For most bands, playing songs by other songwriters is a mark of shame, a sign that they don't have enough original material. But for the Neville Brothers, the opposite is true. Despite excellent original material, they want to sing other writers' songs. It gives them a chance to hone their stylistic chops. The Nevilles want to be the quintessential American band, a group that can perform every kind of music, from Ride on Jesus" to Johnny B. Goode."
From the beginning, when the pre-Neville Brothers band, the Meters, was teaching Sly Stone about funk, the Neville brothers have challenged themselves with covers. When someone said the Meters couldn't do a cover of Oh, Calcutta!" they gave it a try. A year later, the song ended up on an album.
In recent years, the band's choice of covers has gotten ever more adventurous. On its 1989 breakthrough album, Yellow Moon, a record with five covers out of 12 tunes, the Nevilles turned Bob Dylan's With God on Our Side" into an echoey gospel hymn and converted guitarist Link Wray's schizo-rockabilly Fire and Brimstone" into a high-harmony funk fest. On Yellow Moon's 1990 follow-up, Brother's Keeper, the Nevilles transformed another Wray number, Fallin' Rain," into a soft ballad.
The Wray tunes-Wray is most famous for penning the Batman television theme-seem to be the strangest cover choices so far. But, according to Aaron Neville, covering Wray was small potatoes.
A couple of years ago, we sang on a Walt Disney tribute record called Stay Awake," he says. We did a doo-wop version of the theme to the Mickey Mouse Club. Dr. John played piano on it. If you want to hear us doing a strange cover, check that one out."
Now that the new Neville Brothers album is being readied for a spring release, one of the big questions is. ...
Yeah, there's one cover," Aaron Neville says with a chuckle, talking by telephone from his new home out in the 'burbs of New Orleans. Are you ready? Would you believe `Fly Like an Eagle'?"
Steve Miller's Fly Like an Eagle"?
Can the Nevilles-Art, Charles, Aaron and Cyril (in descending order of age)-hope to salvage a single whose most memorable lines are Tick, tock-doo doo doo doo doo"?
We've been doin' it since 1977," Aaron says in a voice that is surprisingly small for his linebacker physique. Before that, the Meters did it. You'll see. Don't think Steve Miller. Cyril sings, and he's kicking it."
Never think any piece of music is out of the Neville Brothers' reach. Next thing you know, four percussionists will be banging away, saxmen will be wailing, the four brothers will be harmonizing, and what was once a played-to-death pop tune will become an irresistible mass of rhythm. From the music of the Carter Family to Bob Dylan to Steve Miller, there aren't many tunes that can't benefit from being Neville-ized."
That this group can and will do it all-reggae, country, folk, funk, rock 'n' roll-was made abundantly clear when an inspired version of A.P. Carter's classic bluegrass lament Will the Circle Be Unbroken" appeared on Yellow Moon. Along with White Christmas" and Amazing Grace," Circle" is one of the most tradition-laden tunes in American musical history. Transformed by the brothers' trademark four-part harmonies, shimmering, angelic keyboards and one of Aaron's soaring, falsetto leads, the Nevilles' ÔCircle" has a spirituality even ol' A.P. Carter would approve of.
We respect and enjoy all kinds of music," Aaron says in his quiet drawl. A lot of people were surprised when we did `Will the Circle Be Unbroken,' but not us. We're not saying our way is better, but when we're through, everyone will know it was the Nevilles."
Spirituality has always ranked alongside musicality as the Nevilles' greatest attribute. The brothers have always championed a reggaelike message of one heart, one love. Over the years, this peace-love-and-understanding spirituality has trodden traditional paths like Catholicism and less traditional routes like Rastafarianism. On their eight records, the Nevilles have paid tribute to everyone from Henri Rousseau to the spirits in Congo Square. And since the brothers are from New Orleans, there's even a dash of voodoo in their music.
Perhaps it was an evil mojo that kept bringing them to the brink of fame, then pulling them back. For example, while they were virtual unknowns:
One of their countless, one-shot record deals was engineered by Bette Midler, a fan.
In 1975, Paul McCartney recorded part of his Venus and Mars album with the Meters in New Orleans.
The Meters was the opening band on the Rolling Stones' American tour in 1975 and the Stones' European tour in 1976.
None of those things catapulted the brothers into a steady record deal, let alone the big time. It's ironic that, with all their talent, the Nevilles only became known after Aaron did a series of syrupy duets with Linda Ronstadt.
Operating on the assumption that their music would never squeeze its way into the hermetic formats of commercial radio, the brothers have spent a career making records that they liked. Along the way, they signed the wrong contracts, trusted the wrong people and opened for a lot of acts that couldn't carry their congas.
Born and raised in New Orleans' Third Ward, the Nevilles are the spiritual inheritors of New Orleans' rich musical history. Along with the Marsalis clan, the four Neville brothers are the reigning royalty of Crescent City music. The Neville Brothers band began with the Meters, one of the most underrated but influential groups in all of popular music. Formed by Art Neville in 1967, the Meters included guitarist Leo Nocentelli, bassist George Porter and drummer Ziggy Modeliste. Art's brothers Aaron and Charles occasionally sang with the mostly instrumental group.
The best Meters records are Rejuvenation and Cissy Strut, both from 1975. Although those albums never cracked the charts, their influence spread like quicksilver. The Meters' albums-all of which are now collector's items-are funk's mother lode. Few outside George Clinton have had the effect the Meters had on funk music, with their tight and innovative rhythm section.
Without the Meters to show the way, there would never have been a Sly Stone, an Earth, Wind & Fire or a Rick James. Lately, Meters records have proved fertile ground for hip-hop and dance-track sampling.
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In 1976, disappointed by continuing poor sales figures, the Meters hung it up. In recent years, the band has staged several reunions and, according to Aaron, a new Meters record may be in the works." In 1976, just before the Meters' demise, Aaron and Charles Neville rejoined the band to record with Neville cousins Amos and George Landry. The Landrys were part of the Wild Tchoupitoulas, the feather- and jewel-encrusted black Indian tribe" that is such a cherished part of Mardi Gras. The ensuing album Wild Tchoupitoulas was an immediate success. Members of the Meters made up the rhythm section, and the Nevilles won a recording contract with Capitol Records because of the disc. In 1978, the Neville Brothers' self-titled debut flopped and Capitol dropped the band. Thereafter, the Nevilles began their odyssey from record label to record label, jumping with each new album. Three years after their Capitol debut, they recorded Fiyo on the Bayou for A&M. Now regarded by many as the best Neville Brothers album, Fiyo was also a commercial flop. Turning to hometown blues label Blacktop in 1984 for their first live record, Neville-ization, the brothers moved on to EMI in 1987 for Uptown and Rhino in 1988 for the aptly titled two-volume summation Treacherous.
Despite perpetual good press and a small but fanatical following, the Neville Brothers was still a relatively unknown group when the Daniel Lanois-produced Yellow Moon was released in 1989 on A&M. A live act whose spontaneity is difficult, if not impossible, to capture in a studio, the band has made more than a few stiff records. Yellow Moon, however, is the most accurate snapshot so far of what the Nevilles do. But as good as Yellow Moon is, it hints that there is a blockbuster Neville Brothers album yet to be recorded.
That blockbuster should bring the brothers the recognition they deserve. Judging by their past recordings, it will almost certainly contain, along with their usual memorable originals, some surprising covers. How about a Neville-ized Rhapsody in Blue"?
FATE AND LOATHING IN BULLHEAD CITY LIFE'... v1-22-92