Art Neville, founding member of storied New Orleans funk bands The Meters and the Neville Brothers, has died at the age of 81.
Art ‘Poppa Funk’ Neville, “passed away at home with his adoring wife Lorraine by his side,” Neville’s manager Kent Sorrell confirmed today (22 July) in an email statement. “He toured the world how many times, but he always came home to Valence Street.”
No official cause of death has been confirmed, but Neville had been experiencing some health issues as of late due to complications from back surgery. Following the loss of another trailblazing icon Dr John, Neville’s death is another huge loss for New Orleans’ music community.
Following the news of his brother’s passing, his brother Aaron shared an official statement.
“My big brother Artie / AKA Poppa Funk was the patriarch of the Neville tribe, big chief, a legend from way way back, my first inspiration. I would try and copy his style, his high natural tenor that only he could do. He and Izzy Koo taught me how to do harmonies when we lived in the Calliope Projects. I was 13 years old when Art recorded Mardi Gras Mambo in 1954. He let me sing with his band the Hawkettes while I was still a wild one.
When he went into the navy I took over, but was still joy riding in hot cars so I went to jail for six months and he took back over when he came home from duty. He went on the road with me as my Road Manager and keyboard player when “Tell It Like It Is” came out. When we got off the road he started Art Neville and the Neville Sounds which was Art, Cyril, Me, with Leo Nocentelli, George Porter, Zig Joseph Modelsti and Gary Brown.
We played at a club called the Nite Cap for a couple of years then later on at The Ivan Ho club in the French Quarter. The club only called for 4 guys , so Art, George, Zig and Leo took that gig. Allen Toussaint got with them and that’s when the Meters were born. Me and Cyril got with Sam Henry and started the Soul Machine. Cyril later got to be one of Meters. In 1976, Uncle Jolly called us all to New Orleans to record his music; The Wild Tchoupatoulas Mardi Gras Indians. In 1977 Charlie moved back home from New York City and that’s when the Neville Brothers band started. We traveled over land and sea bringing our music to the world. We played with people like the Grateful Dead, The Rolling Stones, Santana, Huey Lewis and the News, Tina Turner and many others.
We went on the amnesty tour sponsored by the late great Bill Graham who opened doors for the Neville Brothers, our children and so many other folks. From the park bench in the Calliope to Valence St. in the 13th ward to parts unknown we brought our Music and inspiration to the world stage. We now can say that 88 keys were blessed by Poppa Funk. I know he’s in heaven with Mommee and Poppee, Big Chief, Cookie, Brother Charlie, Mac/Dr John, Allen Toussaint, and James Booker.”
So many great New Orleans musicians and singers are in the heavenly band now. I know they’re accepting him with open arms so he can take his rightful place as one of the greats. Artie Poppa Funk Neville you are loved dearly by every one who knew you. Love always your lil’ big brother AARON (we ask for privacy during this time of mourning)
Before he and his brothers Charles, Cyril and Aaron formed the soul-funk group The Neville Brothers in the late 70s, Neville founded the pioneering-R&B outfit the Meters in 1964. They laid the foundations of funk in New Orleans and beyond for years to come.
As the eldest of the four brothers, Neville’s career began when he formed his own first group, the Hawketts, at high school in the early 50s. The seven-piece group scored their first local hit with ‘Mardi Gras Mambo’, which became the de facto anthem for the Carnival season.
Neville would release a series of solo singles and R&B classics from that era that include ‘Cha Dooky Do’ and ‘All These Things’, before uniting with his younger brother Cyril to form the Neville Sounds. Then in 1968, Neville rechristened the band The Meters, a Booker T. & The MGs-inspired outfit responsible for some of the most enduring funk anthems in history including ‘Sophisticated Cissy’, ‘Cissy Strut’, ‘Just Kissed My Baby’ and ‘Fire on the Bayou’. The band’s other theme songs included ‘Look-Ka Py Py’ and ‘Hey Pocky A-Way.’
While the group never experienced the same kind of mainstream success as James Brown, their music was no less influential, and they are highly regarded as cult figures. The Meters also became the house band for fellow New Orleans heavyweight Allen Toussaint and his record label, Sansu Enterprises, recording with the likes of Lee Dorsey, Dr John, LaBelle and Robert Palmer, among others. Looking to expand the Meters, Art asked his brother Cyril to join the band as a percussionist and vocalist for their albums 1972’s Cabbage Alley and 1975’s Fire on the Bayou, along with their extended tours of North America and Europe with the Rolling Stones.
After leaving the group in 1977, Neville reunited with his brothers to form The Neville Brothers. While the brothers started singing together as children, they had all gone off in different musical directions before coming together to record their first album in 1978. While the group regularly presided over all the hottest clubs in New Orleans, they’d eventually find larger success outside their hometown. They became the first act from the Crescent City to perform on the Austin City Limits TV show in 1979, recording with Branford Marsalis, Keith Richards and Carlos Santana for their album Uptown and earning a Grammy win for Best Rock Instrumental in 1989 for their Daniel Lanois-produced record Yellow Moon.
Neville would later win a Grammy in the same category in 1996 with the song ‘SRV Shuffle’, a collaboration with Buddy Guy, Dr. John, Eric Clapton, BB King, Bonnie Raitt, Jimmie Vaughan and Robert Cray.
He would continue to perform with his brothers and do reunion gigs with The Meters throughout the years, while the brothers remained the closing act at the annual New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival. They would release their final album, Walkin’ in the Shadow of Life, in 2004.
In 2018, the keyboardist and singer announced his retirement, after more than six decades in the music business. In July of that year, the Meters received a Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award from the Recording Academy. He is survived by his wife Lorraine and his three children, Arthel, Ian and Amelia.