In New Orleans, the cemeteries are disturbingly prominent. The city was built on swampland, so far below sea level that if you dig into the ground, you hit water almost instantly. Consequently, the dead are buried on hills, mounds, bumps, wherever high ground is available. The crypts stand tall, a reminder of the close proximity of Gulf Coast hurricanes and the Mississippi River flash floods that erode fifty square miles of coast each year. When the heavy rains come, Louisiana has a dangerous drainage problem. It’s not uncommon for coffins to be washed right out of the earth and float down the street.
Art Neville has been thinking about the cemeteries a lot lately. He’s forty-nine years old, almost the age at which his father died. And as the family patriarch, he has had to fight for the survival of the Neville Brothers, the exalted first family of New Orleans soul, a struggle that has culminated in the release of the band’s new LP, Uptown.
“Everybody in the industry digs us,” Art declares, with a voice as deep as a canyon. “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.”
Despite the support of superstars like the Rolling Stones and Huey Lewis, both of whom chose the Neville Brothers to open major tours, despite reviews that would make a vain man blush, despite becoming such an institution that they’re listed in Fodor’s tourist guide to New Orleans, the Neville Brothers have never had a hit album. Fat with percussion and harmonies, their music reflects the African and Caribbean influences that sailed in through the port of New Orleans and inspired the syncopations of the “second line” that trails behind any parade, be it a Mardi Gras fete or a funeral. Turning a burial into a celebration is a typical New Orleans reaction — festivity in the presence of destruction. Some of the city’s wildest partying is prompted by hurricane warnings.
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Art’s house, one of many modest shotgun A-frames on Valence Street, in the uptown section of New Orleans, is the band’s unofficial headquarters. Brothers Aaron, 46, and Cyril, 39, share a similar house two blocks away. The fourth brother, Charles, 48, described by one member of the entourage as “an old hippie,” lived on Valence Street until last year, when he moved to Oregon for what he calls the “serene atmosphere.” Art’s house is particularly busy today, not only because it’s the peak of Mardi Gras but also because it’s the day before his second marriage. The ceremony is casual; he and his young mate already have an eight-year-old son, and the wedding will happen less than an hour after the band finishes filming videos for the new album. Within weeks, Uptown will become the band’s best-selling LP ever. But to Art Neville, that’s just a higher level of cult success, and that’s not enough. Art wants a hit record.
“I wanna go to the bank,” he says. “For once in my life, I’d like to be able to do something for my family.” Neville says he doesn’t want to be “a dinosaur out there playing oldies but goodies till you drop dead at one of your gigs and still haven’t succeeded at anything other than ‘Yeah, they were great.’ Here Lies The Neville Brothers on the tombstone. ‘Hey Pocky Way.’ ‘Tell It Like It Is.’ We don’t need that.”
A hit would be a reward for years of troubles. “We done had limbs pulled off,” Art says. “We been blinded, we been scalded.” Although he is obviously speaking metaphorically, the Nevilles have been exploited, jailed and neglected. During the past nine years the band has released four LPs on four different labels. In an attempt to reverse their fortunes, Uptown was assembled with the calculated assistance of established writers and producers. Ceding so much control to others prompted “a little resistance, a little controversy” within the band, Art says. “People are gonna say the Neville Brothers are selling out,” he acknowledges. “If that’s what we’re doing, I’m sorry. I’m no dinosaur relic. When I die, my daughter, my son, my wife — nobody gets nothing. You don’t sell any gold records when you’re dead.”
Under the warm Southern sun, a man walks south on Decatur Street, in the French Quarter of New Orleans. He has a microphone in one hand and a small amp mounted on his shoulder, and he’s doing his best to ignore the taunts of Mardi Gras revelers who pass, most of whom carry drinks. A platoon behind him hands out small yellow leaflets to anyone who’ll take them. One of the platoon carries a sign that reads, Only Jesus Saves Sinners From Hell. They’ve come to the right place at the right time.
The platoon passes a small knoll, where two red-faced men in University of Florida T-shirts have passed out. It’s almost noon. On the other side of Jackson Square, three black men dressed in outrageous green gowns march arm in arm, chanting the Beastie Boys’ “Fight for Your Right (to Party).” A pair of cops watch from the comer. One has a large button on his chest that reads, Quit Your Bitchin’. His partner has hung a Do Not Disturb sign over his badge.
The popular anthem, this and every Mardi Gras, is “Mardi Gras Mambo,” a rough slice of Fifties soul with a rumba beat and lyrics that glorify the annual carnival celebration. The single is re-released each February and, according to local lore, has sold a million copies in the Crescent City alone. Art Neville sang and played piano on “Mardi Gras Mambo.” By his count, he was paid twelve dollars for his contributions.
In New Orleans, the idea of hiring a lawyer seemed as unnatural as locking the front door. Music was an expression of tradition and heritage and community, not a profession. Everyone in the neighborhood could play or sing — according to Charles Neville, there are several families in New Orleans as talented as his — and for years there was no fee to get into local clubs. The Nevilles’ dad, Art Sr., would sing Charles Brown and Nat King Cole ballads around the house when he got home from his job as a porter on the City of New Orleans train, and their mom and her brother George Landry had a successful dance team. The four brothers didn’t have a record player while growing up on Valence Street, but when relatives or friends came over, they’d bring gumbo, home-brewed beer and a guitar or a harmonica.
After years of playing piano in neighbors’ houses, Art joined a high-school band called the Hawketts. In 1954, when he was sixteen, they recorded “Mardi Gras Mambo” at a local radio station, in just one or two takes, he says.
When Art began a modest solo career, Aaron joined the Hawketts. Following a half-year jail term for auto theft, Aaron had the family’s first national R&B chart success with “Over You,” in 1960, and left the Hawketts, which endured for a few years with an ever-shifting lineup. After a string of local hits, Aaron recorded the timeless “Tell It Like It Is,” a Number Two hit in late 1966 that has since been re-recorded by artists ranging from George Benson to Heart. Aaron was finally able to quit his job on the New Orleans docks and tour behind “Tell It Like It Is,” but he made no money from sales of the 45 because of a bad contract. “When I started, I just wanted to be heard,” he says softly. “I didn’t know nothing about the business.”
Bred by such different vocal influences as doo-wop and hillbilly yodeling, Aaron’s tender vibrato is one of the most distinctive instruments in pop music. It’s also an unlikely voice for a man who, owing to his burly build, light skin and the dagger tattoo on his left cheek, looks like a pirate. “I ain’t got nothing to be bitter about,” he says now. A few years back, Aaron learned that a man who did make money off “Tell It Like It Is” was now broke. “He envied me. I didn’t have nothing material, but I had my soul.”
Art’s and Aaron’s tales of abusive business practices are as common as Mississippi mud in New Orleans. For twenty years the city was a fount of rock classicism. Little Richard and Fats Domino recorded big hits here. And there were national smashes by Roy Brown, the Dixie Cups, Frankie Ford, Guitar Slim, Clarence “Frogman” Henry, Lee Dorsey, Ernie K-Doe, Earl King, Lloyd Price, Robert Parker, Irma Thomas, Shirley and Lee, Larry Williams, Huey “Piano” Smith — enough hits to fill Rhino’s current three-volume History of New Orleans Rhythm and Blues. Enough hits, Art Neville says, that “the people that was doing it at the time didn’t think it would ever end.”
Because New Orleans musicians were careless and uninformed about business practices, they were preyed upon by greedy record companies. Cyril expresses dismay that New Orleans musicians were such easy marks.
While the New Orleans sound was absorbed by other bands, the local music scene was meager during the late Sixties and Seventies. Aaron was stuck in a restrictive contract with a local label; Charles, who had gone to New York to play sax, was jailed for possessing a small amount of marijuana upon his return home.
Many of the Nevilles’ friends, Art points out, had it worse. Lee Dorsey, he recalls, worked in a junkyard and died of emphysema. Chris Kenner’s bloated body was found in a room covered with roaches. There are other horror tales he doesn’t mention — such as piano titan Professor Longhair, who spent his middle years in obscurity as a janitor, and James Booker, who wasted his blazing keyboard genius on heroin — because they are so numerous.
During the late Sixties and Seventies, Art played with the Meters, whose skeletal, fiery funk and string of instrumental hits established them as one of the premier bands of the time. They backed Paul McCartney and Robert Palmer, played on such hits as Dr. John’s “Right Place, Wrong Time” and LaBelle’s “Lady Marmalade” and toured with the Stones. But the Meters, Art says, were “ripped off big time.” Adding to the dissension that hobbled and eventually split the band, Art was plagued by narcolepsy. When he feels tired now, Art takes a nap. But in the Seventies, faced with double shifts of concerts and day jobs, he was prescribed amphetamines to keep him awake. The speed didn’t always work; he fell asleep twice onstage and once dozed off while driving the Meters’ tour car, waking just in time to avoid an oncoming truck. Art also blames the amphetamines for a bout of ill health.
Contractual problems prevented the four brothers from uniting until 1975, when they and the other members of the Meters joined together as the Wild Tchoupitoulas and recorded “black Indian” tribal songs adapted by Cyril and their uncle George Landry, plus the Meters’ hit “Hey Pocky Way.” Although Wild Tchoupitoulas is one of two definitive Neville albums, Art says, “everything was crazy then. For a long time, me and my brothers wasn’t friends with each other.” Because each brother had distinct musical talents and tastes, there were arguments about material, with each one wanting more time in the spotlight.
The trouble continued during the Nevilles’ muddled Capitol album in ’78 and began to smooth out during Fiyo on the Bayou, their wonderful ’81 record, which Keith Richards trumpeted as the year’s best work. But Fiyo featured a reworking of the Meters’ “Fire on the Bayou” and a third version of “Hey Pocky Way” alongside Aaron’s florid versions of “Mona Lisa” and “Ten Commandments of Love,” songs that Cyril still maintains “shouldn’t have been on the album.” The Nevilles were nobly upholding the dying traditions of New Orleans soul, which guaranteed that they wouldn’t get airplay. Fortunately, they had the houses on Valence Street, which their elders had left behind. The Nevilles survived off money they earned from live shows. When they toured Europe, Art would see fancy reissues of old Nevilles material packaged with pictures he didn’t even recognize. Although the liner notes to these records always paid homage to the Nevilles’ talent, the record companies involved never paid any money to the band members.
Although their next release, the live Neville-ization, had two decent new songs by Art, the strongest cuts were oldies, including “Tell It Like It Is” and Professor Longhair’s “Big Chief.” While keeping the tradition of New Orleans music alive, the Nevilles had fossilized into an oldies act like the Beach Boys, unsure of how to modernize their sound without betraying their heritage. And they were in danger of breaking up. Art wanted to record more contemporary material, and he decided that “if I had to record that same stuff over again, you wouldn’t have heard me on another record.”
In the summer of 1985, West Coast promoter Bill Graham suggested to Bob Brown, Huey Lewis and the News’ manager, that he have the Nevilles open the band’s American tour; Graham had booked the Stones-Nevilles tour years earlier and was a fan. The tour, Art Neville says, was a “litmus test” to see how they would be received by “young, white Middle America.”
Morty Wiggins, a young employee of Bill Graham Productions (BGP), wanted to sign the Nevilles to a management deal. “But the only reason that we’d manage them is to sell more records, to make more money,” he says. “If they weren’t interested in that, if we didn’t think that could happen, we wouldn’t have pursued it.” In the wake of Tina Turner’s comeback success, Wiggins believed the timing was right. And a five-song demo the band had recently completed convinced him that they were headed toward more mainstream sounds. BGP signed the Nevilles at the end of ’85 and negotiated a record deal with Rounder/EMI soon after.
The BGP strategy was for the Nevilles to capitalize on their respect in the industry by calling in big-name producers, writers and guest musicians. While various people were being considered, producer-engineer Jim Gaines was fantasizing about producing the Neville Brothers. Gaines, a Memphis native who settled in the Bay Area and has worked on hits from Steve Miller’s “Fly Like an Eagle” to the last three Huey Lewis records, says he called BGP and offered to produce the Nevilles “under one condition — I don’t want to do another New Orleans Neville Brothers album, because radio won’t play it and people aren’t buying it.” He was hired as the band’s executive producer.
Gaines and Wiggins presented the Nevilles with a few songs that, Wiggins admits, “they thought were shit.” The biggest stumbling block was the ironically titled “Whatever It Takes.” A few of the brothers dismissed the song as “wimpy” (it’s also been covered by those country softies the Oak Ridge Boys). And Cyril, who is devoted to Mardi gras culture and social activism, and wears so many antiapartheid buttons that he describes himself as “a walking protest sign,” had more lofty objections. Although asked to sing lead on the song, he didn’t think he “wanted to be identified with” the track. “Cyril didn’t like it for sure,” says Art. Then Huey Lewis told the Nevilles that his band had resisted recording one of their first hits. And they were told that Tina Turner initially didn’t like “What’s Love Got to Do with It.”
Once the question of compromising with the material was settled, the experts were brought in. Gaines produced four songs himself and asked Richie Zito (Motels, Eddie Money) and Clive Langer and Alan Winstanley (Elvis Costello, Madness) to handle the others. A parade of guitarists arrived, including Carlos Santana, Jerry Garcia and Keith Richards, and New Orleans homeboy Branford Marsalis played sax. The goal was to modify the Nevilles’ funky attack and keep it within what Gaines calls “the gray line.”
“You can go too far on one side,” explains Art. “Too R&B, too black or too far with something else where it won’t fit no category. If you stay in that gray line, you’ll do well on radio. And if you want to keep Neville Brothers alive, you better fit into the gray line.”
Those are discouraging words, of course, because the Neville Brothers have long been an alternative to the planned blandness of the gray line. “But we can do it good, though,” Art answers enthusiastically. When his grandmother cooked apple cobblers, he recalls, she always kept a secret ingredient in her apron pocket. “You could taste it,” he says, “but you couldn’t identify what it was. That’s what made them apple cobblers so treacherous. That’s the same thing we do with the music. That thing you can tap your foot to is in there, but then there’s that thing you can’t tap your foot to. It’s still got that edge to it.”
To reach this compromise, the band discarded what Charles calls “that heavy Afro-Cuban voodoo rhythm that’s identified with New Orleans.” And each of the four brothers was shortchanged: Aaron didn’t get to sing what he considers a ballad (although his cover of Dobie Gray’s “Drift Away” comes mighty close), Art sang lead on only one song, Cyril didn’t get to record his more socially conscious songs, like the live staple “Wake Up,” and because many of the sax parts were played by Branford Marsalis, Charles is nearly absent from the record.
When the sessions were completed, the Neville Brothers named the record Uptown, after their beloved neighborhood. Charged with optimism, they also filmed four videos in the Valence Street area. And since the heart of the record had largely been determined by the sad fates of some late local friends, their album dedications cite Professor Longhair and James Booker, neither of whom could have dreamed of luxuries like high-tech recording studios and promotional music videos.
“I care a lot about what the people in New Orleans think about the Neville Brothers,” says Cyril. During the recording of the album, some people in the community asked if the traditional New Orleans sound would be part of the Nevilles’ new record. “And the only way I could explain it was that by us being the ones doing the music, yeah, that was gonna be there,” Cyril says. “That’s something that’s hard to explain to someone when you don’t hardly understand it yourself.” Still, he admits, Uptown may seem “like a sellout thing to some people.”
The Nevilles played three times in New Orleans during Mardi Gras. For the first two nights they played at Tipitina’s, a long, funky barrelhouse named for a Professor Longhair song. Just a few blocks from the Neville houses on Valence Street, Tipitina’s is their second home. Each night the crowds were lined up around the block by midnight, and they stayed until the Nevilles finished, after 4:00 a.m.
Their third show was the night before Fat Tuesday, a celebration known as Lundi Gras. New Orleans hadn’t celebrated Lundi Gras for seventy years, and the city selected the Nevilles as appropriate hosts for its return. More than 5,000 people marched into Spanish Plaza, alongside the rim of the Mississippi, most with painted faces or masks, several wearing T-shirts with the traditional Mardi Gras greeting Show Your Tits. Along with the crack three-piece rhythm section that’s been with them for five years, the Nevilles mixed their classic material with new songs. A sign above the stage read, Lundi Gras: Rebirth of a Legend.
When he looks out into local crowds, Cyril Neville says, he recognizes faces he saw ten years ago, notices young fans who’ve grown old and brought their children. To maintain ties with the community, he heads the New Orleans Musicians Organized, a group he says is “dedicated to teaching young New Orleans musicians about the musical history and the music business.” The acronym NOMO is appropriate — Charles’s daughter Charmaine and Aaron’s son Ivan are both talented musicians, and the brothers want to make sure that the next generation isn’t taken advantage of the way they were. Having learned the hard way, the Nevilles are now looking out for themselves, too. “They finally have a reputable, honest management company working for them,” says Morty Wiggins, laughing, “and they’re all over us. They should’ve done this years ago.”
Aaron Neville figures that his bad experiences were all “a part of the plan” to bring the band to where it is now. Brother Art paraphrases the Lord’s Prayer — “Forgive me my trespasses as I forgive those who trespass against me” — and shrugs. “I don’t hold no grudge. I say, ‘You don’t hear no noise coming from the graveyard, bro.’ You can’t play nothing in the graveyard, so while you got it, you better use it.”