Aaron Neville, lifelong resident of New Orleans—the Big Easy—likes to parody that famous line about the Big Apple. “Man,” says Aaron, lying back in his home in the lazy old New Orleans neighborhood he grew up in, “if you can’t make it here, you can’t make it anywhere.”
Aaron, Art, Charles and Cyril, the gifted siblings who perform together as the Neville Brothers, have found it relatively easy to make it big in their hometown. But it has taken 12 years of hard labor on the road for the Nevilles to seduce the outside world with their “voodoo gumbo” sound. Now, after three studio albums that disappointed both accountants and fans by failing to capture the cathartic energy of the brothers’ live shows, the Nevilles have hung out Yellow Moon, to glowing reviews. Familiar around the multiplex, thanks to a cameo in The Big Easy and a sound-track contribution to The Mighty Quinn, the Nevilles also moved into living rooms last month with a Cinemax cable special, guest-starring such pals as Dennis Quaid and Jimmy Buffett. After flirting with national success for so long, vocalist Aaron, 48, keyboardist and group leader Art, 51, sax fiend Charles, 50, and percussionist-incantationist Cyril, 40, are more than ready to become the biggest thing to come out of New Orleans since Paul Prudhomme. “We want to be heard all over,” says Aaron. “That’s our goal.”
Raised on Valence Street, just a few blocks from Tipitina’s, the brothers describe their late parents—Amelia, a housewife, and Arthur Sr., a day laborer—as “jewels” who instilled in them a love for music and the city’s Mardi Gras traditions. “Before we were born, Mama and her brother, Uncle Jolly [a piano player], were a dance team,” Aaron says. “They were supposed to go out with [big-band leader] Louis Prima, but my grandmother wouldn’t let them go. If she had let them go, we wouldn’t have the Neville Brothers.”
All the brothers grew up “beating on things, hubcaps, anything,” says Art, but nascent singer Aaron stood out for his habit of yodeling like Gene Autry. In quieter moods, as a teenager, “I used to sound just like Nat King Cole,” Aaron says.
Even then it was Art who set the family course, forming a doo-wop group, the Hawketts, that had a local hit with “Mardi Gras Mambo” in 1954. After a hitch in the Navy, Art formed the Meters, a critically lauded group that toured the world with the Rolling Stones in the mid-’70s. An accomplished jazz and rock player, brother Charles spent his youth blowing his sax from town to town. “I split in the 11th grade to go on the road with bands,” he says. “I went to that higher high school.” Baby brother Cyril, who would later join the Meters, remembers coming of age during the period that inspired him to co-write Yellow Moon’s first single, “Sister Rosa [Parks].” “The first words I learned to read,” he says, “were ‘White Only’ and ‘Black Only.’ ”
Aaron, meanwhile, was working on the city docks in 1966 when his solo soul classic “Tell It Like It Is” became the No. 2 song in the nation. “It was out a week, and the next thing I knew I started seeing my name in Billboard every other page. I toured with Otis Redding. I played the Apollo. It was a trip.” Nonetheless, he says, very few of the royalty dollars got as far as his pockets, and after his independent record label declared bankruptcy the next year, he found himself back home working construction. Sadly, it took a family tragedy to get him back into music, and the brothers together as a band.
“Our daddy had died in 1967,” Aaron says. “Then Mom died in 1975. She was run over by a moving van. Front wheels and back wheels.” Afterward, says Charles, “our Uncle Jolly reminded us that our parents had always wanted to see us work together as a band. So the next year, everybody came together.” An album of “Mardi Gras music,” titled Wild Tchoupitoulas, was a regional hit and a lesson in kinfolk synergy. “The music flowed together so smoothly and so easily,” says Charles, “I thought, ‘Wow! This is the way it’s supposed to be!’ ”
Today, three of the brothers still live on Valence Street. Aaron and Joel, his wife of 30 years, live in a duplex next door to Charles. Art and Lorraine, who married last New Year’s Day in a ceremony hosted by Jimmy Buffett in Key West, live down the street. “I’ve had a whole bunch of different wives,” says Art. “This is the third, fourth time I’ve been married.” Cyril, who just moved downtown with wife Gaynielle, still visits the old neighborhood, where the brothers stroll the quiet tree-lined streets and drop by one another’s homes when the spirit moves.
Though the brothers are on tour up to eight months a year, their hearts seldom leave New Orleans, a city that means different things to different Nevilles. “It’s like a Caribbean island,” says Art. Cyril thinks of it as a “little piece of Africa that broke off, floated over here and stuck to the United States.” For Charles, New Orleans is the last—and a very welcome—refuge for the laid back. “You can take it easy here,” he says, “and still get by.”
—Steve Dougherty, Johnny Green in New Orleans