Art Neville, member of Neville Brothers, Meters, dies at 81

NEW ORLEANS (AP) — Art Neville, a member of a storied New Orleans musical family who performed with his siblings in The Neville Brothers band and founded the groundbreaking funk group The Meters, died Monday. The artist nicknamed “Poppa Funk” was 81.

Neville’s manager, Kent Sorrell, said Neville died at his home.

“Art ‘Poppa Funk’ Neville passed away peacefully this morning at home with his adoring wife, Lorraine, by his side,” Sorrell said in an email.

The cause of death was not immediately available but Neville had battled a number of health issues including complications from back surgery.

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“Louisiana lost an icon today,” Gov. John Bel Edwards said in a news release.

The Neville Brothers spent some of their childhood in the now demolished Calliope housing project in New Orleans and some at a family home in uptown New Orleans.

In a 2003 interview with Offbeat magazine, Art Neville described going to a Methodist church as a child where he had his first encounter with a keyboard.

“My grandmother used to clean the pulpit. She was in there cleaning it one day and I guess she was babysitting me ’cause I was in there with her. She went to one side and all of a sudden I was on the side where the organ was,” he said. “Something told me to turn it on. I reached up and pressed a bass note and it scared the daylights out of me!”

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That experience helped kick off a lifelong career as a keyboardist and vocalist.

The Neville Brothers — Art, Charles, Cyril and Aaron — started singing as kids but then went their separate ways in the 1950s and ’60s. In 1954 Art Neville was in high school when he sang the lead on the Hawketts’ remake of a country song called “Mardi Gras Mambo.”

He told the public radio show “American Routes” how he was recruited by the Hawketts. “I don’t know how they found out where I lived,” he said in the interview. “But they needed a piano player. And they came up to the house and they asked my mother and father could I go.”

More than 60 years later, the song remains a staple of the Carnival season, but that longevity never translated into financial success for Art Neville who received no money for it.

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“It made me a big shot around school,” Art said with a laugh during a 1993 interview with The Associated Press.

In the late ’60s, Art Neville was a founding member of The Meters, a pioneering American funk band that also included Cyril Neville, Leo Nocentelli (guitar), George Porter Jr. (bass) and Joseph “Zigaboo” Modeliste (drums).

The Meters were the house band for Allen Toussaint’s New Orleans soul classics and opened for the Rolling Stones’ tour of the Americas in 1975 and of Europe in 1976.

They also became known for their session work with Paul McCartney, Robert Palmer and Patti LaBelle and recordings with Dr. John.

The Meters broke up in 1977, but members of the band have played together in groups such as the Funky Meters and the Meter Men. And in more recent years The Meters have reunited for various performances and have often been cited as an inspiration for other groups.

Flea, the bass player for the Red Hot Chili Peppers, paid homage to The Meters when he invited members of the group onstage to perform with the Chili Peppers during a 2016 performance at the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival.

“We are their students,” Flea said.

As The Meters were breaking up, The Neville Brothers were coming together. In 1978 they recorded their first Neville Brothers album.

Charles died in 2018.

For years, The Neville Brothers were the closing act at Jazz Fest. After 2005’s Hurricane Katrina, the four brothers — like many New Orleanians — were scattered across the country while the city struggled to recover. They returned to anchor the festival in 2007.

“This is how it should be,” Art Neville said during a news conference with festival organizers announcing their return to the annual event. “We’re a part of Jazz Fest.”

He shared in three Grammy awards: with The Neville Brothers for “Healing Chant,” in 1989; with a group of musicians on the Stevie Ray Vaughn tribute “SRV Shuffle in 1996; and with The Meters when they got a lifetime achievement in 2018.

“Art will be deeply missed by many, but remembered for imaginatively bringing New Orleans funk to life,” the Recording Academy, which awards the Grammys, said in a news release.

Neville announced his retirement in December.