Art Neville, founding member of The Neville Brothers and The Meters, died July 22 at 81
It really shouldn’t be allowed that the music world can lose two significant musicians within one genre in back-to-back months. On June 6 we lost Dr. John to a heart attack, and on Monday came the news that Art Neville, “Poppa Funk” himself, had died at 81.
Many musicians’ stories start with feelings of isolation or lack of acceptance during childhood. That wasn’t the case for Art. Born on December 17, 1937, he grew up the oldest of the four Neville brothers and started playing music with them early. The very nature of their existence as curious young musicians who were always able to bounce ideas off one another ensured that Art and his brothers were constantly challenged, their ideas persistently tested.
The siblings didn’t become The Neville Brothers we recognize today until they were well into their 30s and 40s during the mid-1970s, though there were earlier attempts to put a cohesive name to the brothers’ music. Before then, Art played regularly around New Orleans aside from one brief stint in the U.S. Navy, becoming immersed in the developing funk scene and rubbing elbows with its other players. The touring group he formed with his brothers started during the 1960s with Neville Sounds, a band that evolved into The Meters by the late ’60s. The brothers released instrumental albums at first, slowly honing their sound and style as rock ‘n’ rollers looked on and took notes.
By the late 1970s, Art and brothers Cyril, Aaron and George had joined forces to form the band that’s recognized today as setting the tone for the entire New Orleans funk genre. While artists like Dr. John and Professor Longhair were setting the cultural tones for the genre, the Nevilles were providing its backbeat. Years later, jam bands and rhythm-based genres like rap and hip-hop cited The Neville Brothers as vital influences—and the brothers went on to inspire rock and blues artists too, joining bands like The Allman Brothers and The Rolling Stones on tour. For his part, Art took the early years he spent establishing connections as a young performer and went on to make many others outside his band of four. His collaborations and friendships with other musicians were perhaps best recognized in 1996, when he won a Grammy for his role in the Stevie Ray Vaughan tribute “SRV Shuffle.”
As the oldest brother, Art was always leading the way for his younger siblings. The improvisational style of their early albums together—on which any instrument was free to take that improv idea and run with it—filtered through the rest of the group’s work and the legacy they left behind. The ability of musicians like Art and his brothers to distance themselves from the concept that songs had to be structured and rule-abiding was what enabled funk to become the genre it is today—and what allowed musicians who took cues from them to continue developing the genre and add the elements they liked best to other musical styles.
The brothers have continued playing over the years, though it’s been more than a decade since their last studio album was released in 2004. All that changed late last year, when Art announced his retirement from music. Five months after the announcement, his brother Cyril said in an interview with Relix Magazine, “No Art Neville, no Meters, no Neville Brothers.” Cyril and Aaron are alive and well, but with the loss of Art this week and George’s death last year, it’s clear that New Orleans funk has reached the end of a very important era.
News of Art’s death hit the newswires midday on July 22 with an announcement from his manager, Kent Sorrell, who told Nola.com, “It was peaceful. He passed away at home with his adoring wife Lorraine by his side.” As word spread, the musicians, journalists and industry professionals familiar with his work flocked to social media to express their sorrow for his loss and gratitude for the music he left behind. He was described by fans and listeners as a pioneer, icon, founder and creator—each descriptor a noble responsibility for any musician to carry, and all appropriate descriptors for the one and only Poppa Funk.
VIDEO: The Meters Live at the Kingfish Lounge in Baton Rogue, LA on October 1, 1976