| CURRENT EVENTS New Orleans legend Art Neville, founder of the Meters and Neville Brothers, dies at 81

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New Orleans legend Art Neville, founder of the Meters and Neville Brothers, dies at 81



Art “Poppa Funk” Neville spent a half-century shaping the sound of New Orleans music. The keyboardist and singer was a founding member of the Meters and the Neville Brothers, and he was the voice of the enduring Carnival season anthem “Mardi Gras Mambo.”
In the latest blow to a New Orleans music community that had already lost Dr. John and Dave Bartholomew this summer, Neville died Monday after years of declining health. He was 81.
"It was peaceful," said Kent Sorrell, Neville's longtime manager. "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."

Arthur Lanon Neville was born on Dec. 17, 1937, the same day as New Orleans piano legend James Booker. As a boy, he lived in the Calliope housing development and Uptown on Valence Street. He was drawn to the Orioles, the Drifters and other doo-wop groups, as well as the piano-driven music of Professor Longhair and Fats Domino.

He attended St. Augustine and Booker T. Washington high schools before earning his GED from Walter S. Cohen High, where he’d hang out in the music room with fellow members of the Hawketts, the group he joined in 1953.
He was barely 17 when, in 1954, he sang lead on the Hawketts’ remake of a country song called “Mardi Gras Mambo.” Local deejay Ken "Jack the Cat" Elliott convinced the Hawketts to record "Mardi Gras Mambo" at his radio station. More than 60 years later, the song would still be a Carnival staple.
“I was so happy to record,” he recalled in a 2013 interview. Jack the Cat “had this song. It sounded good to me. We cut it in the station, with two or three microphones. I knew it felt good to do it. But I had no idea that it would still be around.”
Neville served six years in the Navy, including two on active duty. During three months at sea aboard the aircraft carrier U.S.S. Independence, he worked as a cook.
'Cha Dooky Doo' Art Neville tribute concert the culmination of a Carnival/crawfish boil connection
Art Neville as a young musician in the 1950s. (Photo courtesy of Preston Lauterbach)
In the late 1950s and early 1960s, he recorded several New Orleans rhythm & blues singles that are classics of the era, including "Cha Dooky Doo" and the ballad "All These Things," the latter written by Allen Toussaint under his "Naomi Neville" pen name.
He transitioned to the role of bandleader in the mid-1960s with Art Neville & the Neville Sounds. The Neville Sounds featured several younger musicians from the local scene, including bassist George Porter Jr., guitarist Leo Nocentelli, drummer Joseph “Zigaboo” Modeliste and saxophonist Gary Brown.

They held down a residency at an Uptown bar called the Nite Cap before moving to the Ivanhoe on Bourbon Street. Brown left the group before Toussaint recruited them to be the house band for his recording studio. Under Toussaint's tutelage, they would record with Lee Dorsey, Dr. John, LaBelle, Robert Palmer and many others.
By 1968, they'd been rechristened the Meters and were releasing singles of their own, including the instrumentals "Sophisticated Cissy" and "Cissy Strut." Neville's playful, sing-song organ, Nocentelli's slinky, chicken-scratch guitar, Porter's deep, rubbery bass and Modeliste's crisp, syncopated rhythms forged a template for much New Orleans music that would follow.
In the 1970s, the Meters recorded songs destined to be New Orleans standards, including "Hey Pocky A-Way," "Fire on the Bayou," "People Say" and "Africa."
Art's youngest brother, Cyril, joined the band as a percussionist and vocalist before the Meters embarked on long tours of North America and Europe with the Rolling Stones. In March 1975, Paul McCartney, a fan, hired the band to perform at a party celebrating the release of his "Venus and Mars" album aboard the ocean liner Queen Mary, which was docked in Long Beach, California; the show was documented on a live album.
By the late 1970s, the Meters had splintered, frustrated by their lack of commercial success and bedeviled by personal conflicts and substance abuse.
"We had some tragedies happen with the group,” Art once said of the Meters’ tumultuous history. “Blame it on who you want to, it don’t make any difference. We didn’t have the wisdom that Mick Jagger or Paul McCartney had: ‘It’s New Orleans, man. Let’s have fun.’ I had fun doing all of it.”

Soon enough, he had a new project on which to focus.
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Photos: Art Neville dies at 81. A look back at life of 'Poppa Funk,' a New Orleans music icon
Photos: Art Neville dies at 81. A look back at life of 'Poppa Funk,' a New Orleans music icon

He and his three younger brothers backed their uncle, Mardi Gras Indians Big Chief George “Jolly” Landry, on a 1976 album called “The Wild Tchoupitoulas.” By the following year, brothers Art, Charles, Aaron and Cyril had resolved to move forward as their own band, dubbed the Neville Brothers.
They presided over countless sweaty late nights in local clubs, distilling funk, rhythm & blues, Mardi Gras Indian music and soul into a distinctly New Orleans, distinctly Neville, sound. In 1979, they became the first New Orleans band to perform on the "Austin City Limits" TV show.
The 1989 album “Yellow Moon" draped the band's natural funk and soul with an evocative mystique conjured by producer Daniel Lanois, best known for his work with U2 and Peter Gabriel. "Yellow Moon" sold more than 500,000 copies and solidified the band’s international reputation as ambassadors of their hometown’s music. The subsequent "Brother's Keeper" album also ranks among the landmark New Orleans albums.
For many years, the Neville Brothers closed the main stage of the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival on its final Sunday. Art, ever funky, ever cool, presided from behind his keyboards, flashing the Vulcan "live long and prosper" salute familiar to fellow "Star Trek" fans. He won a Grammy with the Neville Brothers and another for his contributions to a tribute to his pal Stevie Ray Vaughan.
The Neville Brothers released their final studio album in 2004. The band's last concert was at the Hollywood Bowl in 2012; they later reunited to perform several songs at the "Nevilles Forever" tribute show at the Saenger Theatre during the 2015 Jazz Fest. The possibility of any future reunions died when cancer claimed 79-year-old saxophonist Charles Neville in April 2018.

But their legacy is untouchable.
Even as the Neville Brothers still toured the world, Art Neville lent his voice and keyboard to other projects. The most enduring proved to be the Funky Meters, featuring Porter and guitarist Brian Stoltz.
'Nevilles Forever' concert will say goodbye to the Neville Brothers
Art Neville at his home in New Orleans, Tuesday January 22, 2013. (Photo by David Grunfeld, NOLA.com | The Times-Picayune)
Starting in 2000, the original Meters periodically reunited, spurred by a fresh appreciation for their enormous influence. Samples of their recordings have turned up in dozens of hip-hop songs. The likes of the Red Hot Chili Peppers, Beastie Boys, Phish and Galactic cite the Meters as a major inspiration.
Two of Neville's children followed him into the spotlight. Arthel Neville, his daughter from his first marriage, is a prominent television newscaster. His son Ian Neville is the guitarist in the funk band Dumpstaphunk.
Art first met Lorraine, his second wife, in her native California. They were married at Jimmy Buffett’s house in Key West, Florida, 33 years ago. She became his most ardent fan and, in recent years, most diligent caretaker.
Of the four Neville brothers, Art was the only one to spend the majority of his life on Valence Street. Rainwater and vandals courtesy of Hurricane Katrina devastated the home there that he and Lorraine had meticulously decorated. They eventually moved a few doors down to a cozy house that was the boyhood home of Meters drummer Modeliste.
Neville battled a number of health issues over the years, including persistent complications from back surgery in 2001. More recently, he suffered at least one stroke. His back problems limited his mobility and required him to use a cane, walking stick or wheelchair. At home, Lorraine helped him to his feet, shadowed him as he walked, and sometimes answered questions for him as he rolled his eyes.

He continued to perform and tour through 2017, sometimes with his nephew, Dumpstaphunk's Ivan Neville, backing him up on keyboards. His humor and determination remained undiminished even as he underwent grueling physical therapy and struggled to make it onto stages.
But as soon as he sat at a keyboard, the aches, and the decades, dropped away.
“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," he said in 2013, joking about his determination to keep performing as long as possible.
“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.”
On July 15, Ivan, Ian and the rest of Dumpstaphunk opened for the Rolling Stones at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome. It was the continuation of a family tradition: In the 1970s and '80s, Art shared stages with the Stones as a member of the Meters and the Neville Brothers.
In July 2018, the Meters received a Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award from the Recording Academy during a ceremony in Los Angeles. Art Neville did not attend; his son Ian represented him.
Weeks later, Nocentelli said the Meters were taking a "wait and see" approach to Neville's health: “I’m hoping and praying that he’ll be able to play again."
But it wasn't to be. In December, Neville officially announced his retirement. He spent his last months at home on Valence Street, enjoying the company of family and friends.
"There’s some things that happen, especially in the business I’m in, that you’re not prepared for," he said in 2013. "You’ve got to find a way to work through it.

“I didn’t make a lot of money. Maybe we did make it and didn’t get it. I don’t know. But it don’t matter. My life is happy, I’m happy, the people that are closest to me are happy. Don’t worry about the other part.”
Survivors include his wife, Lorraine Neville; his three children, Arthel, Ian and Amelia Neville; brothers Aaron and Cyril Neville; and a sister, Athelgra Neville Gabriel.
Funeral arrangements are pending
 

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