In a town virtually synonymous with music, the Neville family is among the most prominent progeny of New Orleans’ native sons. Lauded by no less an authority as “Billboard” Magazine as the “first family of New Orleans rock and R&B,” and ethnically infused with a pedigree as complex as any of the various gumbos coming out of that fabled city, the brothers Art, Charles, Aaron, and Cyril individually and collectively have made an imprint on most of American popular music of the last 50 years.
This past April 26, the second son, Charles, died of pancreatic cancer, at age 79 in Huntington, Mass.
Brought up in the same musical melting pot as his siblings, Charles Neville came of age in the infamous Calliope housing project, a community as notorious for its crime and violence as the creative output of its residents. Years later, the neighborhood spawned another generation of sibling musicians and purveyors of southern hip hop in the Miller family, individually known as C-Murder, Master P, and Silk the Shocker.
Equally adept on alto and tenor saxophones, (his soprano work on 1990’s “Healing Chant” was a major factor in winning the Neville’s the only Grammy award of their career, for that year’s pop instrumental performance), he was proficient enough at 15 years old to earn a place with “The Rabbit’s Foot Minstrel Show,” an entertainment troupe traveling throughout the American South. Prior to his employment, the show had served as a launching point for Ma Rainey, Bessie Smith, Big Joe Williams, and other performers.
Serving in the Navy during the mid-1950s, he was fortunate enough to be stationed in Memphis, Tenn., and the influence of its fabled Beale Street, where he met the likes of Bobby “Blue” Bland and B.B. King. This professional exposure brought with it the negative trappings of show biz, and the developing musician acquired an addiction to heroin, and the penchant for petty crime to support the habit. This in turn led to a stint at hard labor during the mid-1960s in the Angola State Penitentiary, for possessing two marijuana cigarettes. After his release, seeking a respite from the Jim Crow traditions of Dixie, he traveled to the (relatively) hospitable confines of the northeast and New York City, an area he was to frequent for the rest of his life.
By 1976, he’d joined the rest of the clan (who pursued individual careers in and around New Orleans) to form the Neville Brothers, the start of their musical dynasty and a global following. This stability and his embrace of Eastern philosophies brought tranquility to his life, and a creative spark shared with his fellow Louisianans and a plethora of musicians from the Native American, classical, and jazz realms.
Charles Neville’s musical legacy is carried on by his daughter, singer Charmaine Neville, and his son, the keyboardist Khalif Neville.
For more information about this seminal musician, go to his website at: http://www.charlesnevillesite.com/.