Musician and member of the Meters

Born: December 13, 1937

Died: July 22, 2019

Art Neville, who has died aged 81, was an American musician whose life and work were synonymous with the city of New Orleans. A keyboard player who also wrote and sang music, he was most well-known from the 1960s until 1977 for his membership of the Meters, a funk group who were regarded as New Orleans’ most prolific and high-quality studio session band, as well as recording artists in their own right. He also achieved fame with the Neville Brothers, alongside three of his siblings, following his departure from the Meters in 1977.

The Meters were known first as a session group for producers Allen Toussaint and Marshall Sehorn’s Sansu label, and throughout their time with him they worked on a diverse range of albums and songs by other artists, among the most famous of which were Lee Dorsey’s 1966 hit Working in the Coal Mine; Labelle’s enduring soul classic Lady Marmalade (1974); Robert Palmer’s largely unsuccessful, if well-remembered, debut album of the time Sneakin’ Sally Through the Alley (1974); and on two records by Dr John, arguably New Orleans’ greatest musical figure, in 1973’s In the Right Place and 1974’s Desitively Bonnaroo.

The Meters also began to release recordings under their own name, and the high point of their recorded success came in 1969 and 1970, when a run of tracks including Sophisticated Cissy, Cissy Strut, Look-Ka Py and Chicken Strut were hits on the R&B chart, laying down a template for funk music which went on to inform the sound in the 1970s, as well as the later disco sound and, even further ahead, hip hop’s sampling culture. Cissy Strut was also a mainstream US hit, and was repopularised when it appeared on the soundtrack of Quentin Tarantino’s 1997 film Jackie Brown.

The group left Sansu amicably for the national Reprise label in 1972, although they continued to work with Toussaint. This move coincided with a decline in their popularity as a powerhouse of hit R&B singles, in favour of becoming a more conventionally-styled group. Of their four albums for the label, 1975’s third, Fire on the Bayou, is viewed as the best, yet during this period the group were most well-known for their live exploits, including tour support for the Rolling Stones in 1975 and 1976, and a 1975 live recording named Live on the Queen Mary, which was made at a private party on board the Queen Mary ship hosted by Paul and Linda McCartney. They released eight albums in total.

Neville’s break with the Meters came as a result of a self-titled 1976 album by a group called the Wild Tchoupitoulas, a musical project of his uncle, the mixed race African-American, white and Native American George ‘Big Chief Jolly’ Landry, which drew upon that latter part of his heritage. Although this wasn’t a commercially successful project, it inspired Neville and his brothers Charles, Aaron and Cyril (the later of whom played percussion with the Meters) to strike out on their own as the Neville Brothers the following year.

Although Neville later returned to playing with the Meters and alternated his work with both bands, he and his brothers released new records regularly until the mid-2000s, the most notable of which were 1987’s Uptown, which featured guest guitar performances from Carlos Santana and Keith Richards, and 1989’s Yellow Moon, whose track Healing Chant won a Grammy Award the same year. It was one of three Grammys Neville won, including a 2018 Lifetime Achievement Award shared with the Meters.

Arthur Lanon Neville, who took the nickname Poppa Funk, was born in New Orleans, Louisiana, in 1937. He spent a decade as a solo artist in the city before founding the Meters, and had already achieved what would prove to be a lasting piece of fame in New Orleans’ musical history by the time he was eighteen; the song Mardi Gras Mambo, released in 1955 on Chess Records by the Hawketts, the high school band which he led, has since gone on to become a staple of the city’s sound.

Between 1958 and 1962 he served in the US Navy, and when the Meters were formed in 1965 (originally as Art Neville and the Sounds), they were drawn from a group of players he knew from the city’s clubs and bars; guitarist Leo Nocentelli, bassist George Porter Jr and drummer Joseph Modeliste completed the line-up of a group for whom improvisation was key to their early understanding.

A musician with a reputation powerful enough to be recognised as a driving force in two fields – Louisiana blues and American funk – Art Neville retired from music in 2018 and died in 2019, a year after his brother Charles. He is survived by three children; Arthel, now a television news anchor, from his first marriage to Doris, and Ian and Amelia from his marriage to Lorraine. Ian is a musician in the group Dumpstaphunk with his cousin, Aaron’s son Ivan, and has performed with his father.