Art Neville’s Indelible Impact on the NOLA Music Scene
Art “Poppa Funk” Neville came into this world on December 17, 1937. It became evident at quite an early age that Art, along with his three siblings - Charles, Aaron and Cyril – were gifted musically. As a child, Art learned to play the piano and was influenced heavily by many R&B legends of that time, including James Booker, Lloyd Glenn, Bill Doggett and Professor Longhair – just to name a few.
By the tender age of 17, while still attending high school, Neville joined his first official band as piano player and singer for The Hawketts. In 1954, the band recorded the classic song, “Mardi Gras Mambo,” with Neville performing lead vocals. Little did he or his band mates know that that song would eventually become synonymous with NOLA’s infamous carnival scene. The band followed up that hit with several other singles with Neville at the helm and quickly became one of the hottest bands in all of New Orleans.
Photo from Music Rising at Tulane
After a brief stint as a cook in the Navy, Neville continued to pursue his passion for music. In the early 1960s, he formed a new band called Neville Sounds, which included his brother Cyril along with the musical talent of drummer Joseph “Zigaboo” Modeliste, guitarist Leo Nocentelli, and bassist George Porter, Jr. Shortly thereafter, however, Neville and his brother decided to move in a different direction, leaving the group and forming their own band.
Even back in those early days, Neville’s talent and influence were already making an indelible mark on the local music scene. Despite Art’s departure, the remaining members of Neville Sounds stayed together and rebranded themselves as The Meters. Throughout the 1970s, the group released several high-selling albums and toured the globe, opening up for such noteworthy performers as Paul McCartney, Patti Labelle, Robert Palmer and The Rolling Stones. Over time, the band’s creative blend of funk, blues and dance rhythms became the cornerstones of NOLA’s distinctive music style.
Photo by Steve Hopson
Meanwhile, Neville continued on his musical journey, this time forming a band with his brothers – something that fulfilled a dream long-held by his parents and uncle, “Chief Jolly” George Landry. In 1978, shortly after the passing of their mother, The Neville Brothers was officially established. The following year, the brothers released an album and went on tour together – something they continued to do until as recently as 2012.
Throughout the many years as part of the band, Art and his siblings also continued to work on their independent careers. They routinely performed with other artists, including an informal reunion of The Meters at the New Orleans Jazz Festival in 1989. This positive experience led the group – which included Neville, Porter, drummer Russell Batiste, Jr. and guitarist Brian Stoltz - to officially launch the spinoff group The Funky Meters in 1994. To this day, the group still plays regularly at local festivals, and several of their songs have been picked up by national advertising campaigns.
Perhaps what’s been most impressive about Neville’s career, which has spanned more than six decades and is still - by all accounts - going strong, is his unwavering allegiance to his roots. Despite the fact that his brothers have long since moved on – spreading from nearby Slidell all the way to New York and Massachusetts – Art still has his feet planted firmly in the rich soil of NOLA. In fact, the two-time Grammy Award winning performer still makes his home on the same Uptown block that once helped nurture New Orleans’ most famous musical family.
In 2005, the home on Valence Street that Art shared with Lorraine, his wife of 27 years, was hit hard by Hurricane Katrina and virtually destroyed by rainwater and vandals. Today, the couple lives a few doors down in a cozy residence where Meters drummer Zigaboo Modeliste spent most of his childhood. That home is meticulously decorated with mementos and treasures that bear witness to the legacy of a lifetime of musical influence.
In recent years, Neville has faced more than his fair share of ailments which have made getting around a challenge. While he still ventures out and about around town, he must now do so with the assistance of a wheelchair, walker or cane. His sense of humor and unflappable determination, however, are what drive him as he continues to work on improving his strength and mobility. Get him seated behind a keyboard, however, and you can almost see the years and all those pesky aches and pains melt away with the smooth sound of funk that has made him a NOLA icon.
Without question, New Orleans is a destination rooted in tradition with its own unique way of life and a pride that runs as deep as the mighty Mississippi itself. Perhaps no resident – before or since – has embodied that spirit quite like the King of Funk himself, Art Neville, who will undoubtedly remain a proud NOLA legend for centuries to come.