Neville Brothers reign as first family of funk

NEW YORK (Billboard) - When the last spit of Abita beer has been squeezed from a tap in the Jazz Fest 2008 food court next Sunday, New Orleans will get back to its roots -- celebrating the close of another Jazz Fest with the Neville Brothers, there to mark their 30 years as a band.

“The Neville Brothers are not just local heroes,” says Scott Aiges, director of programs for the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Foundation, the group that sponsors the festival. “They’re an institution. They’ve been the closing act on the biggest stage at Jazz Fest for as long as I can remember.”

Indeed, for as long as they can remember, the Neville Brothers have been laying down the funk all over town. Even before they got together as a band, Art Neville says, “we were always the Neville Brothers. That was one of the biggest things we had.”

It all started one Friday the 13th in 1977, when 13 musicians from the 13th Ward -- four of them surnamed Neville -- took to the stage at a new club in uptown New Orleans called Tipitina’s and proceeded to bring the house down.

Tipitina’s talent buyer Bill Taylor was 7 at the time, but he’s heard enough stories about the debut that he feels like he was there. “It was literally just this neighborhood joint that got to introduce the Nevilles to the world,” he says.

Going back, one could say it all really started with a band Art formed called the Hawkettes, whose 1954 version of “Mardi Gras Mambo” quickly became a New Orleans classic. Eventually, that group evolved into the Meters, which Taylor calls “one of the greatest jam bands of all time, and one of the greatest bands of all time.”

Aaron Neville, who had a prolific regional career in the early ‘60s, had his breakout hit with “Tell It Like It Is” in 1965, although he was never paid for it because the label folded soon thereafter. He also joined the Hawkettes, and then the Meters.

Charles Neville, who had also played with both bands, was touring the country with various jazz groups, building a name for himself in that community as one of the most gifted sax players around. And baby brother Cyril -- whom all the brothers refer to as “the James Brown of the group” -- joined the Meters after watching it all go down, gathering inspiration from what he now calls “the family business.”

After years of watching his talented nephews build their careers together and separately, the Nevilles’ uncle George Landry (a.k.a. Chief Jolly of the Wild Tchopitoulas Mardi Gras Indian tribe) got members of the Meters together with the rest of the brothers for the record called “The Wild Tchopitoulas.”

Although the Nevilles originally teamed for the project only to grant their uncle’s wish, they had so much fun making that record that they kept going. “That right there was 1977,” Art recalls. “We decided after that, after he died, that’s when we got together as the Neville Brothers.”

Building on a backbone of soul, jazz, funk and blues, the brothers started forming their own sound. Art had already earned the nickname “Papa Funk” through his decades of music around town.

While each of the brothers names his own personal influences -- from the Clovers to Fats Domino to Papa Funk himself -- it is the city of New Orleans that has been, perhaps, the greatest influence on the group. In a town full of legendary music families like the Marsalises, the Nevilles developed a sound and energy that has come not only to reflect that of the city, but also define it.

“New Orleans nurtured us from the cradle,” Aaron says. “As young as 5 or 6 years old, we started second lining (a music and dance procession through the streets, where anyone can join). New Orleans had a pulse. There was nowhere else. People walk to it, they talk to it. We’re all lucky to have been raised where we grew up.”

Taylor believes the relationship between the brothers and their hometown is one of mutual appreciation. “What happens (in New Orleans), you get a lot of jamming going on here, a lot of sitting in. Someone will show up to somebody else’s gig. There’s a lot of cross-pollination, and there’s a canon of songs that everybody knows that you can call upon with any musician . . . ‘Big Chief,’ ‘Hey Pocky Way,’ ‘Iko Iko.’ A lot of those developed out of Neville Brothers grooves. The younger generation is well-versed in those. All their songs now are firmly embedded in New Orleans.”

Aiges takes the relationship between the Neville Brothers and New Orleans one step further. “What kind of impact did Bob Marley have on Jamaica?” he asks. “It’s kind of like that.”

Even as the Nevilles forged their own path in the industry, their various side projects continued to attract attention. Aaron developed a successful solo career, eventually recording four gold- and three platinum-selling albums. Cyril developed the Wetlands All Stars with Tab Benoit, Anders Osborne and other notable New Orleanians. Art contributed to recordings by Dr. John and Paul McCartney, among others, while Charles maintained his place in the jazz and blues community, having toured with everyone from Ray Charles to B.B. King.

With all their side projects in full swing though, the brothers have always managed to maintain their ties to the family band. After 12 years as the Neville Brothers, in 1989, they got together with producer Daniel Lanois to record “Yellow Moon.”

“We recorded some demos in my apartment that went well,” Lanois says. “It all seemed natural and easy, so we carried on with a full album production in my newly rented building on St. Charles Street, not far from Valance Street where the Nevilles were living at the time. It was a completely renegade setup, essentially a recording studio in road cases.

“I went to many people’s houses searching for hidden songs,” he continues. “I even rummaged through old Meters rehearsal cassette recordings. Aaron is a prolific lyricist. He had two thick books of lyrics . . . In fact, the song ‘Yellow Moon’ came out of one of those books.”

While “Yellow Moon” took five years to go gold, it’s the album most of the Nevilles, and most of those around them, consider their best effort to date.

By then, however, they had already established themselves as a musical force. Four years in a row, in the late ‘70s, they played shows with the Grateful Dead on New Year’s Eve -- an experience they all remember as one of their favorite performances.

“Those were some serious gigs,” Art says. “I didn’t know how much it would impact us before, but then when I saw the type of crowd and how many fans were there, I knew something was taking place.”

Notable shows, collaborations, hit records and side projects aside, the Neville Brothers’ most notable accomplishment is, arguably, persevering 30 years in an ever-changing industry. In a business wrought with constant change, demanding that artists stay on the road for long intervals, it would have made sense that a band like the Neville Brothers had split up long ago. Cyril suggests that it’s because they’re a family that has gotten them through the tough times. “If we hadn’t been a family, those other bands wouldn’t allow us to do the personal stuff while we’re touring with them.”

Aaron’s fond of the run they’ve had as a family band. “We’ve got CDs from back in those days,” he says. “We can sit down and listen to where we came from and all the stops along the journey . . . those were our growing-up days.”

Now, after 30 years in an industry focused on commercial appeal and record sales, the Nevilles, like so many other artists from the old school, have to change the way they make a living. They’ve recently signed a distribution deal with Vagrant Records in Los Angeles and are looking to rerelease their album “Walking Through the Shadow of Life” on their own. (EMI originally released it in 2004.) In March, they recorded a 10-song album, “Return to New Orleans,” that will be released digitally this spring. They’re also planning a tour with fellow New Orleanian Dr. John.

For four brothers whose careers have lasted this long, touring the country and playing their best songs well into their later years is the only way of life that makes sense. “It says something that we’ve stayed together this long,” the group’s patriarch Art says. “I mean, we’re brothers. A lot of things have happened. Mom and Dad . . . a lot of people we cared for have passed away. But, at the end of the day, we’re still brothers.”