THE NEVILLE BROTHERS


There is no question that the Neville Brothers are the first family of music in New Orleans, the United States, and possibly the world. Individually, their recording history’ spans over 40 years. As a group, the Neville Brothers have been together and recording since 1978. The brothers, Art, Charles, Aaron, and Cyril have had their individual struggles, both musical and personal. From their modest Uptown - 13th Ward upbringing, they have reached the point of worldwide fame, attracting huge concert audiences from Israel to Japan. To learn of their uphill struggle, and how they were able to turn their lives around, we need to go back to the beginning.

The very same cultural mix that formed New Orleans, also makes up the Neville family heritage - African, American Indian, French, Spanish and Caribbean. The family’s involvement with music goes back to the mother of the Neville brothers, Amelia Landry, who with her brother George, formed a dance team called Landry & Landry. They were so good that another of New Orleans’ musical sons, Louis Prima, offered them a job on the road with his band. Amelia’s and George’s parents didn’t think much of the idea, so they had to give up their chance at the big time. Amelia later married Arthur Lanon Neville, Sr., and settled down to raise a family. Originally they lived on Valence Street, Uptown, 13th Ward. During World War II the family moved to the Calliope housing project, but only stayed a few years before moving back Uptown.

Although neither Amelia nor Arthur played any instruments, they loved music, and always had music in the house. They had friends who were musicians, and Arthur used to go fishing with Smiley Lewis of "I Hear You Knockin’" fame. Arthur worked as a Pullman Porter, cab driver and merchant marine. Arthur’s brother-in-law, George Landry, was also in the merchant marine, and the two of them would bring home records from the foreign ports they visited, and tell the children of their adventures. This was an inspiration to the four Neville boys, who left home early to test their independence, and seek their fortunes. Since "Big Arthur was a music fan, he encouraged his children to become involved in music. Out of the six Neville children (four boys and two girls), five either sang or played instruments. While the accomplishments of the Neville sons are well known, their sister Athelgra also had a brief singing career with the Dixie Cups.

While they received support and encouragement from their parents, they couldn’t help but absorb the music going on around them in New Orleans. As children in the Calliope projects, Art, Charles and Aaron street chant Hey Pocky Way while keeping time on cigar boxes. As they grew older their Uncle George Landry would play an important role in opening the world of the black Mardi Gras Indians to them, and even bringing the brothers together to form the Neville Brothers as a group.

The Wild Tchoupitoulas by 1975, Amelia and Big Arthur had passed on, which left the brothers uncle - George Landry’ as the family patriarch. In 1966, someone had given him an old black and white Indian costume, which he wore for the 1967 Carnival season. He then took the suit apart, and created a new costume from it, which he wore with the Black Eagle tribe the following year. Until 1972, he marched with different tribes, before starting the Wild Tchoupitoulas with men from his 13th Ward neighborhood. George Landry was now Big Chief Jolly - an Uptown folk hero.

In New Orleans, the practice of blacks dressing as Indians during the Carnival season goes back to the late 1800’s. By the 1930’s their numbers had increased to the point where violence over turf battles between warring tribes was common. The custom of masking Indian died out, but reemerged in the 1960’s. Mock battles now take place between modern-day tribes who compete to see who has the most elaborate costume. The creation of costumes is a year-long process involving intricate bead, sequin and feather outfits. Tribes practicing today include the Wild Magnolias, Creole Wild West, Golden Star Hunters, Seminoles, Original Yellow Jackets, Ninth Ward Warriors and the Guardians of the Flame. The Indians costume and parade on Mardi Gras and Saint Joseph’s Day (March 19).

Big Chief Jolly was sharing a double shotgun house with his nephew Aaron and his family. Aaron arid Cyril used to attend Jolly’s Indian practices, with the three of them harmonizing on the chants. Art and Cyril, who still lived in the neighborhood, were working with the Meters, while Charles was working in New York. Jolly wanted his nephews to all work on a recording of Indian chants and songs. Art Neville and the Meters thought the project had commercial potential, and contacted the producers they were working with, Marshall Sehorn and Allen Toussaint. Charles was called home from New York to work on the effort. In 1976, the producers, Chief Jolly, the Meters and the four Neville brothers all signed a recording contract, and work on the project started.

The Wild Tchoupitoulas recording, although a favorite of critics, sold modestly. The instrumentation was minimal, except for Art’s keyboard work. It was predominantly built from the polyrhythms of the various percussion instruments, combined with Jolly’s chants/songs and the Neville brothers’ harmonies. The songs were traditional Indian chants, embellished by the Nevilles, and Uncle Jolly. Cyril wrote Brother John based on stories about the 1972 stabbing of John "Scarface" Williams, once a vocalist for Huey "Piano" Smith in the 50’s, and a Mardi Gras Indian in the 60’s. Unfortunately, as had happened to Art and Aaron previously, there were questions about business practices, sales and finances. Art was informed that the album only sold 400 copies. Uncle Jolly said he would not do a follow-up album because he was not property paid for the first one. To get out of their contract with Sehorn/Toussaint, the Nevilles hired an attorney. They obtained a release, however Sehorn/Toussaint kept publishing rights to songs from the Meters and Wild Tchoupitoulas projects.

The most important result of the Wild Tchoupitoulas album was that something special happened when Art, Charles, Aaron and Cyril worked together. All veterans of recording and playing, they had never previously experienced the magic that happened during those sessions. They decided to form the Neville Brothers band, and even incorporated themselves as Neville Productions, Inc. The summer of 1977 they started playing a series of shows at Tipitina’s, a club right in their Uptown neighborhood. Word spread, and the place was packed every night. Aaron quit his job on the docks, and devoted himself full-time to music. They hired a new manager, who booked them to play the Bijou in Dallas for a one-month stretch. The brothers got an apartment in Texas, and for the first time in 23 years all lived under the same roof.

Also in 1977, the brothers signed a recording contract with Capitol Records, resulting in their first release as a group, 1978’s "The Neville Brothers." It included three songs written by Charles, and several numbers like "Arianne" and "Audience for My Pain" that showcase Aaron’s vocal talents. Cyril handled the vocals for the John Hiatt song "Washable Ink." The album was a departure from the material of their live shows, and was enhanced by string arrangements on several tunes. While it was a strong album, management changes at Capitol Records left the Nevilles stranded. The heads of Capitol’s black music division, and R&B promotion left before the record’s release. There was no promotion or touring to support the album, and it was doomed before it hit the streets.

Strict formats of radio stations also hurt the Neville brothers. Since the Neville’s sound is a unique blend of R&B, pop, jazz and funk, it doesn’t fit easily into rigid play lists of most radio programmers. It wasn’t until 1985, when Aaron released a solo album, that you regularly heard any of the Nevilles on the radio outside of New Orleans.

Since their initial album in 1978, the Neville Brothers have released eight additional new albums. Older material by Art and Aaron has also been released on both domestic and import record labels. There are also several releases from individual and solo projects.

After their Capitol release, they recorded an excellent album on A&M in 1981 titled "Fiyo on the Bayou." They then released two live albums on small independent labels, which were recorded at Tipitina’s. In 1987, "Uptown" was released on EMI, where the producers tried for a more commercial sound. Despite the slickness of the album, it still includes some strong numbers.

Perhaps their best known, and most artistically successful release was 1989’s "Yellow Moon." Producer Daniel Lanois brought out the best of each brother’s talents on this one, recorded in a studio Lanois built in an old house on St. Charles and General Taylor in New Orleans. The Nevilles wrote half the material on the album, and the cover material included songs by Bob Dylan and Sam Cooke. Aaron received the most attention on the album for his songs "Yellow Moon" and "Voo Doo," plus his eerie versions of Dylan’s "With God On Our Side" and "The Ballad of Hollis Brown." Cyril contributed the songs "My Blood," "Sister Rosa" and "Wake Up."

Two more A&M releases followed; 1990’s "Brother’s Keeper" and 1992’s "Family Groove." These two albums started featuring more pop-oriented material for Aaron. Numbers like "Bird on a Wire," "Take Me to Heart" and "True Love" makes you recall the sweaty nights spent in Tipitina’s listening to the Nevilles groove. They are excellent albums nonetheless. Family projects, now include writing and vocal contributions from Neville offspring Arthel, Damien, Ian, Ivan, Jason, Liryca, and Omari; and spouses Gaynielle, Joel, and Lorraine.

Their most current release, 1994’s "Live on Planet Earth," combines live recordings from the U.S., Canada, Japan, Australia, New Zealand, Germany, France, England, Switzerland, Greece, Belgium, The Netherlands, Holland, Sweden, Norway, Italy and Israel. Since the Neville Brothers are veterans of touring, and have one of the tightest live shows around, the album is outstanding. To the delight of Neville fans, it features several songs that have been staples of their live shows, but not previously recorded like "Shake Your Tambourine," "Junk Man," "Congo Square," and "One Love."

Over the years, the Nevilles have maintained a grueling schedule of touring. Spreading the Neville gospel worldwide, they have participated in projects like the Amnesty International Tour, the 1994 Fourth of July Celebration in Washington, DC and Woodstock, IL. They also donate their talents to several New Orleans fund raising projects for helping the homeless and hungry.