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Art Neville, funky mainstay of New Orleans, dies at 81

By Randy Lewis, The Washington Post

Art Neville, a New Orleans keyboardist and singer who was a founding member of the Meters and the Neville Brothers and who contributed to the funky mix of jazz, rock, R&B and soul music that have defined the city’s music for decades, died July 22 at his home in the city. He was 81.

Officials with the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival confirmed the death but did not provide a cause. Mr. Neville struggled with his health over the past two decades, including complications from routine back surgery in 2001 and at least one stroke. He announced his retirement from performing in December.

For decades, Mr. Neville 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. (Charles died last year at 79.)

Long before they came together in name, all or some subset of them worked together backing 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 Mr. 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, and grew up listening to doo-wop groups of the late-’40s and 1950s such as the Orioles and the Drifters. He 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 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 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,” which sold more than 500,000 copies and peaked at No. 66 on the Billboard 200 albums chart. Around the same time, Art Neville briefly revived the Meters for 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.

In addition to his wife, Lorraine, and two brothers, survivors include three children.

— Los Angeles Times

This article originally appeared in The Washington Post.

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