Ronnie Littlejohn is the host of Gumbo Kitchen on JAZZ.FM91.
Art Neville shaped the sound of New Orleans music as the founder of The Meters and The Neville Brothers.
The death of “Poppa Funk” is another huge loss for the city, following the recent deaths of Dr. John and Dave Bartholomew. Neville died Monday at age 81.
Neville was one of the architects of the New Orleans sound that has given me and so many others so much joy. He is music royalty not only in New Orleans, but in the whole world of funk music. His screaming Hammond organ in Lee Dorsey’s Ride Your Pony is as close to heaven as I may ever get.
I recently interviewed Cyril Neville in my tribute to Dr. John. Cyril had phoned me from an airport on a layover en route to South Africa. I asked him how his brother Art was doing. He was thrilled to tell me that recently Art played him a recording he had once played on that Cyril had never heard. Art remembered every detail about the recording session — who played on it, the date it was recorded, the name of the studio.
That’s hard to imagine when you’re talking about someone with as storied a career as Art Neville.
Arthur Lanon Neville was born Dec. 17, 1937. As a budding musician, Neville was inspired by the doo-wop groups of the day as well as Professor Longhair and Fats Domino. He joined The Hawketts in 1953, and he was only 17 when the group hit the charts with their Mardi Gras Mambo. More than 60 years later, the song is still a staple of every Mardi Gras. Neville also recorded some of his own classic R&B in the late ’50s and early ’60s, and had hits including Cha Dooky-Doo.
But by the mid ’60s, he had put together the band that would become the Meters, featuring New Orleans locals George Porter Jr. on bass, Leo Nocentelli on guitar and Joseph “Zigaboo” Modeliste on drums. The Meters became Allen Toussaint’s studio house band and would go on to record with Dr. John, Labelle, Robert Palmer, Lee Dorsey and others.
The Meters had hits of their own with instrumentals Cissy Strut and Sophisticated Cissy. It was hard New Orleans funk that would go on to influence so many funk acts of the future. Art’s youngest brother Cyril later joined The Meters as percussionist and vocalist. The Meters toured the world, including opening for the Rolling Stones in 1975.
In the late ’70s, The Meters disbanded due to personal conflicts. Not long after that, Art Neville had a new project to focus on as he and his three younger brothers formed The Neville Brothers. Their sound consisted of funk, R&B, Mardi Gras Indian music and deep soul. In 1989, their Daniel Lanois-produced album Yellow Moon sold more than 500,000 copies and the track Healing Chant won them a Grammy for Best Pop Instrumental Performance.
Since 2000, The Meters have occasionally reunited. Meanwhile, they’ve been sampled in dozens of hip-hop recordings.
Neville had many medical issues in his final years, but he still said that as soon as he sat behind a keyboard, the years and the aches all faded away.
This past December, Neville officially announced his retirement. He spent his last months at home on the very street he grew up — Valence Street — with his friends and family.
Cyril Neville recently told me that the people in New Orleans have a different way of dealing with death. “We’ve got a way of being happy and sad at the same time,” he said. “I’ve got a lot of friends who are up there in the big second line in the sky.”