Although the first New Orleans family had met countless times, they reunited in the 1970s to play a smooth blend of R&B, jazz and blues.
The Neville Brothers carried the torch of New Orleans’ rich R&B heritage throughout their long careers as solo performers as well as as members of the Neville Brothers group. The four Neville Brothers siblings, Arthur, Charles and Aaron, did not unite until 1977. However, they had all been musically connected in the past. Art, the oldest brother, was the first to embark on a recording career when his high school band, the Hawketts, recorded “Mardi Gras Mambo” in 1954. This song became the carnival’s official anthem. Aaron and Charles joined the Hawketts later, and Aaron was given the vocal duties when Art joined Navy in 1958.
Aaron’s first solo hit was “Over You” two years later. In 1966, Aaron had a smash hit with “Tell It Like It is,” a beautiful ballad featuring his soaring vocals. Art, on the other hand, was able to return from the military and begin his solo career. He recorded several regional hits, including “Cha Dooky Doo,” Zing Zing, and “Oo-Whee Baby”. Art Neville & the Sounds was formed in 1967 with Charles and Aaron as the featured vocalists. They quickly became a hit on the local club circuit.
The group was hired by Allen Toussaint in 1968 as his house band. With Charles and Aaron out, the Sounds grew into a well-respected rhythm section that supported artists such as Robert Palmer and Lee Dorsey before becoming the Meters. Aaron returned to solo work, but with limited success. He also worked as a dockhand. Charles moved to New York City to continue his saxophonist career. He was then arrested for marijuana possession and sentenced to a three year term at the Angola Prison Farm.
The Meters supported the Wild Tchoupitoulas in 1975. This group was led by George “Big Chief Jolly”, Landry, an uncle of the Nevilles. Charles and Aaron were both enlisted to the session as was Cyril, youngest brother. When the Meters disbanded in 1975, the four brothers backed George “Big Chief Jolly” Landry’s Tchoupitoulas tour. In 1977, they became the Neville Brothers. Their 1978 self-titled debut failed to capture their talent for four-part harmony and they were eventually dropped by Capitol.
The Nevilles remained in the same position for three more years, but Bette Midler, a fan, helped to secure Joel Dorn’s services for 1981’s Fiyo on Bayou. This album, which featured Aaron’s angelic voice on songs like “Mona Lisa” or “The Ten Commandments of Love”, as well as renditions of “Iko Iko” and “Brother John,” was released. The album was not well received and the Nevilles were again expelled from their contract. They signed to the small Black Top label and released 1984’s Nevilleization. This was an incendiary live set recorded at Tipitina’s Crescent City landmark Tipitina’s. It featured Aaron’s timeless “Tell It Like It is” and Duke Ellington’s “Caravan”, as well as the brothers’ “Africa” (Fear, Hate Envy, Jealousy) and “Africa”.
The Nevilles signed another concert album, 1987’s Live at Tipitina’s. They returned to the studio with Uptown in 1987, but it was again unsuccessful commercially despite appearances by Keith Richards and Jerry Garcia. They signed a new contract with A&M in 1989 and hired Daniel Lanois, a New Orleans producer. The group’s best hour was the atmospheric Yellow Moon. This single, “Sister Rosa,” helped them to reach the top of the charts. Brother’s Keeper was released in 1990. This was no doubt due to Aaron’s simultaneous success with Linda Ronstadt on “Don’t know Much”.
Aaron continued his solo career in the following years while remaining with his brothers. While the Nevilles maintained their cult following with albums like 1992’s Family Groove and 1994’s Live on Planet Earth (both 1992 and 1996), Aaron had a Top Ten hit with “Everybody Plays the Fool” from the Ronstadt-produced Warm Your Heart. He had a minor hit in 1993 with “Don’t Take Away My Heaven” off the LP The Grand Tour. A year later, he was able to achieve success with “I Fall to Pieces”, a duet with Trisha Yearwood. Charles released the jazz collection Charles Neville & Diversity in 1990.
A second generation of Nevilles began to make their mark in music. In 1988, Aaron’s son Ivan was a member Keith Richards’ backing band, the Xpensive Winos. He released If My Ancestors could See Me Now. Although the Neville Brothers’ legacy was continued with Valence Street in 1999 and Walkin’ In the Shadow of Life in 2004, the group officially ended in 2012. The four Neville brothers were last seen together at the 2015 New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival. It was billed as “Nevilles Forever” and took place several years later. Charles Neville, a 79-year-old musician, died in April 2018 from pancreatic cancer.