Any person who has been to New Orleans in the past 40 years has heard The Neville Brothers in some way. They have led the way for their native New Orleans R&B legacy. The Neville Brothers are exactly as their name says, four brothers: Art, Aaron, Cyril, and Charles. These four brothers grew up in the heart of New Orleans, and their music reflects that. Locals love and praise them, and their music is heard at many different occasions around the city. The New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival held the closing spot for them for 15 consecutive years. The Neville’s were displaced for a few years after Hurricane Katrina, but they finally had to return home in 2008. As Aaron Neville himself said, “We carry New Orleans everywhere we go. We’re from New Orleans. We walk and breathe New Orleans. That’s what we’re about” (Aaron Neville, www.nevilles.com).
“New Orleans” Roots
The Neville Brothers take the stage. Photo by Janet Spinas Dancer, used with permission under the Creative Commons.
The Neville Brothers were raised in a family of six children in the Calliope Projects of New Orleans. Neither of the brothers’ parents were musicians, but they loved music and encouraged their children to play and listen to what ever they liked. Just like the city of New Orleans, the Neville family was inspired by French, African, Caribbean, Spanish, and American Indian backgrounds. “The Neville Brothers have this Caribbean and African feel to them that I believe comes from their roots in New Orleans” (George, The Revivalists, December 2011).
As children, the boys would find themselves on the corners of their neighborhood chanting local songs such as “Hey Pockey-Way.” During high school Art Neville’s’ band created the hit “Mardi Gras Mambo,” which is still very popularly used today during the Mardi Gras season. It was the Neville Brothers’ uncle, George Landry, who helped to bring the boys together to form their group. George Landry, or “Big Chief Jolly,” was a Mardi Gras Indian, and he wanted the Neville brothers to work on recording chants with him. The four brothers came to the studio to help with the “Wild Tchoupitoulas” recording, which was not much of a success. From this recording session the Neville Brothers saw what magic happened when all four of them were together in the studio. It was then in 1977 that they created The Neville Brothers Band. They were the first family of New Orleans music which reflects how the city is run: by families. “The Neville’s are great musicians; they are a family and that shows in their style and performances” (George, The Revivalists, December 2011).
They never really left New Orleans until Hurricane Katrina hit and they were displaced. Eventually they had to return home in 2008, and since the hurricane, all four brothers have renovated their houses in the Gentilly area. Although the brothers have left home and returned, they never lost their New Orleans sound that they acquired from growing up here. They have come to epitomize the party atmosphere and the sound of their home town New Orleans.
“We’re all Nevilles in New Orleans”
The Neville Brothers are associated with many things around the city of New Orleans. They have played at many venues, and their music is used at all types of events. “The Nevilles make the kind of music that when I listen to it I think of the French Quarter, the river boats whistling, Mardi Gras, the hot muggy summers, and everything else I associate with New Orleans” (Cynthia Galloway,Neville Brothers fan, December 2011).
Older generations of Neworleanians can remember seeing The Neville Brothers at local bars when they first started out. One of the first places that they played was Tipitina’s in Uptown. The Neville Brothers became the house band there for a while, but they also played many other places. I spoke with two locals and both had different places they first saw the Nevilles. “It was years ago at The Maple Leaf when I first saw The Nevilles, but even before that I always enjoyed their music,” said Cynthia Galloway, a Neville Brothers fan.“I saw the Neville Brothers live at Jazz Fest and it was amazing,” the other fondly remembers (George, The Revivalists, December 2011).
The Nevilles have created traditions with their music. Their first true hit album was “Yellow Moon” in 1989, which gave the band wide recognition. In 1990 the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival gave the closing spot to The Neville Brothers. People in New Orleans associate the Nevilles with Jazz fest; they give a fun, heart warming performance that people of all ages can enjoy. The band would always end their set with their own version of Bob Marleys’ “One Love.”
Hurricane Katrina broke that streak when Art, Aaron, Charles and Cyril were displaced form their homes in New Orleans like much of the city. For three years after the festival still held the closing spot for The Nevilles in case they were going to return. It was not until 2008 that the band did return home to play in their traditional spot. “It leaves a hole in our soul when the Nevilles aren’t here,” the festival’s producer and director Quint Davis said in an interview (Quint Davis, www.nola.com, April 2008). The return of them playing was a good feeling for all locals.
The Neville Brothers used all of their individual talents to create the sound that they have. Art Neville plays keyboards; Charles plays sax; Aaron is vocals; and Cyril plays percussion. Many of their songs are about New Orleans and the locals love to use them at many events. During Mardi Gras season people will constantly hear “Mardi Gras Mambo,” “Fiyo on the Bayou,” and “Iko-Iko” played in the streets. All of these songs are the Neville Brothers songs. “Iko-Iko” is a celebration song and is often played during second lines in New Orleans too. These are the types of songs that a person can listen to and think of New Orleans. Some of their New Orleans songs can also be very moving and touch people’s hearts because the locals can relate to them. The Neville Brothers grew up in the New Orleans neighborhoods and went to the same schools that many of the people here did. They are apart of the New Orleans family. “One song that lets people know that New Orleans is a part of the Nevilles just as much as the Nevilles are a part of it is ‘Louisiana 1927.’ If someone who calls New Orleans home can listen to that song without getting a tear in their eye, I’d like to meet them. You can hear the love and the pain in his voice. That is one of the things that people from here like; the Nevilles have been through the same struggles we have. They grew up with us” (Cynthia Galloway, Neville Brothers fan, December 2011).
The Neville Brothers are not only a part of history in New Orleans, but they help to create memories here associated with their music. Venues are honored to say that the band has played there and certain celebrations would not be the same without their inspiration. Many people from all over the United States can associate the Nevilles with their first of many Jazz fests or even first Mardi Gras.
The band is a family and part of the New Orleans family; when a person grows up in this city, they can never lose their roots. Older generations have passed on listening to the Neville Brothers to their children and the praise is always the same. Everyone loves the Nevilles. As Art Neville says on their website “We grew up here, and all of the culture was right there for us.”
If the Neville Brothers had not grown up in this great city they would not be the band that they are today. Their performances get all who are watching in a good mood and dancing; their words leave a lasting memory on who ever may be listening. Even people who are not from New Orleans have grown to appreciate them. “Even though I am not from New Orleans I can still listen to The Neville Brothers and feel the city in their songs” (George, The Revivalists, December 2011). They are a wonderful band and will always be a part of New Orleans culture.
This article was originally published on May 4, 2012.