The Neville Brothers, Art, Charles, Aaron, and Cyril, first formed as a band in 1976. Together, they made a recording with their uncle, George Landry’s Mardi Gras Indian group, Wild Tchoupitoulas. Two years later, the brothers from New Orleans, Louisiana, release their debut album via Capitol Records. The brand of music the Neville Brothers were noted for was the blend of funk, R&B, and soul. The Neville Brothers also share an ancestry that’s African-American, Caucasian, and Choctaw First Nations. The influence of their “Big Chief” Uncle Landry served as a key influencer in the men’s careers as musicians.
Born on December 17, 1937, Arthur Lanon Neville Jr. was the oldest of the four Neville Brothers. For Art, his love for music already had him embark on a musical career while he was still a teenager in high school. Not even his time with the U.S. Navy from 1958 until 1962 was enough to take him away from his love of music. In 1965, he founded The Meters, twelve years before he served as the frontman for the Neville Brothers. While with The Meters, Art and his bandmates performed funk music that recorded and released eight studio albums, seventeen compilation albums, and four live albums.
As the Neville Brothers, they leaned more into the mix of jazz, rock, and soul, even though it also had the funk influence. Despite this formation, Art’s The Meters still carried on until 1977 before becoming dormant due to financial issues. However, The Meters sprung up again in 1989 which shifted Art’s career direction to spend more time with this band instead of his brothers. While The Meters didn’t share the same mainstream success level as the Neville Brothers, this is a group that shares James Brown’s legacy as originators of funk music. In 2018, The Meters were presented with the Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award.
The Meters are still regarded as funk music heroes. The legacy of Art Neville’s band includes a 1970 recognition by Billboard and Record World magazines as the Best Rhythm and Blues Instrumental Group. Their signature song, “Cissy Strut” was inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame in 2011.
Charles Neville was born on December 28, 1938, as the second of four brothers that would make a name for themselves as the Neville Brothers. On stage, he was regarded as “Charlie the horn man” as his exceptional skill with the saxophone played an instrumental role in a Grammy Award for Best Pop Instrumental Performance for “Healing Chant.”
Much like his older brother, Art, Charles had a love for music that had him take this on as a career choice when he was a teenager. At fifteen years old, he left home to play in the Rabbit’s Foot Minstrel Show. Also like his older brother, Charles served in the United States Navy. While there from 1956 until 1958, he was influenced by the Beale Street music scene while he was stationed in Memphis, Tennessee. This prompted him to tour with B.B. King and Bobby Bland.
At one point, Charles Neville performed music in New Orleans with Larry Williams. However, his heroin addiction landed him in jail as he engaged in illegal activity to support it. Heroin continued to be a thorn in Charles Neville’s side until he finally overcame it in 1986. Despite this struggle, it also served as a key moment in his career as a musician. He met James Booker while he was serving time at the Louisiana State Penitentiary. While there, he also met James Beck. As soon as he was released from prison he moved to New York City so he could explore jazz music even further.
When he returned to New Orleans in 1976, he joined his three siblings to form the Neville Brothers when they were asked to record music for their uncle, George Landry.
In addition to performing and recording music with the Neville Brothers, Charles also did the same with other groups. The musical material included classical, jazz, and Native American. In 2008, Charles Neville recorded and released his own album, Safe in Buddha’s Palm. Unlike Aaron, instead of following Christianity, he favored Buddhism.
Born on January 24, 1941, Aaron Neville was the third son of the four Neville Brothers. The story behind the sword tattoo on his face began when he was sixteen years old. His disapproving father tried to force him to remove it with brillo pads and octagon soap but all that was removed was some skin. In 1995, Aaron released The Tattooed Heart as an album when he performed as a solo artist. That same year had him freshen up the old tattoo.
For Aaron, not only did he perform side by side with his brothers, but he also enjoyed a successful recording career as a solo artist. When the Neville Brothers weren’t performing together as a band, Aaron recorded and released nineteen studio albums and seven compilation albums. From that collection, he scored twenty-two hits such as “Tell It Like It Is” and “Everybody Plays the Fool.”
His “Don’t Know Much” duet with Linda Rondstadt served as the biggest hit of his career after it was released as a single in 1989. This song earned him and Rondstadt a Grammy Award for Best Performance by a Duo or Group with Vocal. The same thing happened again a year later when he and Linda Ronstadt performed “All My Life.”
Adding to Aaron’s Grammy Award collection was also the 1995 win for his duet performance with Trisha Yearwood. Together, “I Fall to Pieces” was a Patsy Cline cover that earned the two an award for Best Country Country Collaboration with Vocals.
As for Aaron’s sons, two of them have followed in their father’s footsteps by becoming musical artists themselves. Ivan Neville has his own band, Dumpstaphunk, while Jason Neville has performed as a vocal rap artist. Both brothers also performed with the Neville Brothers from time to time.
The youngest of the four Neville Brothers is Cyril Garrett Neville. Born on October 10, 1948, he first teamed up with his brother, Art Neville, as a member of The Meters. When the Neville Brothers came together as a band in 1976, he continued to serve as a vocalist and percussionist.
In addition to performing and recording music with his brothers, Cyril also teamed up on separate occasions with Edie Brickell, Bob Dylan, Dr. John, Willie Nelson, and Robbie Robertson. He also teamed up with Tab Benoit for the 2005 production of Voice of the Wetlands Allstars. This was a feature that sought to bring awareness to the rapid loss of the wetlands along Louisiana and the Gulf Coast.
Like his brothers, Cyril followed his own individual path as a musician. From 1994 until 2015, he recorded music either as a soloist or as a collaborator that produced a total of eleven studio albums. His discography includes performing with Gallactic, a popular New Orleans-based funk band, as well as Royal Southern Brotherhood. As the Brotherhood, he was part of a lineup that included Devon Allman, son of Gregg Allman of The Allman Brothers Band. These two, along with Mike Zito and Yonnico Scott formed the blues-rock supergroup that’s been enjoying a career run since 2011.
In fact, the Royal Southern Brotherhood’s contribution to blues music earned the band a 2014 award for DVD of the Year by the Blues Music Awards for their album, Songs From The Road. This recording wound up becoming Devon Allman’s last as he moved on and was replaced by Tyrone Vaughan, son of Jimmie Vaughan and nephew of Stevie Ray Vaughan. On December 2, 2015, Cyrill Neville was presented the Louie Award for his dedication to preserving and promoting Louis Armstrong’s cultural legacy.
The Neville Brothers’ Legacy
From 1978 to 2004, the Neville Brothers recorded and released nine studio albums. There are also five live albums to their credit and six compilation albums. From this collection, 1987’s Uptown, featured the talent pool of Branford Marsalis, Keith Richards, and Carlos Santana. In 1988, Yellow Moon was an album that was released that featured “Healing Chant.” The album won the 1990 Grammy Award for Best Pop Instrumental Performance.
Aside from their contribution of “In the Still of the Night” as a track featured on the AIDS benefit album, Red Hot + Blue, the Neville Brothers maintained a low profile while Art Neville’s involvement with The Meters took up much of his time as a musician. This continued until the Neville Brothers made their comeback in 2004 with the album, Walkin’ in the Shadow of Life. This would be the first recording the brothers did since 1999.
Up until 2005, Art, Aaron, and Cyril lived in New Orleans. This changed after the impact Hurricane Katrina made that year. Aaron briefly moved to Austin after he was invited by his friend, Clifford Antone. In 2005 a documentary film, Make It Funky! was also released that featured footage of the Neville Brothers performing “Fire on the Bayou” together. The documentary revolved around the history and influence of New Orleans music.
On June 1, 2008, the Neville Brothers were among several recording artists that had their material destroyed due to the fire that broke out at Universal Studios. The studio and theme park located in Los Angeles, California, was the victim of worker negligence when the blowtorch used to warm shingles that were applied to a facade. He left before checking the heated spots had cooled. Because of this mistake, up to 175,000 audio master tapes belonging to the studio were believed to be destroyed.
Aside from the accomplishments each Neville brother earned for himself, Art, Charles, Aaron, and Cyril were destined to become musical icons since the 1978 release of The Neville Brothers. Even though the band didn’t score top ten hits on the mainstream music charts, they still earned a worldwide audience as world-class performers. To this day, the Neville Brothers remain as one of the all-time favorites among a fan base that still can’t get enough of the fusion of styles the men incorporated into their music.
In 2015, three years after the Neville Brothers officially disbanded as a group, performed a farewell concert in New Orleans. Three years after this, Charles Neville passed away at the age of seventy-nine years old as a victim of pancreatic cancer. Just over a year later, Art Neville passed away at the age of eighty-one years old.
With Aaron and Cyril carrying on as the two surviving Neville Brothers, the two still perform music on occasion as there’s no such thing as full retirement where they’re concerned. The Neville Brothers have been a staple in the New Orleans music scene for over five decades that shows no sign of slowing down anytime soon. The children of the four iconic brothers continue the tradition of entertaining the audience on both local and national levels.
Top 10 Neville Brothers Songs
# 10 – In the Still of the Night
In 1990, the AIDS benefit album, Red Hot + Blue, was a Red Hot Organization release that featured the Neville Brothers performing “In the Still of the Night.” Their version of Cole Porter’s classic was a song that was first recorded in 1937 by Tommy Dorsey and His Orchestra. Since it was first recorded, this song has become a standard that has been performed by a flurry of recording artists. Fans of “In the Still of the Night” may also remember Leo Reisman’s version, which was also a 1937 release. His was the one that became a number nine hit on the US Billboard Hot 100.
However, the performance of “In the Still of the Night” by the Neville Brothers was every bit as spectacular. When it comes to belting out a tune loaded with heart and soul, Aaron Neville seems unbeatable as his delicate vocals is truly one of a kind. That jazzy performance by Charles Neville and his saxophone opened up this tune as a sultry number before Aaron Neville’s angelic vocals make this a wonderfully romantic favorite.
#9 – One More Day
In New Zealand, “One More Day” became a number twenty-nine hit after it was released as a single in 1992. The popularity of the Neville Brothers in that nation was at its peak as their album, Family Groove, once again struck a chord among the fan base. However, it wasn’t just in New Zealand that the Neville Brothers made a big impression on their fans with “One More Day.” This was a heartfelt song about homelessness, sung from the perspective of someone suffering in an environment that doesn’t make sense in a nation that’s supposed to be among the wealthiest in the world.
# 8 – A Change Is Gonna Come
From Sam Cooke is his 1964 single, “A Change Is Gonna Come.” An inspired Cooke wrote this song as a reflection of his life as an African-American having to contend with the racist attitude of a Louisiana motel. This was the same song that was voted one of the greatest songs by a variety of publications, including Rolling Stone Magazine. In 2007, it was selected for preservation by the Library of Congress with the National Recording Registry for its cultural, historical, and aesthetic importance.
For the Neville Brothers, this was a song they covered in 1990 as one of the tracks featured on the album, Yellow Moon. Although it didn’t become an official hit on the music charts, their performance of “A Change Is Gonna Come” was regarded as a cult classic in its own right. This was a song that became an anthem for the Civil Rights Movement. While there has been a multitude of recording artists that have either covered or sampled “A Change Is Gonna Come,” none of them measured up to the amount of class that was poured into the collective talent of Art, Charles, Aaron, and Cyril.
#7 – Yellow Moon
“Yellow Moon” was the title track of the most successful album the Neville Brothers produced in their musical career. Yellow Moon won a Grammy Award in 1990 for Best Pop Instrumental Performance. As for the song, it became a number twenty-one hit in the Netherlands. What makes this song a favorite was the haunting soprano performance by Charles Neville and his saxophone. Combine that with Aaron’s incredible vocal turns and the essence of what made the Neville Brothers so iconic can be heard loud and clear here.
#6 – Drift Away
Originally recorded by John Henry Kurth in 1972, “Drift Away” became a major hit after Dobie Gray turned it into a soulful hit in 1973. It also became a pop favorite as it peaked as high as number five on the US Billboard Hot 100 at the time. As for the version performed by the Neville Brothers in 1991, this became a number nineteen hit in New Zealand. In that nation, the Neville Brothers are highly cherished as a legendary musical group. The brothers have more hits in that country than they do anywhere else.
“Drift Away” by the Neville Brothers was a wonderfully performed tune that gave this song a jolt of romance that seemed to give this song an element of soul that would be fully enhanced by Aaron’s vocals and Charles’ saxophone.
#5 – Sister Rosa
“Sister Rosa” became an anthemic number seventy-five hit on the US Billboard Hot R&B/Hip-Hop Songs chart after it was released as a single in 1989. This served as the one and only time the Neville Brothers experienced a hit as a group in the U.S. In New Zealand, “Sister Rosa” became their first of many hits that would peak on that nation’s singles chart at number twenty-three.
The magic behind “Sister Rosa” began in 1955 as a song glorifying the woman who refused to sit at the back of the bus during an era when racism in America had reached a breaking point. The song served as a dedication to a brave woman whose decision to remain seated served as her big stand against a social order that was overdue for change. “Sister Rosa” was among the many fine tracks that contributed to the success of Yellow Moon as an album.
What made “Sister Rosa” stand out was the Neville Brothers performing this tune as a rap number as they pooled their vocal talent together. This remains as an awesome easy-listening number as it was a song that paid homage to what a real hero looks like.
#4 – Fly Like an Eagle
In 1992, the Neville Brothers released “Fly Like an Eagle” as a single. This Steve Miller original from 1976 became an international hit for the four brothers as it peaked as high as number eight in New Zealand, and at number forty-four in Australia. In the Netherlands, it also peaked as high as number sixty-six. Even though Miller’s drifty pop performance was the most popular at number two on the US Billboard Hot 100 when he first released “Fly Like an Eagle” as a single, it was the Neville Brothers’ version that turned this song into a truly soulful experience.
#3 – With God on Our Side
“With God on Our Side” was originally a Bob Dylan number that was released in 1964 as a single from his album, The Times They Are A-Changin’. This song was first performed when he made his debut at The Town Hall in New York City on April 12, 1963. This was a tongue-in-cheek song revolving around religious beliefs that became a source of controversy on many fronts. Not only did some members of the Christian community find the song offensive but it also met with criticism and hints of plagiarism.
The melody behind ‘With God on Our Side” at the time was identical to “The Merry Month of May,” which is a traditional Irish folk song. There were also similarities between Dylan’s song and Dominic Behan’s “The Patriot Game,” for which Behan publicly criticized Dylan. However, Behan had also done the same to Bob Dylan himself and on more than one occasion.
The cover version the Neville Brothers performed in 1989 was the same tweaked performance Bob Dylan used when he altered the song to include the Vietnam War. What was a folk classic for Bob Dylan became a mix of funk, jazz, and soul for the Neville Brothers. It was also a number twenty-six hit on the Irish Singles Chart, a number forty-seven hit on the UK Singles Chart, and a number fifty-three hit in the Netherlands. Their version of ‘With God on Our Side” was one of the tracks that came from the Grammy Award-winning album, Yellow Moon.
#2 – Healing Chant
“Healing Chant” was an instrumental song from the album Yellow Moon. The album itself earned a Grammy Award in 1990 for Best Pop Instrumental Performance. As for the song, this remains one of the all-time favorites from the Neville Brothers as a timeless classic. The soprano saxophone performance delivered by Charles Neville was the hero of this song as it turned this song into a euphoric number for the ages.
However, that really wasn’t the intention. That saxophone solo was completely improvised over what was already a previously recorded background. He was merely having fun at the time before realizing what was created was indeed a musical masterpiece too exquisite not to share.
#1 – Bird on a Wire
In New Zealand, “Bird on a Wire” became a number five hit after it was released as a single in 1990. From the album, Brother’s Keeper, this song also became a number thirty-five hit in Germany and a number seventy-two hit in the U.K. The popularity of this song spiked even further after it was played during the closing credits of the movie, Bird on a Wire, starring Goldie Hawn and Mel Gibson.
This version of Leonard Cohen’s 1968 classic “Bird on the Wire” got its origin when the recording artist observed a bird sitting on a recently installed phone wire. This, combined with his battle against depression, served as his signature song that still remains an iconic favorite.
For the Neville Brothers, the delicate delivery of Aaron Neville’s vocals seemed to add even more soul to a song that had lots of it already. If there was ever that special ballad worth listening to that makes a person reflect more about life, “Bird on a Wire” is it.
Top 10 Songs From The Neville Brothers article published on Classic RockHistory.com© 2022
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