Born Arthur Lanon Neville, 17 December 1937, New Orleans. Louisiana
Singer, pianist, organist. Now known as Art "Poppa Funk" Neville.
Art Neville was the oldest of four brothers, followed by Charles (December 28, 1938), Aaron (January 24, 1941) and Cyril (January 10, 1948). Deeply steeped in the New Orleans piano traditions, Art was the first sibling to enter the music field. In 1954 (or 1953 according to Neville himself) he was one of the founding members of The Hawketts, taking on the role of lead vocalist and pianist. Late in 1954 the group recorded "Mardi Gras Mambo", a song originally recorded by Jodie Levens as a country and western number in 1953. The Hawketts version was released by Chess in February 1955 and has since become a perennial Mardi Gras favourite. But despite this local success, Chess didn't invite the group for a second session, as sales outside of New Orleans were almost non-existent. In early 1956, the West Coast label Specialty Records opened a New Orleans office, manned by Harold Battiste. One of the first New Orleans artists he signed was Art Neville. He did at least seven sessions for Specialty between October 1956 and September 1958, but only three singles were released : "Oooh Whee Baby"/ "The Whiffenpoof Song" (recorded 1956, released 1957), "Zing Zing"/"Cha Dooky-Doo" (1958) and "Arabian Love Call"/"What's Going On" (1959).
Easily the best of these is the second one : "Zing Zing" is a great hard-driving rocker and "Cha Dooky-Doo" is notable as one of the first records to feature a distorted guitar (caused by a blown power tube in the amplifier). Some of Art's best Specialty recordings were not released until 1986 (on the LP "That Old Time Rock 'n' Roll", Specialty SP 2165), like "Belle Amie" and the album's title track, both powerful rock n roll cuts in the best New Orleans tradition. The slower "I'm A Fool To Care" (not the Ted Daffan / Joe Barry song) was another number with hit potential if it had been released at the time. During his tenure at Specialty, Neville also did some work as a session pianist, most notably on Jerry Byrne's "Lights Out" (1958), where he pounds out one of the most exciting piano solos ever.
Art did not record in 1959 and 1960, due to active service in the Navy. Upon his return to civilian life, he signed with Joe Banashak's Instant label. His first single for the label, "That Rock 'n' Roll Beat" (1961), was still close to the style of his earlier recordings. But in the early '60s New Orleans R&B was changing rapidly, under the influence of producer/arranger/songwriter Allen Toussaint, who worked for both Instant and Banashak's other label, Minit. Art's brother Aaron recorded for Minit and was the first Neville to score a hit, with "Over You" (# 21 R&B), in 1960. It was Allen Toussaint who wrote and produced Art's next Instant single, "All These Things" (1962), a gentle ballad that sold well locally. Banashak had a dispute with his business partner Irving Smith in 1963, which led to the formation of Smith's own label, Cinderella Records. Part of the deal was that Smith got Art Neville "on loan" from Banashak and Art had several (unsuccessful) singles released on Cinderella before he returned to Instant in 1966. Most of the Instant recordings can be found on the CD "The Very Best Of Aaron & Art Neville" (Charly, 2004, 27 tracks).
Not long after his brother Aaron had a monster hit with "Tell It Like It Is" (# 1 R&B, # 2 pop) in 1967, Art formed a 'funk' group, The Meters, with Leo Nocentelli (guitar), George Porter (bass) and Joseph 'Zigaboo' Modeliste. Art himself played organ. The group - perhaps the greatest rhythm section of the era - started out as an instrumental group and as such they scored their biggest hits, including "Sophisticated Cissy" (# 7 R&B, # 34 pop) and "Cissy Strut" (# 4 R&B, # 23 pop), both in 1969, on the Josie label. The band also played an influential role as backing musicians for other artists, including Lee Dorsey, Robert Palmer, Dr. John and Labelle. They were later joined by percussionist/ vocalist Cyril Neville, Art's youngest brother. The group had 14 R&B hits between 1969 and 1977, the year they broke up, due to personal difficulties. (They would reform in 1989 and Art currently tours with them as The Original Meters.)
Art then formed the Neville Brothers with Aaron, Charles and Cyril. Today (2013), the group is still active, though they have not released anything new since 2004. Their recordings have never really measured up to their legend, and apart from the albums "Fiyo On the Bayou" (1981) and "Yellow Moon" (1989), sales were disappointing. Individually, Aaron had a second successful period between 1989 and 1995, with "Don't Know Much" (a duet with Linda Ronstadt) as his second # 2 pop hit (1989). Ivan Neville (Aaron's son) has infrequently played with the Neville Brothers in recent years, as keyboardist.
Meanwhile the Neville Brothers keep on performing, bringing the great New Orleans music tradition to a younger audience. Art Neville will always be remembered by rock 'n' roll fans for his great Specialty recordings.
More info :
CD : Art Neville : His Specialty Recordings, 1956-58 (Specialty SPCD 7023 / Ace CDCHD 434). 20 tracks. Released 1992. Liner notes by Billy Vera. Still available in the UK.
Acknowledgements : Billy Vera, John Broven, the official website.
Dik, October 2013
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