Neville Brothers Founder Art Neville Dies At 81

Musician Art Neville (Neville Brothers) performs at the 2009 New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival
Rick Diamond / Getty Images

Art Neville, one of the founding members of the Neville Brothers and The Meters, died at the age of 81 at his home in New Orleans.

NOLA.com reported on Neville’s passing on Monday, commenting that the keyboardist and singer had been in declining health for several years. Neville, who was better known to fans as “Poppa Funk,” has been known as the voice behind the Carnival season theme “Mardi Gras Mambo.”

Neville’s longtime manager, Kent Sorrell shared a statement confirming the musician’s passing.

“It was peaceful. He passed away at home with his adoring wife Lorraine by his side. He toured the world how many times, but he always came home to Valence Street.”

The keyboardist and singer was born Arthur Lanon Neville in New Orleans in 1937, and lived in the Calliope housing development and Uptown on Valence Street as a boy. Neville attended St. Augustine and Booker T. Washington high schools before earning his GED from Walter S. Cohen, where he met several other musicians he would work with through the years.

At the age of 17, he sang “Mardi Gras Mambo” for the first time on a recording, and it was played on local radio stations. He recalled in 2013 that he was so excited to record a song for the first time, and had no clue it would still be popular 60 years later.

“I was so happy to record. Jack the Cat had this song. It sounded good to me. We cut it in the station, with two or three microphones. I knew it felt good to do it. But I had no idea that it would still be around.”

Neville served in the Navy for six years, including three months on the aircraft carrier USS Independence, where he worked as a cook. He then returned to New Orleans, where he formed the Neville Sounds in the mid-’60s with several younger musicians. The group held down a regular gig at an Uptown bar called the Nite Cap.

From there, producer Allen Toussaint recruited Art Neville and the Neville Sounds to be the house band for his recording studio. Under Toussaint’s guiding hand, they would record with musicians like Lee Dorsey, Dr. John, LaBelle, Robert Palmer, and many others.

In 1976, the Neville Brothers was formed when Art Neville was joined by his three younger Brothers in backing their uncle, Mardi Gras Indian Big Chief George “Jolly” Landry, on a 1976 album called The Wild Tchoupitoulas. Brothers Art, Charles, Aaron, and Cyril moved forward as their own band, going on tour and cutting albums.

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For years, the Neville Brothers were a mainstay of the main stage of the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival on its final Sunday.

Neville’s mobility was affected by a number of health issues over the years, including complications from back surgery in 2001. Recently, Neville suffered a stroke. His back problems limited his mobility and required him to use a cane, walking stick, or wheelchair, but he still made music.

Art Neville joked that the audience still continued to bring him to life despite his ailments.

“You can bring me there in the ambulance, roll me onto the stage, give me a microphone and a mirror where I can see the people.”

Survivors include his wife, Lorraine Neville; his three children, Arthel, Ian, and Amelia Neville; brothers Aaron and Cyril Neville; and a sister, Athelgra Neville Gabriel.