“Success to me is being together as brothers and still looking out for each other. We lived together as kids, and now we’re taking care of each other as men” -Aaron Neville
Whether as solo artists or, since 1977, as bandmates, Newsweek has observed, they’ve, “poured out a stream of syncopated, funky riveting music that makes you dance and ache and cry inside.” To say that the Neville Brothers five A&M albums, Fiyo on the Bayou, Yellow Moon, Brothers Keeper, Family Groove, and Live On Planet Earth contain some of the most compelling music Art, Charles, Aaron, and Cyril Neville have made either collectively of individually in their combined years of music making is to say a great, great deal indeed. For well over a quarter of a century, these four talented brothers have helped lay the foundation for the entire New Orleans music community, and at the same time spread their own unique sound all over the world.
“We were trying to do something different,” confides keyboardist Art, the eldest of the brothers. “We’re singing about what we’ve always sung about: love, justice, and waking up to the fact that we’re all human beings on the same planet.”
The Nevilles have packed their latest two albums with some of the most propulsive grooves in their illustrious history. Where Yellow Moon and Brothers Keeper often seemed aimed at the cerebrum or heart, Family Groove and Live On Planet Earth resonate primarily in the listener’s solar plexus.
Family Groove features the contributions of several Nevilles other than the four brothers. “One More Day”, a consideration of the tragedy of homelessness showcases a rap written and performed by Aaron’s son, Jason Neville. And it was Cyril’s wife Gaynielle who wrote the song’s single most poignant line, about children who live in the streets in which they play. “She wonders”, Cyril relates gravely, “if people realize how many of the homeless are children. In “Line of Fire”, Art takes up the subject of another Neville concern, violence in out cities, admonishing the young inner city resident whom the song addresses to “put down that gun, boy.”
No group in America can claim a more illustrious history than the Nevilles’. The careers of Art and Aaron Neville began in the early 50’s around the street corners, on the porches and at house parties in the notorious Calliope Projects. Energetic but with little else to do, it was only natural for them to pick up the rhythms and moods of the city they were so much a part of. They played and sang the music of the streets. It was gut level and it was real. “We’d spend the whole night trying to sound like the Spaniels, the Clovers, and Sonny Til and the Orioles,” said Aaron. “At dances when I was a little kid, Art would be up there singing while I’d be dancing with some girl a foot taller than me. I knew then I wanted to be a singer.”Art first came to note well before Elvis, having recorded “Mardi Gras Mambo” with The Hawkettes in 1954. “Mardi Gras Mambo” continues to get heavy airplay and respectable sales during the local Mardi Gras festivities. While Art was backing Little Richard in the studio and Larry Williams on stage, saxophonist Charles left New Orleans for Memphis, where he played with…well, everyone-Big Joe Turner, Johnny Ace, Wilson Pickett, Bobby “Blue” Bland, Willie Mae Thornton, Tee Vee Mama, B.B. King, you name them. And Aaron, who’d developed his heart-breaking falsetto after falling in love as a child with the yodeling of the singing cowboys of the silver screen, had a no. 2 smash with “Tell It Like It Is” the winter preceding the Summer of Love.
After Art, Cyril, and Aaron had played together as the Neville Sounds, Art (Who was joined later by Cyril) formed The Meters, who were acclaimed the world over as the grand masters of New Orleans’ Caribbean-influenced “second line” funk style. While The Meters ruled New Orleans French Quarter, Cyril and Aaron played on Claiborne Avenue with the Soul Machine, and Charles found himself teaching at Goddard College in Vermont, a very long way from home.
Finally, after not having played together for 8 years, the brothers reunited to help record the universally acclaimed The Wild Tchoupitoulas a year after their mother’s death in 1975. They credit their uncle, the flamboyant Mardi Gras Indian George (Chief Jolly) Landry, with getting them to join forces. “He told us that our mother and father had always wanted to see us work together as a band,” Charles recalls. “He knew that if we got together as a family, it would happen.”
It happened, all right, but slowly. None of their first few recordings as the Neville Brothers sold spectacularly, though no less than Keith Richards called Fiyo On The Bayou the best album of 1981. The brothers nonetheless became their hometown’s best- loved local attraction. In 1988, they returned to A&M and won a Grammy with the sublime Daniel Lanois-produced Yellow Moon. 1990’s Brother’s Keeper cemented their status as one of the most fervently acclaimed groups in American pop.
The Neville Brothers have sold millions of records worldwide and have gold and platinum records in 6 different countries. In the United States, they have been the featured performers on television from the early morning on Good Morning America and Today shows to midday on Oprah to late night on Saturday Night Live, Arsenio, Austin City Limits, Letterman, and the Tonight Show. They were the stars of their own Cinemax/HBO special, which is now available for home video. They contributed the song, “Let That Hammer Fall” to the movie “Posse”.
The Nevilles’ music has been hailed by music writers in nearly every major periodical in the country and their live performances are legendary, moving one of America’s most acclaimed young novelists, John Ed Bradley, to note in G.Q., “The Nevilles play Tipitina’s, and a spooky magic happens. Fruit juice becomes a Hurricane cocktail, the fat of foot can suddenly hoof it, the blind, by God, can see.”