has staked out a musical identity as the band’s percussionist and its grittiest vocalist.. He earned the respect of his siblings quickly, playing with Art and Aaron in the late-ë60s band the Neville Sound, and he joined forces with Aaron again in the mid-ë70s group the Soul Machine. He is the most outspoken of the brothers, and prefaces every his interviews with the disclaimer, “When I speak, I don’t speak for my brothers, I speak only for myself.” He tirelessly speaks out against racial and social injustices, displaying a passion born out of the circumstances of his youth.
“There’s a lot of misconceptions about me,” he says. “One misconception is that the Neville Brothers grew up together. I did not grow up with my brothers. I grew up under them. I’m ten years younger than Art, I’m nine years younger than Charles, and I’m like seven years younger than Aaron. When I was a child, they were young men. So it wasn’t like we all came up at the same time and have the same likes and dislikes. Even people who came up at the same time don’t have the same likes and dislikes. I came up during a different time and a different era; my formative years were during the so-called civil rights movement, and that just puts my approach to life a little more different.”Cyril doesn’t mince words; the “indoctrination” rather than education of schoolchildren, and his comparison of artists in the music industry to sharecroppers, are just two issues stoking the fire in his belly of late. But his strong stance on various issues is just one facet of his personality. Cyril is above all a devoted family man, immensely proud of his wife and children, and he’s not afraid to show those sentiments. On Valence St., the love song “Utterly Beloved” grew out of a poem he wrote for his wife Gaynielle after visiting her on the movie set of Oprah Winfrey’s Beloved.
“I got a chance to do some different stuff [on this album], and for me the audience has a chance to hear me do the things that they haven’t heard me do before. I’ve done things like that on gigs before, but never on record,” he says. “Tears,” the closing track on Valence St., finds Cyril in similar emotional territory, capturing a lifetime of heartbreak in a vocal tour-de-force. For Cyril, his performances on Valence St. don’t represent a departure from form, but an extension of the musicial mantra The Neville Brothers have always followed. “Because what was first with us the whole time, is musically, what we’re saying is always true. That’s why we never went disco. We were playing ‘Hey Pocky Way’ and ‘Brother John’ and ‘Iko Iko’ from day one up until now. When you go see the Neville Brothers–I don’t care where you’re from–you’re coming to a parade. You’re coming to an Indian practice, a jazz concert, a rhythm and blues concert, reggae, gospel. We went all the way from doo-wop through bebop on into hip-hop, and we’re gonna be around any kind of way it flip-flops.”
No matter what side roads the Nevilles’ music travels down, for Cyril, the guidance of New Orleans’ musical legacy will always be omnipresent. It’s evident in his Friday and Saturday night series “Cyril Neville Presents” at Tipitina’s French Quarter, where he’s not only spotlighting local talent, but playing with the Uptown All-Stars and a new band he recently formed that focuses on classic New Orleans rhythm and blues. “The good part about is, when you’re from New Orleans, you never do some of that stuff the same way twice anyway. So every time I do it, it’s a brand new experience for me and whoever sees me doing it. And Fess, Booker, Alvin Shine Robinson, Nat Perillat, and all of those people, Professor Shorthair Tillman, constantly travel with me, so that’s another reason that I know that what we’re doing is going to succeed, because we’re getting constant input from all of them people. Every time we go in the studio, there’s always empty chairs and empty microphones for those people. And people can call it crazy or whatever they want, but it’s the truth. The spirit lives on and on and on.”
Saxophonist Charles Neville is the Neville Brothers’ musical compass, transporting their rhythmic interplay into new realms and back again with his otherwordly solos. “Charles can blow anything,” says Aaron. Charles’ll make you feel like you’re in China, or Arabia, or anywhere.” And that’s not just brotherly love and praise, it’s the truth. In Charles hands, a song like “Yellow Moon” is embellished with a mystical heat, thanks to his hypnotic snake-charmer solo. He contributed the heartbeat of Valence St., its title track, a searing instrumental that is one of the most wicked and intoxicating grooves from the Nevilles in recent memory.
“I wrote that a long time ago–in fact it was sometime in the ’70s,” Charles remembers. “I was living in New York at the time that I wrote it and I played it with the band that I had there. I had a tape of it, and I’d forgotten about it. And listening and going through some old tapes, I heard it and said, ‘yeah.'” Charles’ move to the Big Apple opened up new musical horizons for him, expanding his already substantial musical knowledge.
“For me, the time that I moved to New York really played a big part in what the experience meant to me, because through the ’50s and early ’60s, I had played with a lot of the top blues and rhythm and blues bands around the country, and had gotten to play with some of the jazz musicians in some of those bands. But I got to New York at the time when Minton’s Playhouse was still happening, and the Baby Grand, and Count Basie’s, and all the great jazz clubs in Harlem were still really happening. There were clubs in Brooklyn and the Village as well where jazz was really hot in New York at the time, and a lot of the bebop players were there, so I got to really work with some of the people that I had really looked up to most of my life, and it was a real educating and inspiring experience for me. One thing, I got to play with Tiny Grimes, and we got to be friends, and I played with him for a while. Also I got to play with Billy Higgins and George Coleman and Charles McPherson, and that was really great. That had become a part of the way I play, and I incorporated that into what we do here.”
For Charles, it was a path that revealed the common ground in indigenous music from around the world. After contributing his newfound musical discoveries to the Wild Tchoupitoulas sessions, his role in the Neville Brothers – and in all his side projects – has blossomed into a torchbearer for the expansion of cultural horizons.
“The main difference in the music is just the rhythm, and to me it’s all kind of the same. For me when I play with the jazz group we have, we have pieces that are based on some of the New Orleans street beat rhythms, some of them just funk rhythms, some of them like straight ahead bebop, and a lot of the stuff I do is Latin, and Afro/Cuban, Puerto Rican, Brazilian-kind of stuff as well.” In his pursuit of hidden connections, Charles became one of the guiding lights in the recent movement to bring together the historic traditions of the Mardi Gras Indian and Native American communities.
“It’s a similar kinship, and something that I wanted to help happen was to have the Native Americans and the Mardi Gras Indians get to know more about each other. I got to meet, and know, and I’m friends with Dr. Orvil Looking Horse, who’s the sacred pipe carrier for the Lakota Sioux. When we did that recording called Songcatchers, our aim was to combine other American music forms with the Native American music form. And we used to like to introduce the band as being a cross-section of America, because we had Irish-Americans, Italian-Americans, Native Americans, African Americans and Jewish Americans in the band. So what we had to show was that things that appear different are really the same, in terms of especially human culture and human everything. Just like people thought Native American music was so different from jazz or rock or funk or hiphop, but we put all those elements together with traditional Native American music and it worked.”
That experience led to Charles writing “Tears,” the tribute to Native American culture on Valence St. The song is an example of Charles’ other dominant trait, a quiet spirituality that permeates all his musical endeavors. The connection to a higher power, Charles believes, is the main reason the Neville Brothers have remained united, in the midst of an industry that often tears families apart.
“I think our main interest in it from the beginning wasn’t the business of it, but more the music part of it. And the fact that making music is a kind of spiritual experience and it requires that people who do it together, need to be able to link together spiritually. And that experience kind of overrides everything else and becomes more important than anything else. That’s what’s made it easier for us to stay together for so many years, because that particular thing, sharing that experience, has kind of gotten us through most of the things that could turn into conflicts for most people.”
The oldest of the Brothers, Art Neville has earned the nickname “Poppa Funk.” Watch him walk on stage, and settle in behind the wall of keyboards he surrounds himself with, and there’s an undeniable aura of cool confidence that surrounds him. It’s only fitting for the man who’s written such memorable piano lines as the intro to “Hey Pocky Way,” a figure as instantly recognizable in New Orleans music as Professor Longhair’s “Tipitina.” He’s practically a one-man rhythm section; his Hammond B-3 lines–and baritone voice–are the perfect counterpoint for Aaron’s falsetto and Cyril’s fiery vocals. It’s a testament to Art’s serenity and leadership that in both the Neville Brothers and the Funky Meters,, he’s the consummate team player, always ready to give his bandmates the spotlight. That philosophy also explains the pride he feels over the diverse musical contributions on Valence St.
“Everybody had a chance to do something on the album and participate, and do a little special thing, each of us,” he says. “You can tell from whatever the song is, who can run that particular play. It’s like a football team, man, when you’ve got a certain play, you let whomever runs that play the best go with it. You can hear certain songs, and if I’d try to sing it, I wouldn’t be able to do what Aaron or Cyril did with ’em, you know?”
Art’s talents are stamped throughout Valence St., from the apocalyptic rumble he brings to his vocals on “Over Africa” and “The Dealer” to his trademark funkified organ on the title track and “Real Funk.” With over forty years of playing music professionally under his belt, Art’s playing has still retained a youthful exuberance, and matured into a league on par with his own heroes.
“I think what happened is I’ve learned to understand what I’m doing a little better, and appreciate what I’m doing better. I have fun when I’m doing it, and I enjoy doing it, and I want it to be cold-blooded stuff. I just did a thing for Windham Hill Records which is going to be out. I did it up in my studio, and I’m playing everything except the guitar. It’s an instrumental, and the album is called Organ Summit, and it’s Jimmy Smith, Jimmy McGriff, Al Kooper, Booker T. and me. So I’m happy with that. And we’ve got some stuff we’ve been doing with the Meters that’s so treacherous. What’s happening now is that everybody who influenced me wanting to play, like one my main dudes is Horace Silver, and Bobby Timmons too, I can’t play like them, but the kind of attitude I got from what they’re doing is creeping out now, I think.”
Like his brothers, Art can’t help but shake his head at the band’s critics–especially here at home–who at various times over the years have claimed the Brothers have strayed from their New Orleans roots. It’s practically a foregone conclusion that someone somewhere will perceive their hip-hop pairing with Wyclef Jean on Valence St. as a sellout, or one of Aaron’s new ballads as simply a track geared for radio airplay. “All of our records are special to me, and one of ’em we did, Uptown, everybody said that didn’t sound like us,” says Art. “That’s crazy. It’s the Neville Brothers; we’re singing on the stuff. I don’t understand. Man, to me, it sounded like us. But they weren’t gonna get away with us doing that stuff. It was too pop, and we had some bad dudes playing on that: Santana, Jerry Garcia… I thought it was real good. “People try to put you in the pigeonhole. They got that statue at Lee Circle, and they want you to be like that: don’t you never change. We wasn’t made for no bag,” he says.
And for Art, the constant acknowledgements he receives from the younger funk players on the scene, and his role as “Poppa Funk,” are all the more incentive to keep pushing, and keep shaking things up musically. “I love to hear the cats say that stuff,” he says. “It’s flattery and a compliment, and it makes you know that whatever you’ve been doin’, somebody’s been paying attention to it. There are bands out there kickin’ butt too. It makes me want to do more stuff, and say, ‘I’ve got something else for you; it ain’t finished. You got that one, now check this out.’ … The songs on this new album–like that ‘Over Africa’ thing, or ‘If I Had a Hammer,’ ‘Until We Meet Again,’ ‘The Dealer,’ there’s some nice stuff. It’s tasty. It’s a bunch of mixtures–you got Indian, you got all this stuff goin’ on in there at one time. You’re born in Louisiana, you’re mixed up,” he laughs. “You got to be mixed up.”
Aaron Neville arguably possesses arguably the most recognizable voice in American music. There’s no disputing his status as one of the 20th century’s greatest balladeers, and his vocal genius just earned him another Grammy nomination, this time for his most recent solo album, To Make Me Who I Am. But while his love songs may have earned him his greatest recognition, Aaron aficionados also know that he’s always been a master of heat-seeking New Orleans rhythm and blues, singing scalding vocals on his classic ’60s track “Over You” all the way through to his tough turn on “Brother Jake” from 1989’s Brother’s Keeper. No amount of mainstream success has kept Aaron from keeping it real: underneath the beautiful flourishes of the Valence St. ballad “Give Me a Reason” is the tale of a man searching for salvation, in a society that often doesn’t make sense.
“Give Me a Reason” was a song that [producer] Joel Dorn brought to me back when we did Fiyo on the Bayou,” remembers Aaron. “We did it one time, but it didn’t work out. Then I heard it done by the Cate Brothers. That’s how I wanted it, that same feeling… I’m thinking about the people out in the streets, and the kids, and that line, ‘Somebody tell me where I belong / and that’s where I want to be,’ the first time I heard it, it made me cry.”
Aaron believes in the healing power of music, and has maintained a strong connection to his gospel influences. He contributed the reggae-ish rearrangement and vocal to Valence St.’s version of the Pete Seeger folk classic “If I Had a Hammer,” eliciting new nuances out of the song’s message. He’s also currently recording a spiritual album on his own, and shares his brothers’ views on the importance of their respective solo projects, and the positive effect they have on the Neville Brothers band.
“It’s a way that everybody keeps their individuality, and then we become the Neville Brothers and put it together. It’s like your fingers opening up, and they might be going in separate directions, but when you close ’em up, you’ve got a fist, and we’re going in the same direction.” When the Brothers come together, they have generations of connections that unite them.”We look out for each other,” he says. “I want for them what I want for me. I don’t feel like I’ve made it until they’ve made it. We’ll be on stage and I can look at my brothers and I can see my ancestors that aren’t here anymore. I think they can do the same thing. We’ve got stories we can tell on the bus; we can talk about things from a long time ago, and it’s special, you know?”
That sentiment also bodes well for the musical future of the Neville Brothers. Of the many projects they’d like to see come to fruition, Aaron sounds particularly enthusiastic about an idea of Cyril’s. “We talk about doin’ the stuff we grew up listening to, the stuff that we did that was dear to us. Cyril’s been talking about doing a show, and having a park bench we could bring out there, because when we came up in the Calliope housing projects and they had these cement benches, we’d sit on those benches and just harmonize like Clyde McPhatter and the Drifters, or Billy Ward and the Dominoes, Sonny Till and the Oreos, Pooky Hudson and the Spaniards, and all those cats. We would do our history.”
On the eve of a new album that embraces old traditions and new musical directions, it’s wholly appropriate that Aaron and his brothers have never forgotten their early inspirations. Yes, they are the most renowned ambassadors of New Orleans music, and their songs and faces are known the world over, but when all is said and done, the Neville Brothers have stayed true to their home town, and they don’t plan on stopping now. Home will always be Valence St.
“I think any Neville fan, diehard or whatever you want to call it, they should give it a listen, and check the Neville Brothers out,” says Aaron. “The Neville Brothers are still keepin’ on keepin’ on. That’s the bottom line. We’re trying to be here until the year 3000.”