The Nevilles: a taste of New Orleans |

The Nevilles: a taste of New Orleans

Stewart OksenhornThe Aspen TimesAspen, CO Colorado
© Jay Blakesberg
Retna LTD | Jay Blakesberg

SNOWMASS VILLAGE On the two-CD collection Treacherous: A History of the Neville Brothers, released in 1986, the first CD features no songs recorded by the outfit known as the Neville Brothers. The songs hits like Tell It Like It Is, the New Orleans classic Mardi Gras Mambo, and the spine-tingling romance Wrong Number (I Am Sorry, Goodbye) are credited variously to Aaron Neville or Art Neville, or such groups as the Hawketts and the Wild Tchoupitoulas.Before there was the New Orleans powerhouse known as the Neville Brothers, there were individual Nevilles; bands like the Soul Machine, the Meters, and even the Neville Sounds; and a nonstop shuffle of small record labels like Parlo, Specialty and Minit. In fact, it took an uncle George Landry, the sibling of matriarch Amelia Neville to arrive at the seemingly obvious idea to bill the Nevilles as a band of brothers. And that didnt happen until 1976, when Art Neville, the oldest of the brothers, was staring at 40 years of age.What happened, we did The Wild Tchoupitoulas with George Landry, said the 70-year-old Art by phone, from his home in uptown New Orleans, on Valence Street, directly across the street from the house he grew up in. It was the Nevilles and the Meters the influential funk band he had co-founded in the late 60s in the studio. George said, You sound so good, why dont you do a family act? We didnt think about doing anything like that. I had the Meters, and Aaron had the Soul Machine. Charles was in New York.Not only was their uncle pushing the idea of the Neville Brothers; so was their mother. Among Amelia Nevilles dying wishes was to have her boys unite in music: Before she passed, says Art on the Neville Brothers website (, she told me, Keep them boys together. So a year later, her boys keyboardist Art, singer Aaron, saxophonist Charles, and percussionist Cyril, who was 11 years younger than Art assembled again in a studio, this time under the Neville Brothers banner.The Neville Brothers, released in 1978, wasnt a monster hit. None of the songs including Dancin Jones, by the hitmaking team of Lieber & Stoller, and Washable Ink, by a little-known songwriter by the name of John Hiatt has endured as a central part of their repertoire. Still, it was enough for them to see there was strength in blood ties. When Jolly called us together, it was like a call from God, said Aaron, referring to Landry by his Mardi Gras Indian tribe name, Chief Jolly, on the bands website.It was like, OK, we got something special. But no record company knows what to do with it, said Art, who leads the band (now including his son Ian on guitar) to a show on Saturday, June 7, at the Snowmass Chili Pepper & Brew Fest, the Neville Brothers first appearance in the Aspen area in over a decade. We knew it was serious, because the people we performed for, they showed us it was serious. But we werent playing the mainstream music. It was just what we felt like playing. We was playing for ourselves and the people. When you are trying to make a record thats not when it happened for us. It was just what felt good.The people who came, they gave us standing ovations, playing in movie theaters, little halls. [Or at formals for a Tulane University fraternity, where this writer first saw the Neville Brothers, in 1981.] And it wasnt anything mainstream, except for these few songs Aaron was singing.

The story of the Neville Brothers ascendance demonstrates the importance of some kind of marketing hook. The band followed their eponymous debut with Fiyo on the Bayou, a 1981 album that, unlike The Neville Brothers, was steeped in the style and vocabulary of their hometown. Despite the musical accomplishment the album made songs like Hey Pocky Way, Iko Iko and the title track New Orleans classics Fiyo on the Bayou still didnt sell well.But the album got the attention of the musicians and the music industry. In the mid-80s, Linda Ronstadt heard Aaron sing at the Worlds Fair. And she said, Ill sing with you any time, according to Art. It took a few years, but in 1989, Aaron first teamed with Ronstadt on Dont Know Much. The single from Ronstadts Cry Like a Rainstorm, Howl Like the Wind album hit No. 2 on the charts, and two more duets put Aaron further in the spotlight. Thanks to the association with Ronstadt and the way their music together fit into mainstream radio formats the Neville name began to resonate with all kinds of audiences.I heard Dont Know Much, and I told Aaron, OK, here we go. Go get yourself a tux, said Art. In fact, Aaron and his brothers needed an array of outfits to fit in with the diverse crowds they would play for. While Aaron was crooning for adult contemporary audiences on the radio, the Neville Brothers found themselves opening tours for the Grateful Dead and the Rolling Stones.While it took the singular voice of Aaron his voice has been described many times as that of an angel to get the Neville Brothers on the map, perhaps the real force behind the music has been how Aarons voice has been used in the band. Aaron had been a crooner for decades, singing love songs like Tell It Like It Is. But in the Neville Brothers, he was singing behind a backbeat of familiar New Orleans syncopations, funk, reggae and rock. No one knew to go in that direction with him, the funk, said Art.In 1989, the Nevilles scored another masterpiece. Teaming with New Orleans producer Daniel Lanois, who had already had monster hits with U2 and Peter Gabriel, the band created Yellow Moon. With covers of Bob Dylans With God on Our Side and The Ballad of Hollis Brown, and of Sam Cookes A Change Is Gonna Come, the album added a heavy dose of social commentary to the bands makeup, one which has endured for two decades. The albums title track, meanwhile, was a mesmerizing piece of New Orleans mysticism. Though the band has continued to release strong albums including their most recent, 2004s Walkin in the Shadow of Life they havent reteamed with Lanois.He didnt want to try another, said Art. He didnt think he could come up with another hit like that. The Neville Brothers arent quite the toast they were a decade and a half ago, when Deadheads and New Orleans music fanatics and mainstream radio listeners all congregated to hear Aaron sing; and Cyril, the most rebellious of the group, to talk of revolution; or Art, known as Poppa Funk, to grind it out on his keyboard. The band has been slowed by age more than anything; Art, who spent six months in bed after back surgery a few years ago, now gets around mostly on a wheelchair when hes on tour. Good thing the Lord took my legs and my feet, but not my hands, he quips good-naturedly.But the music itself seems to be very much of the times. Unlike bands of 30 years ago, who largely limited themselves to a particular style, the Nevilles have always mixed reggae with smooth soul, African flourishes with American R&B. They move easily from a fiery political spiel to a heart-stirring romance.And the music of the Nevilles whether as the Neville Brothers, or the Meters, or any of the myriad of other projects the brothers have been involved with has sunk deep into the culture. Art notes that Fergie, the singer from the hip-hop group Black Eyed Peas, sampled Little Richards The Girl Cant Help It on the song Clumsy, from her recent solo record, The Duchess. The sample features the voices of Little Richards backing band, among them a 19-year-old Art Neville.And she probably doesnt even know it, said Art.The Neville Brothers perform at 5 p.m. Saturday on Fanny Hill in Snowmass as part of the Chili Pepper and Brew