New Orleans keyboardist and singer Art Neville, a founding member of the Meters and the Neville Brothers who contributed to the funky mix of jazz, rock, R&B and soul music that have defined the city’s music for decades, died Monday following a long illness, New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival officials confirmed on Twitter. He was 81.
His longtime manager Keith Sorrell told the New Orleans Times-Picayune that he died at his home with his wife, Lorraine, at his side, after years of declining health. “He toured the world how many times,” Sorrell said, “but he always came home to Valence Street.”
For decades Art shared the stage with his younger brothers, singer Aaron, saxophonist Charles and percussionist Cyril. As the Neville Brothers, they worked together at home in the Crescent City, on tour and on a string of more than a dozen studio and live albums released from 1978 to 2010.
For many years they were afforded the honor of being the closing act for each edition of the annual New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival. Charles died last year at age 79.
Long before they came together in name, all or some subset of them worked together backing a variety of other New Orleans musicians. It’s a role Art Neville carved out during the 1960s with his group Art Neville & the Neville Sounds, which originally featured guitarist Leo Nocentelli, bassist George Porter Jr., drummer Joseph “Zigaboo” Modeliste and saxophonist Gary Brown.
After Brown left, Nocentelli, Porter and Modeliste stayed with Neville in the group that was renamed the Meters in 1968, and working often with producer-songwriter-arranger Allen Toussaint, they served as a backing band for performers including Dr. John, Paul McCartney, Lee Dorsey, LaBelle (on the group’s 1975 No. 1 hit “Lady Marmalade”), Robert Palmer and numerous others.
The Meters played a similar role to the one performed by Booker T. & the MGs at Stax Records in Memphis, the Funk Brothers at Motown Records in Detroit and the Wrecking Crew in Los Angeles recording studios for countless big and small-name musicians.
Arthur Lanon Neville was born Dec. 17, 1937, on the same day as another fabled New Orleans pianist, James Booker.
He grew up listening to doo-wop groups of the late-’40s and 1950s such as the Orioles and the Drifters, and also was taken with the piano-heavy recordings of New Orleans musicians including Fats Domino and Professor Longhair.
About the same time Elvis Presley was getting started in Memphis in 1954, Art Neville recorded a song titled “Mardi Gras Mambo” with the group the Hawketts, a record that became and remains a standard during the city’s annual Mardi Gras celebrations.
After two stints serving in the U.S. Navy, including a job as a cook, he returned home and kept recording, delivering regional hits such as “Cha Dooky Do” and “All These Things.”
With the Meters later, he helped spread the popularity of songs including “Hey Pocky Way” and “Fire on the Bayou.”
The Meters toured Europe opening for the Rolling Stones in the ’70s, and in 1975, came to California at the behest of Paul McCartney to perform at a record release party for his 1975 album “Venus and Mars.” The group’s performance with Professor Longhair was captured on a live album originally released in 1978 and reissued earlier this year.
Conflicts among the musicians led the Meters to disband, paving the way for Art to connect with his brothers to back Mardi Gras Indian Big Chief George “Jolly” Landry, their uncle, for his 1976 album “The Wild Tchoupitoulas.” Shortly thereafter, the Neville Brothers officially became a band as well as a family unit.
Their greatest commercial success came with the 1989 album “Yellow Moon,” produced by Daniel Lanois, their only album to be certified gold for sales of more than 500,000 copies. It peaked at No. 66 on the Billboard 200 albums chart. Around the same time, Art Neville briefly revived the Meters for some reunion performances.
The Neville Brothers’ final full public concert came in 2012 at the Hollywood Bowl, although they gathered three years later to play several songs at a “Nevilles Forever” tribute show in their hometown.
Art Neville struggled with his health over the last two decades, including complications from routine back surgery in 2001 and at least one stroke. He announced his retirement from performing in December.
In addition to his wife and two brothers, Neville is survived by three children, Arthel, Ian and Amelia. Funeral services are pending.