On July 22, Art Neville passed away at the age of 81. Over the span of almost seven decades, the legendary keyboardist became an icon for funk and the New Orleans sound.
Nicknamed “Poppa Funk,” Neville started making a name for himself in New Orleans at just 16 with the Hawkettes, his musical group at the time. Their most famous track is a remake of the country song “Mardi Gras Mambo,” in which Neville sang the lead; It quickly became a Carnival anthem that is still played today.
In the early ’60s, after a brief stint with the Navy, Neville paired up with famous singer, songwriter and producer Allen Toussaint to sing soul records and produce R&B singles such as “Cha Dooky Doo,” “Oooh Whee Baby,” “Zing Zing” and “What’s Going On.” The two then formed the six-man group, which would later evolve into the Meters.
The Meters, with Art Neville as their lead, are known for their astute definition of New Orleans funk in their sound — not necessarily creating it, but making New Orleans tangible with every note that they played.
Their songs “Hey Pocky A-Way,” “Fire on the Bayou,” “People Say” and “Africa” went on to become New Orleans staples, and, with their unique collection of guitar, organ, bass and often a syncopated rhythm on drums, they curated the future of New Orleans funk.
The band performed regularly in New Orleans clubs and recorded with big name artists such as Paul McCartney, Dr. John and Robert Palmer. Art Neville and his band also went on tour with the Rolling Stones in ‘75 and ‘76 through North America and Europe.
In addition to catching the eyes of rock and pop stars, many of the Meters’ songs are prolific among hip-hop artists, with samples being used on tracks almost immediately after their release.
“Cissy Strut” appears in the masterful, flipped baseline of N.W.A.’s “N—gaz 4 Life” and in the melody of A Tribe Called Quest’s “Da Booty.”
Also, “The Handclapping Song” has been used as a sample in over 90 different hip-hop and R&B tracks, including “Clap Your Hands” by A Tribe Called Quest, “Beauty and the Beat” by Salt-N-Pepa and “Clap” by Wu-Tang Clan.
Despite providing the root for so many great songs and artists, the Meters lacked commercial success, leading to their dissolution in the late ’70s.
However, this did not stop Art Neville. He and his brothers, Charles, Cyril and Aaron, with whom he had played alongside in the Meters, quickly banded together to form the Neville Brothers.
It was through this group that funk, rhythm and blues, Mardi Gras Indian music, doo-wop and soul blended together to form that signature New Orleans sound for years to come. About 10 years after their formation, their album “Yellow Moon” finally made them known internationally, selling over 500,000 copies. The following album, “Brother’s Keeper,” also made New Orleans history.
Despite this fame, they never produced any pop hits — instead they are noted for their dynamic live performances. And, though they toured all over the world, the Neville Brothers never left their home and inspiration in the dust; they always revisited the main stage of the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival, known locally as Jazz Fest.
Art Neville and his brothers stopped producing music in 2004 and performed their last set together during the 2015 Jazz Fest, after permanently ending their touring lives three years earlier. Charles Neville passed away in 2018 at age 79, which concluded any talks of a reunion.
Despite his band winding down, Art Neville continued to play with other musicians during the 2000s, including two of his old bandmates from the Meters, whose revamped name is “The Funky Meters.” They reunited periodically, encouraged by new batches of appreciation and influence — bands such as the Red Hot Chili Peppers, the Beastie Boys, Phish and Galactic all cite the Meters as a major influence on their music.
Art Neville will be sadly missed among musicians and listeners across so many genres. His legacy, however, will carry his deeply cherished memory forward, whether it is through a sample on a new hip-hop track, the funk present in top-charting bands or the playing of “Mardi Gras Mambo” on Fat Tuesday in New Orleans.