Atlanta Journal-Constitution reporter Bo Emerson spoke to Charles Neville in 1988 about the fortunes of the Neville Brothers band, about the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival and about the musical dynasty that is the Nevilles.
This story originally appeared June 10, 1988. Charles Neville, saxophonist, vocalist and a member of one of New Orleans’ most creative musical families, died Thursday. He was 79 years old.
The Neville Brothers were playing Tipitina's, and it was standing- room-only on this warm spring evening, but that was OK. The oxygen was so funky and thick that if you got tired of dancing, you could just lean up against the air and take a rest.
Tipitina's, named after an old song by Professor Longhair, is situated near the Mississippi River in the seedy waterfront district of New Orleans. The club is a two-story building that's hollow on the inside, so when you lean back to swig a Dixie longneck, you can see right up to the rafters. Above the stage is a 20-foot-high poster of the Professor, smiling at the proceedings like a billboard Lenin on Red Square - but with shades.
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The high ceiling creates a sense of a sanctuary, of a cathedral's vaulted interior. When the Nevilles play Tipitina's, take that feeling and double it, because for the communicants in this audience, dancing to the Nevilles is the best way to be baptized by the sweet spirit of the city.
While other bands have devoted followings, this band has its own town. The four brothers - Art, 50; Charles, 49; Aaron, 47; and Cyril, 40 - grew up on or near Valence Street, a stone's throw from this un-air- conditioned uptown tavern. After they complete their current tour, which brings them to Center Stage Theatre tonight, all but Charles will return home to Valence Street.
Each year, on the last evening of the spring outdoor music extravaganza called the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival, the Nevilles perform as the closing act on the "Fess" Stage, where Professor Longhair reigned before them.
"After Fess passed, they passed that [billing] on to us," Charles says. "It is really an honor . . . we are given the spot as the band that represents what New Orleans music is about."
For most of the world, New Orleans is synonymous with the jazz tradition that stretches from Buddy Bolden to Wynton Marsalis, but this is also the town where rhythm and blues was created by musicians such as Fess and Antoine "Fats" Domino. The Nevilles have not only accepted the R&B torch passed down from Fats and Fess, but they've also stoked it with some fuel of their own.
The band is a collector of rhythms - African and Caribbean, old and new. The Nevilles have learned from the second line dancers in funeral parades and the street chants of the Mardi Gras Indians. At the same time, the brothers grew up with soul and rock 'n' roll, country and pop, all of which surface in their music.
The Nevilles have been forming and reforming as different bands ever since Art was in high school, 35 years ago. In 1954, he joined a group called the Hawkettes and recorded a little ditty, "Mardi Gras Mambo," still played around Fat Tuesday time.
For a while they were the Neville Sound, a group that, with the notable additions of Leo Nocentelli on guitar and Zig Modeliste on drums, became the Meters in 1968. "The finest performing American band," said Rolling Stone of the Meters in 1976, one year before that group disbanded and the Neville Brothers was born. The audience grew larger. "The best band in America" Vanity Fair proclaimed last year.
The Tipitina's audience seemed to agree. Up in the balcony, David Byrne, the head Talking Head, was among the notables grooving to the dense percussion and tight vocal harmonies that distinguish a Nevilles performance. At Tipitina's, the band is the headliner, but elsewhere in the country that's not always the case. Just as the Meters supported the Rolling Stones on a 1975 tour, the Neville Brothers opened for Huey Lewis last year. And though fans of the Nevilles think the order should have been vice versa, the band still does not fill large halls or arenas on its own.
Part of this has to do with exposure. Despite occasional hits by the group and individual members, such as the Meters' "Hey Pocky Way" and Aaron's 1966 million-seller "Tell It Like It Is," the Nevilles have yet to make a record as successful as their hypnotic live show.
With minimal airplay, the band has remained sort of a poorly kept secret, except in New Orleans, where the Nevilles and their offspring are well-established as a musical dynasty. Cyril has his own band, the Uptown Allstars; Charles' daughter Charmaine and her band, Real Feelings, perform regularly in the area; and even Charmaine's kids, Damien and James, jump up on stage occasionally to sit in with grandpa.
"That feels good," says Charles, talking by phone from a San Francisco hotel room, prior to another of the 200 dates that the Neville Brothers will play this year. "It feels like this has passed down, just like it was passed down to [us]."
Charles, who sings and plays saxophone and percussion, came to the band by way of bebop. He was inspired to take up the sax by Louis Jordan and by age 16 was playing R&B shows with artists such as Bobby Bland and Little Walter. Later he went into straight jazz, playing with Billy Higgins and George Coleman and dabbling in the Manhattan loft scene during the nine years he lived in New York.
Rejoining his brothers in the mid-1970s, Charles left behind the complexity of jazz for the simplicity of R&B, but he doesn't feel limited in that role. "You can play one note and make that mean as much as 20 notes," he said. Cyril plays congas and percussion, Art plays keyboards, and the golden-throated Aaron handles most of the lead vocals, though all four harmonize.
Charles agrees that the band has had a hard time getting its sound down on vinyl. Their most noted album was made as the Meters in 1976, collaborating with a group of street-chanting Mardi Gras Indians led by their uncle George "Big Chief Jolley" Landry. Called "The Wild Tchoupitoulas," that record, wrote Robert Christgau in the Village Voice, "stands as the most sheerly likable album in all of history."
Their eponymous 1977 debut album as the Neville Brothers was apparently shortchanged due to internal upheaval at Capitol Records. Three other albums followed, on three other labels, including 1978's excellent "Neville-ization" for tiny independent Black Top.
"The others, right, they kind of missed it," Charles said. He has high hopes, however, for sessions this summer with producer Daniel Lanois (U2, Robbie Robertson), who is constructing a studio around the band, in a big house on St. Charles Avenue in New Orleans. "It's up to him to figure out how to get what he wants."
In the meantime, the Nevilles will keep touring as their hair gets thinner and their grandchildren get taller. "I live on the road," Charles said. "I have a place in Oregon I get to go to a month out of the year."
At one time in New Orleans there was a sharp division between the light-skinned Creole musicians who lived downtown (which includes the French Quarter) and the uptown blacks on the waterfront. According to Charles, the Creole musicians were educated, could read music and played classical as well as jazz, while "uptown were the ex-slave cats, they had no education, they just picked up horns and they'd blow.
"The uptown music was pure, raw soul, and that's still the main ingredient in our music, our souls, our spirits, what we really are," he said. "We mean it, every note we play we mean it, and we're not putting it on."