Goodbye to NOLA Legend Art “Poppa Funk” Neville
Art “Poppa Funk” Neville was the epitome of the word “understatement.” He defined New Orleans groove music as a founding member of the Meters and the Neville Brothers and leaves behind a legacy of shrewd funk and foolproof R&B. The singer, songwriter and keyboardist died on Monday (July 22) at the age of 81. For more on his life and music, dig into these choice tracks.
The Hawketts, “Mardis Gras Mambo”
Neville’s work as a totem of New Orleanian culture started early. In his teens, he sang this Fat Tuesday anthem, an enduring staple of NOLA’s Mardi Gras festivities with a couple of twists: the title is a misnomer, as the rhythm and form lean more calypso and rumba than mambo, and among the student musicians who make up the Hawketts, there is no bass player. Nevertheless, the groove remains catnip to revelers, and the product — the Hawketts’ lone 45, released on Chicago’s vaunted Chess label in 1955 — is an ultimate Crescent City souvenir. Two decades later, Neville would cut the tune again with the Meters.
Jerry Byrne, “Lights Out”
Pummeling the piano, Neville offers his best Jerry Lee Lewis or Little Richard on this turbocharged late ’50s cut by Jerry Byrne, an obscure white rocker from New Orleans. As an example of early rock & roll, this is Rosetta Stone stuff, and its cowriters include Byrne’s cousin Mac Rebennack, a.k.a. Dr. John. Like so much classic New Orleans rock & roll, “Lights Out” was captured in Cosimo Matassa’s studio, where Rebennack learned his trade. The late New Orleans ambassador would continue to enter Neville’s orbit, onstage and on record, in the years ahead.
Art Neville, “You Won’t Do Right”
As a solo artist, Neville made stellar contributions to New Orleans’ R&B salad days. This single was released on the NOLA-based indie Instant Records in 1963, and written by one “Naomi Neville” — a.k.a. Allen Toussaint, the musician and super-producer who would prove an invaluable collaborator to Neville throughout his career.
The Meters, “Look-Ka Py Py”
After paring down a working group called the Neville Sounds, Art designed one of the great funk and R&B units of all time alongside the guitarist Leo Nocentelli, the bassist George Porter Jr. and the drummer Zigaboo Modeliste. This title track from the Meters’ second studio LP, released in 1969, underscores their stealthy, slippery virtues. If the prevailing wisdom in funk is to blow it out, the early Meters material was almost subversive in its willingness to simmer. Neville’s organ playing is patient and percussive, and even when he opens up, he does it at the mercy of the flinty rhythms around him. As Neville explained it, when Hammond organists were under the virtuosic, bebop-inspired sway of jazz great Jimmy Smith, his heroes were Bill Doggett, Booker T. and others who traded in unadorned R&B finesse. His piano idols, like James Booker and Professor Longhair, were similarly earthy.
The Meters, “Jungle Man”
As the mid ’70s dawned and the Meters had moved from the Jubilee subsidiary Josie to Reprise, the band moved more definitively from their signature minimalist funk to vocal cuts and fleshed-out arrangements. (Onstage the formula was tweaked, too: Art, concerned about playing to huge crossover audiences sans a frontman, tapped his brother Cyril to sing with the Meters on their mid ’70s treks opening for the Rolling Stones.) “Jungle Man,” from 1974’s Rejuvenation, often considered the band’s most essential album, balances horn-accented grooves with a songcrafty hook, and features some savory clavinet textures from Neville.
Labelle, “Lady Marmalade”
Due in no small part to their kinship with Allen Toussaint, the members of the Meters played on historic recordings by a wide range of artists, from Lee Dorsey to the Wild Tchoupitoulas Mardi Gras Indian tribe to Dr. John to the glam-soul group Labelle. Mixed in among a host of other studio aces, Neville, behind the organ, comes out swinging on this epochal dance hit. In and out of the Meters, Neville’s list of credits have a journeyman’s scope, and include the likes of Robert Palmer, Gin Blossoms, Gov’t Mule, Jimmy Buffett and Dumpstaphunk, the jam-band-scene powerhouse featuring his son Ian on guitar.
The Neville Brothers, “Amazing Grace/One Love”
In a city packed out with important musical families, the Grammy-winning Neville Brothers managed to carve out an extraordinary niche. If the landmark The Wild Tchoupitoulas LP from 1976 marked the beginning of the end for the original Meters, it also served to galvanize the next chapter of Art’s career, teaming him with his brothers Charles, Aaron and Cyril. Together, the Nevilles seemingly did it all — touring as de facto cultural diplomats for their hometown; working successfully in unabashedly commercial music (1987’s star-aided Uptown); and recording with a pop visionary (Daniel Lanois, who produced 1989’s Yellow Moon, even bringing in his pal Brian Eno).
For a couple of decades beginning in the early to mid 1990s, the Nevilles were one component of Art’s rich musical life, a project undertaken as schedules allowed and when the keyboardist wasn’t honoring the Meters’ history, either with Porter as the Funky Meters or through intermittent reunions of the original members. (Through hip-hop samples, covers by the Grateful Dead, Red Hot Chili Peppers and others, and younger groups indebted to the band’s tautly interactive language, the Meters’ torch burned brightly on its own.)
The Nevilles spent a quarter-century closing out the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival, capping their rousing sets with Bob Marley’s “One Love.” This rendition, coupled with Aaron’s affecting take on “Amazing Grace,” was recorded in 2001. Hurricane Katrina ended the brothers’ streak, and they performed their final proper show as the Neville Brothers in L.A. in 2012. Charles died in April of 2018, the same year the Meters received a Grammy Award for lifetime achievement.
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