After decades as cult musicians, New Orleans's Neville Brothers spent the '90s solidifying their position as a minor American institution. Torchbearers for both tight, lean funk (Art
and Cyril were key players in the profoundly influential '70s combo the Meters
) and soul-gripping balladry (Aaron
scored a 1966 No. 2 hit with "Tell It Like It Is" before resurfacing as a solo and group star in the late '80s), the Neville Brothers band has found a diverse audience with open ears for its message of rhythm and community.
Before that happened, though, the brothers lived thug life as hard as Tupac Shakur ever did. Open the first two-thirds of this oral history to any random page, and you'll find rhapsodies about musicians as far afield as Professor Longhair, Ellis Marsalis, and Billy Stewart--or something quite a bit darker, like Cyril's remembrance of a near deadly razor fight: "I'm bleeding like a hog.... [T]hey needed 180 stitches to sew my neck together... [and] some Demerol to get me even higher and let me go back to the gig--the same night--where I carried on, singing 'Cold Sweat' and 'Heard It Through the Grapevine' as though the shit had never happened." Vividly told by the Nevilles and smartly organized by Ray Charles and Marvin Gaye biographer David Ritz, this is a resounding look at how these musicians put drugs, violence, and industry troubles behind them to become a veteran touring act and Grammy machine. If not quite the equal of drummer (and fellow New Orleanian) Earl Palmer's Backbeat, this is a fine, often chilling look both back and forward. --Rickey Wright
From Publishers Weekly
This oral history by the members of the Neville Brothers, currently New Orleans's most popular and well-known funk/R&B/rock band, is a must-read for fans and hardcore students of New Orleans music. Coauthor David Ritz, whose critically acclaimed biographies of Marvin Gaye, Ray Charles and Aretha Franklin have established him as an insightful chronicler of difficult musical personalities, here lets each of the four Neville Brothers display "his voice, his musical personality, and his own story." While the brothers' lives and experiences often overlapAespecially when discussing the New Orleans of their youth, their various drug addictions and their run-ins with women, the law and all types of unscrupulous characters from the fringes of the music businessAthe book achieves Ritz's goal of capturing each brother's cadences and "distinct grooves." Art, the oldest, is a natural archivist of New Orleans musical culture. Charles, who spent some time in Mississippi's infamous Angola jail, captures the impact of "the hierarchy of skin color" in New Orleans, New York and Los Angeles. Aaron, whose recording of "Tell It Like It Is" immediately placed him in the pantheon of classic New Orleans singers, is the most sensitive to how their music has changed as the brothers pursued individual, then combined, careers. Cyril, the youngest, is the most articulate about newer political and musical influences on New Orleans. "In Their Own Words"-style biographies have been a staple of music books, usually quickly churned out to meet demands of current fans of disposable pop music, but, while it suffers from some repetition, this volume captures the fascinating lives of crucial players in the New Orleans tradition with candor and style. 16 pages of photos. (Sept.)
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