Neville’s longtime manager, Kent Sorrell, confirmed the musician’s death, saying, “It was peaceful. He passed away at home with his adoring wife Lorraine by his side. He toured the world how many times, but he always came home to Valence Street.”
A pianist and singer, Neville’s career spanned more than 60 years and left an indelible impression on funk, soul and jazz music. He helped set the bar for New Orleans funk with the Meters, who released eight albums between 1969 and 1977 and served as the backing band for artists like Dr. John, Robert Palmer and Allen Toussaint. He then joined forces with his brothers Charles, Aaron and Cyril to form the Neville Brothers, a highly influential and respected soul outfit.
Perhaps no song better summed up Neville’s influence than “Mardi Gras Mambo,” a track he recorded with the Hawketts when he was just 16-years-old. The song remains a staple of New Orleans’ famous Fat Tuesday celebrations, ringing out across the city every February and March.
Neville was born December 17th, 1937 and, as he and his brothers recalled in a 1987 profile in Rolling Stone, they grew up in a house with no record player, but one that frequently welcomed friends and neighbors, who came over with food and a guitar or a harmonica. Neville was a student of doo-wop groups like the Drifters and the Orioles, while he also idolized New Orleans piano legends like Fats Domino and Professor Longhair (with whom he’d later record).
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Following his first taste of success with the Hawketts, Neville joined the Navy for a six-year stint, that included two years on active duty. When he returned to New Orleans in the early Sixties, he recorded several songs as a solo artist, though it was his brother Aaron who became the first in the Neville family to break out on the national stage with his 1966 smash “Tell It Like It Is.” Art Neville, meanwhile, gigged relentlessly around New Orleans with his own group, Art Neville and the Neville Sounds, whom Toussaint eventually tapped as the Sansu Records house band.
In 1968, the Neville Sounds renamed themselves the Meters and the following year they released their self-titled debut, which would feature one of the band’s signature songs, “Cissy Strut.” The Meters worked tirelessly over the next eight years, hitting a career peak with their 1974 album, Rejuvenation, which featured another classic track, “Hey Pocky Way,” and appeared at number 138 on Rolling Stone’s 500 Greatest Albums of All Time List. The Meters would also back Paul McCartney, open for the Rolling Stones and play on hits like Dr. John’s “Right Place, Wrong Time” and Labelle’s “Lady Marmalade,” but group never notched a proper hit of their own.
As the Meters began to splinter in the late Seventies, Neville began performing again with his family (a contractual issue had actually prevented them recording together until about 1975). In 1976, the Nevilles worked on The Wild Tchoupitoulas, the self-titled album by a group of Mardi Gras Indians fronted by the Nevilles’ uncle, George “Big Chief Jolly” Landry. The experience inspired Art and his siblings to form their own group, which released their eponymous debut in 1978.
Like the Meters, the Neville Brothers were critical darlings, hometown heroes (they regularly closed out the main stage at the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival) and consummate musician’s musicians, but they too were dogged by a lack of commercial success.
“Everybody in the industry digs us,” Neville told Rolling Stone in 1987. “Every other band, bands I love, bands I look up to, they looking at us the same way. Huey Lewis — those cats was onstage watching us every night. The Stones was watching us.” But, he added, “I wanna go to the bank. For once in my life, I’d like to be able to do something for my family.”
While the Neville Brothers never did score that elusive hit, their late Eighties output marked an artistic peak: 1987’s Uptown featured guest appearances from Keith Richards, Jerry Garcia and Carlos Santana, while their acclaimed 1989 album, Yellow Moon, earned the group their first Grammy, Best Pop Instrumental Performance for “Healing Chant.”
Following Yellow Moon, the Neville Brothers would release five more albums, winning one more Grammy, Best Traditional R&B Vocal Performance for their 1999 album Valence Street (Art also earned a Best Rock Instrumental Performance trophy for his contributions to a version of “SRV Shuffle” on 1996’s A Tribute to Stevie Ray Vaughan). The Neville Brothers’ last LP, Walkin’ in the Shadow of Life, was released in 2004.
Neville would continue to tour and perform in the ensuing years, even as his health began to deteriorate. He regularly reunited with the Meters during the Nineties and into the 2000s, while he would also take the stage several more times with the Neville Brothers. He even occasionally performed with the next generation of Neville musicians, getting on stage with his nephew, Ivan Neville, of the New Orleans funk and jam outfit, Dumpstaphunk.
In a 2013 interview with The Times-Picayune, Neville described his life-long devotion to music, saying, “You can bring me there in the ambulance, roll me onto the stage, give me a microphone, and a mirror where I can see the people… Man, look. I’ve been doing this all my life. I enjoy it. Even the bad parts of it, the parts I didn’t like… I found out that’s the way things go sometimes. You’ve got to go along with them.”