When Art Neville walked onstage and slid behind a Hammond B-3 organ to accept his Lifetime Achievement in Music Award at last week's Big Easy Entertainment Awards, his supporting cast spoke volumes about why Neville is such a worthy recipient of the honor.
Dr. John was at Neville's left, while Allen Toussaint manned a grand piano on the right. The two legends simply nodded and smiled at Neville, in recognition of his storied career, not to mention their friendship and collaborations on seminal New Orleans music projects such as Dr. John's classic In the Right Place album.
Behind him, Neville was flanked by fellow keyboardists Henry Butler and Jon Cleary, two virtuoso veterans with decades of experience between them but who would still be considered the young guard in light of Neville's achievements. And directly to Neville's right was his nephew Ivan Neville, underscoring the family bonds that have always been a hallmark of Neville's musical and personal life. When Art Neville then led the whole ensemble through a medley of the Meters' "Africa" and Sly Stone's "Thank You (Falettinme Be Mice Elf Agin)," it was a reminder that the man they call "Poppa Funk" is still as funky as ever.
Neville's been funky his whole career, ever since he first hit the charts in 1954 with "Mardi Gras Mambo" as the lead vocalist with the Hawkettes. The song was the first indication of Neville's trademarks: a rich voice steeped in soul, coupled with an innate talent for New Orleans piano traditions. Almost 50 years after its release, "Mardi Gras Mambo" is an enduring Carnival anthem, and Neville's voice can be heard crooning from passing parade floats and radios in shotgun houses from the Ninth Ward to Uptown.
It was the first of many songs that Neville would produce for the canon of timeless New Orleans songs. As keyboardist for seminal funk band the Meters, Neville supplied the slippery organ breaks on instrumental classics such as "Cissy Strut" and "Look-Ka Py Py." And when he pounded out an unforgettable piano figure and stepped up to the microphone for the band's 1974 anthem "Hey Pocky A-Way," another Mardi Gras anthem was born. The original Meters disbanded in 1979, but are still considered one of funk's innovators and have profoundly influenced contemporary hip-hop and jam bands. Neville and longtime collaborator and bassist George Porter Jr. christened the current incarnation of the band the funky Meters, taking their legacy to sold-out venues across the country.
When Neville united with his brothers Aaron, Charles and Cyril for their 1978 debut album as the Neville Brothers, he opened another amazing chapter in his musical journey. The band was a critic's favorite for years, but their Grammy-winning 1989 album Yellow Moon brought the Neville Brothers to mainstream audiences, leading to national tours with the likes of the Grateful Dead, Santana and Bonnie Raitt. Neville and his brothers assumed the role of New Orleans' most visible musical ambassadors and were instrumental in ushering in the New Orleans music renaissance of the late-80s and early '90s and contributing to the astounding growth of the annual New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival.
With those kinds of high-profile achievements, Neville's own solo career has been underrecognized. In the late '50s and early '60s, Neville recorded a number of songs that are cherished by roots music aficionados: danceable, catchy numbers like "Cha Dooky-Do" and "Zing Zing," while his ballad "All These Things" is an enduring love song.
As a solo artist or with the Meters and Neville Brothers, Neville has always moved forward in his music, pushing himself to write, play and sing new material. That's a mantra he still follows today, with the help of new recording technology. His Uptown house is outfitted with a home recording studio where Neville has been laying down new tracks and collaborating with his son Ian, who's developing into a formidable guitarist.
So don't be surprised if Art Neville, winner of the Lifetime Achievement Award in Music from the 2003 Big Easy Entertainment Awards, has some future classics up his sleeve.
- David Richmond
- Lifetime Achievement Award winner Art Neville (second from right) celebrates backstage at the Big Easy Entertainment Awards with son Ian, wife Lorraine and daughter Amelia.