Music: I Got a Home

Charles Neville remembers his past, plays to the future with Neville Brothers

Oct 7, 1999 at 2:06 pm
Art Neville

It makes sense that Charles Neville has two homes, one in his native New Orleans and one in Massachusetts. You see, there comes a time when a man must put distance between himself and the place he came from while maintaining access to it.

And if you're a world-renowned Neville, well, there's so much inside of you.

There's the African leanings of Cyril's tastes, Art's funkafied days as a founding father of the Hawkettes and the Meters, Aaron's mellifluous falsetto fluttering from "Tell It Like It Is" to modern-day duets like "Don't Know Much" with Linda Ronstadt and Charles' own Jazz heritage and post-modern interests in Afro-Cuba.

Not only does he deserve the luxury of two homes, he might very well need them.

The one on Valence Street in New Orleans, Neville grew up in. Its walls wail with the history, color and culture of the city, and with the influence his family continues to have on his individual musical output, as well as the output of his brothers. (Neville released the Jazz disc, Charles Neville and Diversity, in 1987 on Laser Light and Safe In Buddha's Palm in 1995 on Small Circle Records available on

Following the death of Professor Longhair, the Neville Brothers were bestowed the distinction of closing the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival, which they continue to do to this day. It is something Neville calls "the greatest musical honor and greatest accolade and recognition of the musical community in New Orleans for us to get to do that.

The organizers come in and say we've got all this great music and we've saved the best for last. That's the greatest compliment."

Neville's other home, in Massachusetts, the 60-year-old shares with his wife of four years and his 3-year-old daughter. The land where the house sits was in his wife's family and they decided to build a home there.

It is closer to the East Coast and, therefore, Neville is able to connect with the Cuban and Puerto Rican musicians "who play those African rhythms with a different flavor." The alto, tenor and soprano saxophonist, flutist and percussionist will release a disc by the end of the year of this type of music.

But it is in New Orleans that Charles Neville's life will be forever and inextricably attached because music — Jazz, Blues, Gospel, Zydeco — is in the air and it might well be in the water.

"Even today, driving around, you see kids hanging out together here," he says, "and one kid you see may have a trombone or with drumsticks sticking out of his pockets, or a kid may be sitting on a porch with a snare drum."

Fresh from an appointment with a chiropractor, Neville is speaking from the kitchen of his childhood home on Valence Street. Occasionally there is water running in the background, and he chomps food during the conversation. It's Friday afternoon and he's puttering around, an average guy.

The Neville Brothers are preparing to perform on the bill for Lou Rawls' annual United Negro College Fund fund-raiser.

On Saturday, the Nevilles headline Cincinnati's first-ever WorldJam Festival, preceded onstage by the Robert Cray Band and the Memphis Horns.

Local acts on the bill during the free, two-day event include Ricky Nye, Robin Lacy and De Zydeco, The Charles Fold Singers, Latin X-Posure, The Cincinnati Klezmer Project and the Grammy-nominated B/J Mass Choir, as well as the Hungarian group Muzsikás, among many others.

It's the festival atmosphere Neville says the brothers thrive in.

"At a festival there's more of a chance that we'll play to people who haven't seen us before, who aren't exposed to us and hopefully they'll like it," he says.

But after nearly 50 years in the business that is music, the Neville Brothers, individually or collectively, still find themselves trying to "win over" audiences with a brand of music that defies categorization and is either really good or really bad in their translation of it.

"Sometimes we realize that the choice of songs for this particular audience wasn't quite right," Neville says, answering detractors. "Sometimes these halls where there's no dancing ... the music is the kind that makes people want to get up. My question is: Why put us in those situations?"

Good question.

By default if nothing else, the Nevilles deserve the royal treatment. Waxing philosophical about his decade (1967 to 1977) in New York chasing a love supreme, Neville says he, at the time a musical underling, was treated well by sax player George Coleman and the like. Once, Coleman sent Neville to Minton's Playhouse in Harlem on Thelonious Monk's birthday. Neville found himself sitting right beside the man himself. "He was so lively, but he was very, very strange," he says, laughing.

Returning to New Orleans in 1977, Charles joined his brothers, who'd been pursuing individual interests. As a group they released The Wild Tchoupitoulas but maintained only a cult following until 1989 with the release of Yellow Moon, which spawned two hits, "With God on Our Side" and "Sister Rosa." In 1990 came Brother's Keeper, followed by Family Groove (1992). The muscular-as-Aaron-Neville Live On Planet Earth (1994) showcased the brothers' live presentation. In 1996, Mitakuye Oyasin Oyasin/All My Relations gave listeners Aaron's moving cover of Bill Withers' classic "Ain't No Sunshine."

But for the newly initiated and the Neville stalkers, alike, Treacherous: A History of the Neville Brothers 1955-1985 (Rhino, 1987) is perhaps the best starting and ending point of reference for the band.

Valence Street, the brothers' debut release for Columbia Records, is in stores now. Next year, a biography about the brothers by famed Rock writer David Ritz (Ray Charles, Aretha Franklin, Smokey Robinson and Marvin Gaye) will be published.

Neville says through all the recordings, musical experimentation and touring half of the year, each man has a role besides that of his instrument of choice.

"I'm kind of organizer, in general, including the music," he says. But if you drive down Valence Street, don't expect an extended Neville family picnic. "We spend so much of the year on the road traveling together that when we get home we don't get together."

Neville, father of nine, grandfather of eight and great-grandfather of four, spends his spare time studying tai chi chuan, aikido and jujitsu to maintain "the sense of balance and centering and focusing (that's) part of my musical life."

Right now, it's a life unimpressed by current musical offerings, regardless of genre.

When asked if there's currently anything exciting in music, he answers an abrupt, "Not really. Black music is stagnant. American music is stagnant, because radio never focuses on anything interesting."

From there, Neville lets loose on a tangential rant about the history of "race records" in American music and the changing faces of the Nevilles' audiences.

He says there once existed the New Orleans Citizens Council that destroyed "race records" — Rock music recorded by black artists — and tried to keep the public from hearing them by keeping the music off local radio.

Oh, how times have changed. Now, few blacks — musicians or listeners — embrace Rock & Roll as a black medium or creation.

"No black artists these days are considered Rock & Roll," Neville says, his voice rising at the thought. "Rock & Roll artists are considered what white guys do. I picked up a Living Blues magazine and the cover said the greatest living Blues musician is Eric Clapton."

The exclamation point in his voice is audible.

Neville says at the outset of their performing days, audiences at Neville Brothers shows were half white, half black. Since the 1980s, they've been mostly white.

Black audience's overall disapproval of and abstinence from things intrinsically black puzzles Neville. He says he still pulls on tapes of Amos 'N Andy and laughs hysterically, guilt free, at what used to be. He counts among the highlights of a life being joined onstage by Stevie Wonder and Carlos Santana the fact that he once bought Lincoln Theodore Monroe Andrew Perry (Stepin Fetchit) a hot dog.

"I got to know him when I was living in Memphis," Neville says. "In order to survive in the south, a black person had to act a fool, and none of us would be anywhere without Louis Armstrong."

Where would Popular music be without the Neville Brothers? Who knows, really. One thing's for sure.

The world would be a much more bland and stark place, just as I'm sure New Orleans is when Charles Neville packs up his memories for that other home back east.

WORLDJAM will be held along Fifth Street downtown at 2:30-11 p.m. Saturday and 2:15-8 p.m. Sunday.