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From 1977 to 2013, the Neville brothers banded together to form one of the best-known and most musically adventurous groups to ever emerge from the New Orleans R&B scene. In addition to rhythm & blues, the music made by Art (born 1937), Charles (born 1938), Aaron (born 1941) and Cyril (born 1948) seamlessly overlapped, to a considerable degree, with Mardi Gras Indian chants and funk. Jazz, gospel, pop/rock and doo-wop factored in as well.
The brothers grew up surrounded by music. They learned Mardi Gras Indian chants from their uncle, George Landry, who was also known Big Chief Jolly of the Wild Tchoupitoulas tribe. The great R&B singer Smiley Lewis was a close family friend. A combination of records, radio, and live performances by the likes of Professor Longhair, Fats Domino, Tommy Ridgley and many others made New Orleans R&B a ubiquitous presence. The brothers grew up and sang with other young R&B musicians who would become professionals. Gospel music was close at hand at Sunlight Baptist Church when the family lived in uptown New Orleans on Valence Street. During their years as residents of the Calliope housing development across town, gospel music literally poured out from the nearby Two Wing Temple. The presiding pastor, Elder Utah Smith, would plug his electric guitar into an amplifier with an extra-long cord and when the spirit moved him, Smith would play outside in the street.
Art Neville, the eldest brother, came to the family band with an already impressive resumé as an accomplished keyboardist and an evocative crooner. In 1954, still a teenager, he sang lead on the Hawketts’ “Mardi Gras Mambo,” an Afro-Caribbean romp, a la Professor Longhair. Sixty years later, at this writing, this song remains a beloved Carnival-season anthem in New Orleans. Neville also made brilliant R&B records as a solo artist, including “Cha-Dooky-Doo,” (1958) and “All These Things” (1962); the latter is a timeless slow-dance favorite. In the late ’60s Art Neville founded the seminal funk band The Meters, resulting in such instrumental hits as “Cissy Strut” (1969) and “Look-ka Py Py” (1970), as well as “Hey Pocky A-Way” (1974), a modern adaptation of Mardi Gras Indian chants. The Meters also worked as A-list studio musicians for the famed New Orleans producer Allen Toussaint. The group played on hits including Dr. John’s “Right Place, Wrong Time” and Paul McCartney’s “Listen To What The Man Said,” among many others. Charles Neville, a saxophonist and veteran of the blues and R&B circuit – including the last days of the venerable Rabbit’s Foot Minstrels – also brought the band a jazz sensibility and a focus on Eastern philosophy. Charles said, “the spiritual side of the Neville Brothers’ music is the expression of the God energy on each of us. When we combine our individual energy to do what we do together, it turns into something bigger, and that’s what we refer to in album titles like Family Groove.”
Aaron Neville came to the group with an established reputation as a deeply affecting singer. Aaron’s distinctive voice and vocal style, simultaneously sensual and ethereal, employed an understated sense of phrasing that paradoxically soared to dramatic, quavering, falsetto flourishes. Aaron’s regional hits included “Let’s Live” (1961) and “Wrong Number” (1963). “Tell It Like Is,” released in 1966, hit number-one on the national R&B charts and number-two on the national pop charts in 1967. When Aaron teamed up with his brothers in 1977, his career had receded to the local-artist level.
Cyril, the youngest brother, also an alumnus of the Meters, contributed fiery vocals and percussion work as well as…