The Neville Brothers -- Art, Cyril, Aaron and Charles -- are masters of melody and rhythm.
Combining such styles as soul, funk, doo-wop, rock and R&B, they deliver the music of
their native New Orleans to audiences around the world.
Art, commonly known as "Poppa Funk," plays the keyboards, and has recorded standards
like "Mardi Gras Mambo" and "All These Things." Percussionist Cyril is called "Mr. Soul" for
an onstage delivery rivaling that of Otis Redding and James Brown.
The beauty of brother Aaron Neville's mellifluous voice has been featured on songs as varied
as "Tell It Like It Is, "Don't Know Much", "The Grand Tour" and "Yellow Moon." Saxophonist
Charles, the spokesman of the group, is a jazz afficianado who gives the band its improvisational
Digital Interviews: Before The Neville Brothers,
what were your family's other groups?
Charles Neville: The first band we had was called The Turquoise. That
was in the early 50s. From The Turquoise, Art joined The
Hawkettes. Then later, I joined The Hawkettes. I went on
tour for a while. First, with different blues bands -- rhythm
& blues bands. Then I went into the Navy. After the Navy,
I was in The Hawkettes. Then Art got drafted onto active duty
in the Navy. Aaron became the singer with The Hawkettes
after Art left. The Soul Machine was a band that Aaron and
Cyril were with. The Meters started out as Art Neville &
The Neville Sounds, which was all of us, but then the band
got a gig on Bourbon Street that called for only four
musicians -- so the rhythm section took the gig. I moved
to New York. Art Neville & The Neville Sounds started
doing the recording with Allen Toussaint's studio.
They were the studio band. They did all of the sessions.
They did some with Labelle; all the Dr. John sessions.
They did some stuff with Paul McCartney & Wings. Then they
recorded some stuff on their own, and they were called The Meters
when they did that.
DI: Growing up on Valence Street, was there a musical atmosphere?
CN: It was a musical atmosphere all over New Orleans. Valence Street
was just one little part of it.
DI: Did your parents encourage your involvement in music?
CN: Music was a part of everyday life. Everybody in the family sang,
or played some kind of instrument.
DI: What music did you listen to as a kid?
CN: We listened to Billie Holiday, Big Maybelle, Nat King Cole,
Muddy Waters, Lonnie Johnson, Jimmy Reed. All of the blues. Bobby
Bland, Junior Parker, B.B. King, and others. Louis Jordan was
another one we knew a lot of. Also, Gene Autry, The Riders Of
The Purple Sage, we all were fans of those cowboy singers.
We listened to Mahalia Jackson, Sister Rosetta Tharpe, and
another gospel singer, a preacher in
New Orleans, Reverend Utah Smith. He had a church called the Two
Wing Temple, and the song that he recorded was "I've Got Two Wings."
[laughs] It was a really rocking gospel song. We listened to Fats
Domino, Guitar Slim, Professor Longhair -- we heard some of everything.
DI: You were the one brother who really left New Orleans.
CN: When I first left, I was 15. I went on tour with a band that
we started in Florida, a band called Gene Franklin & His
Houserockers. We were basically a blues and rhythm & blues band,
but we played jazz also. At that time, any blues or rhythm &
blues artist had a band of jazz musicians. The first half
hour of the show was the band doing their thing, then the
artist would come on, and then the last half hour of the show
would be the band. They were be-bop musicians, mostly. So I
played with that show. We did a stint with The Rabbit's Foot
Minstrel Show. That was really one amazing experience. They
set up tents, and it was like a Black circus. We had one
tent; it was the blues tent. There were acrobats and
dancers -- and sideshows, you know, all kinds of stuff.
I remember seeing the girl with four legs on the sideshow.
She really had an extra set of legs growing from her hip.
The wild man, the really heavy woman, and this man who was
seven feet tall -- all that kind of stuff.
On that show, I met a man who was called Iron Jaw. Iron Jaw
was a tap dancer. He tap-danced barefoot, but he would take
beer bottle caps and stick them in the bottom of his feet.
Those were his taps. He ate glass. Like those old, fat,
green Coca-Cola bottles -- he'd eat one of those like a
chicken leg. He ate those Gillette double-edged blades.
He ate a box of thumbtacks like it was a box of raisins.
He ate light bulbs. He ate fire. He did a dance that
was the climax of his show. He did this tap dance and he had
an assistant, a girl who danced with him. First he would sit
her in a chair, and pick up the chair in his mouth and dance
around with her in the chair. Then, he'd pick up a table,
put the corner of the table in his mouth, and dance holding
the table. Then, he'd put the chair with the girl in it on
top of the table and pick that up in his mouth and dance
with his arms out. That's why they called him Iron
Jaw. [laughs] I did play with the Three Tons of Fun, or Three
Tons of Joy -- these three great big women. One of them was
Jackie Mabley, who later became known as Moms Mabley. And she
was a really good singer.
DI: You also played with a lot of well-known blues artists.
CN: Well, during that time I played with Jimmy Reed, Bobby
Bland and Junior Parker. I played with B.B. King. I played with
Big Maybelle, Johnny Ace and others.
DI: Didn't you also teach for a brief time?
CN: That was later, after I moved to New York. I taught at
Goddard. That was like '69 and '70.
DI: Tell us about the Mardi Gras Indians, and your uncle Big Chief Jolly.
CN: That was in the 60s. He had been masking with the
other Indian tribes. I think he started with The Wild Magnolias, and
then later, he was with somebody else. Then he started The Wild
Tchoupitoulas. Each group of Mardi Gras Indians was from a particular
neighborhood. The name reflected something -- like The Wild Magnolias
were from Magnolia Street, and the Magnolia Project. So, The Wild
Tchoupitoulas -- their base was on Tchoupitoulas Street. That was
a tradition that had been part of Mardi Gras for as long as I remembered.
There were a lot of different stories about how it began. The way they
got "Wild" into most of their names was the Buffalo Bill Wild West
Show came to New Orleans, and the Wild Indians were a part of the show.
DI: How did Chief Jolly help bring the brothers together musically in the 70s?
CN: He decided he wanted to record some of the traditional Mardi Gras
Indian music. He asked us if we'd all come to New Orleans and record with him,
and we did. We just went in the studio and did this stuff. I had been living
in New York -- playing with a band in New York required at least two weeks
rehearsal. We went to New Orleans with no rehearsal, and just went in the
studio and did this incredible music. I realized, "Wow! This is the way
it's supposed to be." We talked about it then. The band was The Meters
and the rest of us. We talked about all of us playing together. He said,
"That's something that your parents always wanted to see -- you guys working
together as a family." We said, "Maybe now is the time for that to happen."
DI: But you'd played together before in smaller combos?
CN: Art, Aaron and I performed together. Cyril wasn't old enough yet.
But when Cyril did start, that was when we had Art Neville & The Neville
Sounds, and that was all of us together. We split up because of that other gig,
which was a really good gig but only for four musicians, then we all went
our separate ways for a while. Cyril went back and joined The Meters.
For a while Aaron and Cyril were in New York, and we all worked together up
there. To actually have a band with us all together -- '76, '77 was when we
started it. Originally what we wanted to do was just combine with The Meters,
the band we had for the Wild Tchoupitoulas session. But the guys in
The Meters felt they would be overshadowed by the Neville Brothers, so we
got another band together.
DI: Did you know right away that this would become the main project?
CN: It's still like that. That's the main thing. In between, we do the other things.
DI: Although many people knew of The Neville Brothers throughout the early
80s, it took the release of Yellow Moon in 1989 to reach the level of popularity you enjoy now.
CN: Before that, we were much more popular in Europe and other
countries than we were here. The first album that we did on Capitol was
really popular in Europe and Asia. It just didn't get the airplay here.
Fiyo on the Bayou was a big hit in Europe.
DI: Were you touring at that time in Europe?
CN: Yes, we were. We toured all over Europe, Japan, Australia,
New Zealand and Hawaii. The stuff was getting played on the radio in those places.
Yellow Moon, because of [producer] Daniel Lanois, got airplay, and that's how we got more
recognized here in the U.S.
DI: Did the record companies not know how to "market" you?
CN: It wasn't the record companies, it was radio -- American radio. You have
to fit a category in order to get played, and we didn't fit any of those
categories. But at the time that Yellow Moon was out, there was a category for
that. World Music was really being recognized as a mainstream thing. That
happened at the right time. The one after that, "Fly Like An Eagle," was one
of the tunes on it. We tried to get airplay for that, and we got some spot
airplay. We talked to program directors on rock stations, and they'd say,
"Well, we can't add this song to our play list, because this is not a rock
album. This is a rock tune, but you guys are not a rock band." When we did
the CD with the song about Rosa Parks, it was a hip-hop song, and Black
radio wouldn't play it, because we were not a "Black act." With each
recording, we're hoping to get it played. This last one, there's a lot
of really great radio stuff, but they won't play it, because none of
the stations thinks we're in their category.
DI: You're known for your fast-paced touring schedule. What drives
you guys to get up on that stage?
CN: We love doing it. [laughs] You know, our schedule is not
grueling. B.B. King works 300-and-some days a year, and he's older than
we are. [laughs]
DI: Before your current side project, the Charles Neville Quartet,
you had a project called Diversity?
CN: Yeah, Diversity was something thought of by myself and the
woman who is the lead harp player with the New Orleans Symphony
Orchestra. We talked about combining jazz musicians and classical
musicians, and make arrangements that suited both sets of musicians.
We had the harp, cello, violin and then a regular jazz rhythm
section. We did arrangements of Charlie Parker & Thelonious Monk
tunes, other jazz standards, and some Coltrane tunes with those
other instruments. We'd take a Charlie Parker song with one of the
symphony instruments playing the melody, and then go into the time
and play it like a jazz piece. It turned into some really unique stuff.
DI: What's your quartet's latest release?
CN: Safe In Buddha's Palm -- and it can only be purchased through
the Neville Brothers' Web site
in New Orleans. [laughs]
DI: How did The Meters become The Funky Meters?
CN: They broke up and they weren't doing anything. There were so
many requests for The Meters to do something. Art asked the guys,
"Do you all want to get back together?" At first, George and
Leo said yes and Zig said no. They got another drummer, and
the other three guys played. Then, after a while, Leo, who
had his own band and was living in LA, decided he didn't want
to do it anymore. Then they got Brian Stoltz, the guitar player
who had played with the Neville Brothers band. Now it was Art and
George, two of the original Meters, and the two other guys.
DI: Tell us about Cyril's project, The Uptown All-Stars.
CN: The Uptown All-Stars was the band that Aaron's son Ivan played
in. Our drummer, Willie Green, was in that band. The bass player,
Nick Daniels, was in that band as well. For a while, we had most
of the cast of that band in the Neville Brothers Band. Then that
wasn't happening anymore, and Cyril put it back together, mainly
focusing on doing Caribbean and African music, but with a New Orleans flavor.
DI: Even Aaron is playing some spotlight shows?
CN: Yeah, he's got a band. I'm in it, and sometimes he uses our
bass guitar, drum, keyboard and guitar. We're going to be doing some
dates late this year, playing some jazz clubs.
DI: When you play together, there are so many types of music represented.
CN: One of the reasons we don't get airplay, is because the four of us
have individual influences, as well as influences that we have in common.
We all have a gospel background, and blues, and rhythm & blues. We all
were influenced by that. But then, Aaron was more influenced by pop
music, country music and doo-wop. Art was more influenced by the original
rock 'n' roll, as well as the gospel and the doo-wop and the New Orleans
funk. Cyril was more influenced by the gospel. His coming-of-age,
musically, was during the soul period, when James Brown and Otis Redding
and Aretha Franklin were the big names. Marvin Gaye, and those guys. So
he got his main influence from that period, and then the Caribbean and
African influence. And my main influence was be-bop and blues. So, when
we play together, none of us tries to do anything different from what
we do individually. We just do it the way we do it, and when we do it
together, it makes this other thing.
DI: Concert-goers never can predict who'll take the lead on any particular night.
CN: When we go on a tour, we don't have a set show that we do. It
changes, depending on how we feel each night.
DI: Tell us about the next generation of Nevilles.
CN: Aaron's son Ivan is on tour now with the Spin Doctors. He's been
performing for years, and has his own band and his own recordings. My
daughter Charmaine has her band and she's touring. Art's son
Ian plays guitar and he had a band on tour with us. Cyril's son
Omari is playing percussion with Cyril, but he has a band in New
Orleans called The Jazz Babies. Omari is eleven. The trumpet player,
Shorty -- who also plays trombone -- is 14 or so. I had seen Omari
on the tours with us, playing percussion with Cyril, but Omari is the
drummer with this band, and they've got three horns and a rhythm
section. They opened for us at the House Of Blues, and I was amazed.
I thought they were going to sound like kids, but they don't.
They're just some other musicians.
DI: Art has recorded professionally for 45 years. You've all
really become the "grand old men" of New Orleans music, and you're
known all over the world.
CN: When we started doing music, we never even thought of anything like
this. We did it just because it was something good to do. That's
one of the main differences between New Orleans music and music from
other places in America. People get into music in New Orleans as
a labor of love, rather than something to do for money and fame and
fortune. A lot of the great recording artists from New Orleans never
left New Orleans, and never quit their day jobs, because the music
was the thing they did because they loved to do it. That's how we
started, and that's still why we do it.