Keith Richards thought the Neville Brothers' Fiyo on the Bayou was the best album of 1981. Most music fans never had a chance to form an opinion. "I knew it wasn't going to get played on the radio," says Cyril Neville. "So I didn't build up any false hopes. We just made the best record we could."
With Fiyo on the Bayou, the Neville Brothers — singer Aaron, keyboardist and singer Art, saxophonist Charles and percussionist Cyril — set out to capture their undisciplined sound, descended from New Orleans Mardi Gras music, while commercializing it enough to reach a broad audience.
The tracks on Fiyo on the Bayou can be divided into two distinct categories: dance-floor burners (like "Hey Pocky Way" and "Sweet Honey Dripper") and showcase ballads for the band's primo canary, Aaron (like "Mona Lisa" and "The Ten Commandments of Love").
"The first time I saw the Nevilles was at the Bottom Line, in New York," says producer Joel Dom. "They completely blew me out of the water."
Dorn pitched a Nevilles deal to A&M, which initially didn't share the producer's enthusiasm. "A&M thought the Nevilles were too ethnic and too regional," he says. Concurrently, singer Bette Midler — whom Dorn had produced and who is also a Nevilles fan — lobbied A&M on behalf of the band. The label eventually gave Dorn the green light.
A self-admitted "sucker" for Aaron's angelic voice, Dorn painstakingly surrounded it with lush orchestration. "When we cut 'Mona Lisa,' we used the New York Philharmonic," says Dorn, "and Aaron sang live in the booth. We turned out all the lights except for one spot that was focused on a Nat 'King' Cole album. He sang the whole song to that album."
Of course, everyone involved was convinced he had a hit on his hands. "It was one of the few times that I've made a record and was 100 percent satisfied when we finished," says Dorn. "I felt Fiyo on the Bayou was the culmination of my career." But the title of the album proved confusing. Both Cyril and keyboardist Art Neville had been members of the seminal New Orleans band the Meters, which had released a 1975 album entitled Fire on the Bayou! Inclusion of a new version of the Meters' signature tune "Hey Pocky Way" on Fiyo further muddied the bayou. "We wanted those songs to be heard by more people," says Aaron.
Most radio stations were just as puzzled by the Nevilles' style, which didn't fit easily into any programming format. "We just couldn't get any airplay," says Dorn. "It was the kind of record where I wished I could have gone door-to-door and said, 'Here — listen to this record!'"