Art “Poppa Funk” Neville, the beloved New Orleans keyboardist known as a founding member of The Meters and The Neville Brothers, has died. The 81-year-old musician faced declining health in recent years and passed peacefully in his Valence Street home on Monday (via NOLA).
Arthur Lanon Neville was born on December 17th, 1937. A lifelong New Orleans resident, he started playing piano at a young age. His first breakthrough came when, at 17, he sang lead on The Hawkettes’ now-classic 1954 single “Mardi Gras Mambo”.
He spent much of the ’50s and ’60s recording a number of R&B hits like “Cha Dooky Do” and “All These Things”. It was in 1965 that he formed Art Neville & The Neville Sounds with fellow members George Porter Jr., guitarist Leo Nocentelli, and drummer Joseph “Zigaboo” Modeliste. Allen Toussaint recruited the group as his studio’s house band, where they went on to play for Dr. John, LaBelle, Lee Dorsey, Robert Palmer, and more.
In 1968, the Neville Sounds took on the moniker The Meters, a name that will forever be connected to the pioneering era of funk music. Tracks like “Cissy Strut”, “Hey Pocky A-Way”, “People Say”, and “Fire on the Bayou” are considered standards of the genre. Despite their now legendary status, a lack of financial success and internal struggles with substance abuse led The Meters to disband in 1977.
That same year, Neville joined his three younger siblings — Charles, Aaron and Cyril — to form The Nevill Brothers. In 1979, they became the first band from New Orleans to ever perform on Austin City Limits. The Brothers would go on to tour with the likes of The Grateful Dead, Santana, and The Rolling Stones; Keith Richards and Santana even featured on their 1987 album Uptown. 1989 saw them release Yellow Moon, produced by Daniel Lanois. The effort featured the song “Healing Chant”, which took home the Best Pop Instrumental Performance trophy at the 32nd Grammy Awards. (Art would win a second Grammy in 1996 for his contribution to the Stevie Ray Vaughan tribute “SRV Shuffle”.)
For years, The Neville Brothers performed the closing main stage set at the iconic New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival. Their final album was 2004’s Walkin’ in the Shadow of Life and they performed their final concert at the Hollywood Bowl in 2012. However, they reunited in 2015 for the “Nevilles Forever” tribute show at the Saenger Theatre as part of Jazz Fest.
Poppa Funk also continued to play with The Meters through various reunions and incarnations throughout the ’90s and ’00s. However, his worsening health led to him stepping back from performing in 2017. When The Meters were given a Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award in July 2018, Nevill’s son, guitarist Ian Neville of Dumpstaphunk, represented him at the ceremony. Five months later, Neville officially retired from touring.
Art Neville is survived by his wife Lorraine (whom he wed at Jimmy Buffet’s Key West home) and his three children: Fox News anchor Arthel, musician Amelia, and Ian.