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Following individual solo careers, the Neville Brothers (originally from New Orleans) formed in 1977 with Aaron Neville (vocals), Art Neville (keyboards), Charles Neville (saxophone), and Cyril Neville (percussion); band also features Brian Stoltz (guitar), Willie Green (drums), and Tony Hall (bass; replaced Daryl Johnson). Addresses: Record company --A & M Records, 1416 N. La Brea Ave., Los Angeles, CA 90028.
"I had one guy tell me it was great music, but it wasn't black enough," Art Neville told down beat in the mid-1980s. "I don't know what it is. It's good. And I figure that we're getting through that barrier now." Although generally ignored by radio programmers and probably unheard of by the majority of today's contemporary music audience, the Neville Brothers, collectively and separately, have been a mainstay of rhythm and blues and soul since the 1950s.
While still regarded in many circles as one of the greatest unknown bands in the world, they have come to epitomize the sound and party atmosphere of their home state, Louisiana. "New Orleans's first family of soul ... is as much a part of that melting pot's culture as blackened redfish, as pervasive an ingredient to the town's atmosphere as humidity," wrote Dan Forte in Guitar Player.
Their legacy stretches all the way back to 1954, when the eldest brother, Art, scored a hit with "Mardi Gras Mambo" with his high school band, the Hawkettes (over the years "Mambo" has become a million-seller and is now recognized as the Crescent City's theme song). Aaron Neville performed with the Avalons during this time and fronted the Hawkettes in 1958 when Art joined the Navy.
Along with brothers Charles and Cyril, the Nevilles paired up in different groups like the Nevilles Sounds and Soul Machine until the 1960s, when Art formed the Meters. For nearly ten years the Meters worked as producer Allan Toussaint's studio band while churning out albums loaded with funky instrumentals: "Cissy Strut," "Ease Back," "Ney Pocky-yay," "Look-ka Py Py," "Meter Man," and many more. Along with Joseph "Zigaboo" Modeliste on drums, Leo Nocentelli on guitar, and George Porter on bass, the Meters were the premiere groove band. Cyril joined Art's unit in 1975 as a percussionist during their Fire on the Bayou LP.
While those two brothers were burning it up with the Meters, Charles was playing jazz licks on his sax in New York clubs. Vocalist Aaron Neville was working on a solo singing career and scored a Number 1 hit in 1966 with "Tell It Like It Is," an all-time classic featuring one of the finest falsetto voices ever to be recorded.
The four brothers did not appear as a whole until recording an album with their uncle, Big Chief Jolly (George Landry), titled Wild Tchoupitoulas. With the Meters as backup, the Nevilles helped capture the rhythms and chants associated with their Indian heritage and the city of New Orleans, of which Art told down beat, "reminds me of the closeness of the family scene and how this stuff is being passed on. It's like a tribal situation, that's the only way I can think to describe it." Pleased with the results of Wild Tchoupitoulas, the four brothers decided to finally form a band in 1977. "My Uncle Jolly suggested, 'You cats should all get together a family band. Your parents would like to see you all working together,'" Charles said to Josef Woodard in down beat. "So we talked about it and said, 'That's a good idea. That's worth moving back to New Orleans for.'"
While the Meters were mainly recording instrumentals, the Neville Brothers, produced by Allen Toussaint for the Capitol label, was more vocal oriented, with Aaron's sweet voice as the focal point. With their funk, jazz, and soul backgrounds, the brothers were able to shift effortlessly between different musical idioms. "The things about playing with the Nevilles is that it's so limitless," guitarist Brian Stoltz said in Guitar Player. "I mean, there's no telling which direction they're going to go in."
Unfortunately Capitol wasn't very enthusiastic about a band that was too hard to categorize and the brothers found themselves playing in clubs without a label to back them up. That's when producer Joel Dorn heard them in New York and, along with Bette Midler, convinced A & M to sign the Nevilles in 1981.
The resulting Fiyo on the Bayou was voted one of the top LPs of the 1980s by Rolling Stone but the band was still ignored by the public. The fact that the album was similarly titled to an earlier Meter's LP and contained a version of that band's "Hey Pocky Way" confused matters more. "I knew it wasn't going to get played on the radio. So I didn't build up any false hopes," Cyril said in Rolling Stone. "We just made the best record we could." Aaron's rendition of Nat King Cole's "Mona Lisa" with the New York Philharmonic was a sure-fire hit that somehow missed.
The band then decided to record in their prime element with the live Neville-ization, on Black Top's label, from one night at New Orleans's famous Tipitina's nightclub. One listen to Aaron's stirring "Tell It Like It Is" redo made one wonder how much longer this band could remain the Big Easy's best-kept secret, but the album still did not give the Neville Brothers the recognition they deserved. As Jim Roberts wrote in his down beat review, "I get the feeling that the Nevilles have still not delivered the album they are capable of, but this is a promising step in the right direction."
Nineteen eighty-seven's Uptown, on EMI, was definitely a step in the wrong direction. The brothers abandoned their New Orleans sound in an effort to broaden their appeal but the results were less than pleasing. John Sinclair, writing in Detroit's Metro Times, called the album "an unlistenable mishmash of commercially oriented pop pap which succeeded only in reducing their idiosyncratic attack to an exercise in faceless blandness."
Finally, in 1989, after four albums and four different labels, the band seemed to make some headway with Yellow Moon, recorded with their first record company, A & M. The Nevilles recruited ace producer Daniel Lanois (whose track record included Peter Gabriel and U2 hits) to help bring the band into mainstream recognition. Movie director Jonathan Demme filmed their video for "Sister Rosa" (telling the story of Rosa Park's role in the birth of the modern Civil Rights Movement during the 1950s) and the Neville Brothers were soon appearing on MTV with a message. "As sensuous and as stylistically inclusive as their work is, the Nevilles don't view their music as strictly a call-to-party," wrote Josef Woodard in down beat, "but also as a source of social enlightenment and as a warning signal."
After receiving the type of promotion needed to break through, the Neville Brothers began opening for major artists by the decade's close and were gathering a broader audience for their unique sound. And if they somehow still don't get the recognition they deserve, second-generation Nevilles like Ivan, Charmaine, and Jason are right behind them ready to continue the tradition until it happens.
by Calen D. Stone
Neville Brothers, The's Career
- Selective Works
- (With Big Chief Jolly [George Landry]) Wild Tchoupitoulas Antilles.
- The Neville Brothers Capitol, 1979.
- Fiyo on the Bayou A & M, 1980.
- Neville-ization Black Top, 1984.
- Uptown EMI, 1987.
- Treacherous: A History of the Neville Brothers (1955-1985) (compilation of individual and collective recordings), Rhino, 1987.
- Yellow Moon A & M, 1989.
- Brother's Keeper A & M, 1990.
- Solo LPs; Aaron Neville
- Orchid In The Storm Passport.
- Tell It Like It Is Minit.
- Greatest Hits Curb/CEMA, 1990.
- Solo LPs; Art Neville
- Mardi Gras Rock 'N' Roll Ace, 1987.
- Solo LPs; Ivan Neville
- If My Ancestors Could See Me Now Polydor, 1988.
- Christgau, Robert, Christgau's Record Guide, Ticknor & Fields, 1981.
- The Illustrated Encyclopedia of Rock, compiled by Nick Logan and Bob Woffinden, Salamander, 1977.
- The Rolling Stone Record Guide, edited by Dave Marsh with John Swenson, Random House/Rolling Stone Press, 1979.
- down beat, September 1984; December 1984; March 1985; June 1989.
- Guitar Player, September 1987.
- Metro Times (Detroit), June 28, 1989.
- Rolling Stone, November 16, 1989.
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