Art Neville, New Orleans Funk Icon, Dies at 81

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Aaron, Art, Charles and Cyril Neville-The Neville Brothers in a publicity photo

Art Neville, synonymous with New Orleans funk and R&B via his six-decade run with The Meters and The Neville Brothers, died on Monday (July 22). The keyboard legend had retired last December 19—the 100th anniversary of the birth of New Orleans piano legend Professor Longhair. At the time, Neville, who turned 81 last Dec. 17, said that he would no longer make music.

“It was peaceful,” said Kent Sorrell, Neville’s longtime manager. “He passed away at home with his adoring wife Lorraine by his side.”

His death follows the June 6 passing of fellow New Orleans music legend, Dr. John.

Neville, whose health issues in recent years have included complications from back surgery undergone in 2001, had not performed publicly in more than a year, according to the December 2018 press release.

Known as “Poppa Funk,” Art Neville first came to the public’s attention in 1954 via the recording “Mardi Gras Mambo,” recorded with the Hawketts, a New Orleans group he joined the previous year. He was sidelined for several years by his service in the Navy, then resumed his career, recording under his own name and with several different groups.

Related: Charles Neville died in 2018

In the mid-’60s, he formed Art Neville and the Neville Sounds, a group that included bassist George Porter Jr., guitarist Leo Nocentelli and drummer Joseph “Zigaboo” Modeliste. They became well known locally and were often used as a studio backing group, for nationally known artists such as Lee Dorsey, Dr. John, LaBelle and Robert Palmer.

The group was renamed the Meters in 1968 and began releasing recordings under their own name—including the instrumental hits “Sophisticated Cissy” and “Cissy Strut”—and performing regularly at local venues. In the ’70s, the Meters toured North America and Europe opening for the Rolling Stones and also performed at a party for Paul McCartney.

In 1976, the Meters disbanded and Neville teamed with his brothers to accompany their uncle, a Mardi Gras Indian named Big Chief George “Jolly” Landry, for a one-album project called The Wild Tchoupitoulas. That evolved into the formation of the Neville Brothers, which also included Aaron, Charles and Cyril Neville. The group remained intact for decades, releasing albums and touring prolifically. They traditionally closed the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival each year. They released their final album in 2004 and Charles Neville died in April 2018.

Aaron Neville posted the following tribute on his Facebook page:

“My big brother Artie / AKA Poppa Funk was the patriarch of the Neville tribe, big chief, a legend from way way back, my first inspiration. I would try and copy his style, his high natural tenor that only he could do. He and Izzy Koo taught me how to do harmonies when we lived in the Calliope Projects.

“I was 13 years old when Art recorded Mardi Gras Mambo in 1954. He let me sing with his band the Hawkettes while I was still a wild one. When he went into the navy I took over, but was still joy riding in hot cars so I went to jail for six months and he took back over when he came home from duty. He went on the road with me as my Road Manager and keyboard player when ‘Tell It Like It Is’ came out.

“When we got off the road he started Art Neville and the Neville Sounds which was Art, Cyril, Me, with Leo Nocentelli, George Porter, Zig Joseph Modelsti and Gary Brown. We played at a club called the Nite Cap for a couple of years then later on at The Ivan Ho club in the French Quarter. The club only called for 4 guys , so Art, George, Zig and Leo took that gig.

“Allen Toussaint got with them and that’s when the Meters were born. Me and Cyril got with Sam Henry and started the Soul Machine. Cyril later got to be one of Meters. In 1976, Uncle Jolly called us all to New Orleans to record his music; The Wild Tchoupatoulas Mardi Gras Indianans. In 1977 Charlie moved back home from New York City and that’s when the Neville Brothers band started. We traveled over land and sea bringing our music to the world. We played with people like the Grateful Dead, The Rolling Stones, Santana, Huey Lewis and the News, Tina Turner and many others. We went on the amnesty tour sponsored by the late great Bill Graham who opened doors for the Neville Brothers, our children and so many other folks.

“From the park bench in the Calliope to Valence St. in the 13th ward to parts unknown we brought our Music and inspiration to the world stage. We now can say that 88 keys were blessed by Poppa Funk. I know he’s in heaven with Mommee and Poppee, Big Chief, Cookie, Brother Charlie, Mac/Dr John, Allen Toussaint, and James Booker. So many great New Orleans musicians and singers are in the heavenly band now. I know they’re accepting him with open arms so he can take his rightful place as one of the greats.

“Artie Poppa Funk Neville you are loved dearly by every one who knew you. Love always your lil’ big brother AARON (we ask for privacy during this time of mourning).”

Watch the Neville Brothers with Carlos Santana, performing “It’s No Use”

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  1. Mee
    #1 Mee 23 July, 2019, 05:36

    Such classic, one of a kind sounds… The Neville brothers.
    Thank you, all.

    Reply this comment

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