Charles Neville, saxophonist of New Orleans giants The Neville Brothers, died Thursday in Huntington, Mass. at the age of 79, a representative confirmed to NPR Music. The cause was pancreatic cancer. The news was first reported by The Advocate.
Charles Neville was the second-oldest of four brothers, all of whom would go on to form that legendary, eponymous and definitional Crescent City band.
Neville plied his saxophone chops as a member of the renowned Dew Drop Inn’s house band, supporting legendary musicians like Allen Toussaint, James Booker, Huey “Piano” Smith and Ernie K. Doe. Simultaneously, the Neville brothers cut their teeth playing in various R&B and blues bands in the 1950s and ’60s like The Meters, as well as the proto-Neville Brothers group Neville Sounds.
After a stint in the Navy, Neville relocated to New York, immersing himself in the incomparable ’70s jazz scene there, but returned to New Orleans before the end of the decade to play with all three of his brothers.
The 1976 album The Wild Tchoupitoulas, which Neville helped arrange and featured contributions from all of his brothers, captured the sound of the Mardi Gras Indians tradition. It was recorded with the Neville’s uncle Big Chief Jolly, and served as an incubator for The Neville Brothers‘ band, which officially formed the following year.
Charles Neville, of the Neville Brothers band, died on Thursday (April 26) in Massachusetts. He was 79 years old. He had been suffering from pancreatic cancer.
His brother, Aaron Neville, posted on Twitter on Thursday: “You were a great brother. You’ll always be in my heart and soul, like a tattoo.”
Mr. Neville was the smiling, serene saxophonist with the icicle mustache, swaying in the center of the city’s favorite funk band that included his brothers Art, Cyril and Aaron. His serpentine style lent a lush, mysterious quality to hits such as “Yellow Moon.” The Neville Brother’s instrumental song “Healing Chant,” which features Mr. Neville’s sax over a gentle background rhythm, won the Grammy Award for Best Pop Instrumental Performance in 1989.
Charles Neville, the saxophonist in New Orleans’s most celebrated band, the Neville Brothers, died on Friday at his home in Huntington, Mass. He was 79.
The Neville Brothers gathered New Orleans’s abundant musical heritage and carried it forward. Art, Aaron, Charles and Cyril Neville formed their band in 1977 and maintained it, amid other projects, until disbanding in 2012. (They reunited for a farewell concert in New Orleans in 2015.)
The group melded rhythm and blues, gospel, doo-wop, rock, blues, soul, jazz, funk and New Orleans’s own parade and Mardi Gras rhythms, in songs that mingled a party spirit with social consciousness.
Charles Neville — who usually performed in a beret and a tie-dyed shirt, with an irrepressible smile — was the band’s jazz facet, reflecting his decades of experience before the Neville Brothers got started. His soprano saxophone was upfront on the Nevilles’ “Healing Chant,” which won a Grammy Award as best pop instrumental in 1990.
Charles Neville was born in New Orleans on Dec. 28, 1939, the second of the four sons of Arthur Lanon Neville Sr. and Amelia Neville, formerly Landry. At 15, Charles left home to play saxophone with the Rabbit’s Foot Minstrel Show.
He went on to work with blues and R&B singers, including Larry Wiliams, Johnny Ace, Big Maybelle, Jimmy Reed and Little Walter. Back in New Orleans, he was a member of the house band at the Dew Drop Inn, working with local and visiting stars. After serving in the Navy from 1956 to 1958, stationed in Memphis, he went on to tour with B. B. King and Bobby (Blue) Bland.
Mr. Neville began using heroin in the 1950s, sometimes shoplifting to support his drug use and serving short jail terms. It was a habit he would not completely overcome until 1986.
Charles Neville: Remembering the Neville Brothers’ Saxophone-Playing Mystic ~ RollingStone
It was 1998, and Charles Neville and I were walking through the French Quarter on a steamy hot Orleans afternoon. Out of nowhere, a small man in a raggedy woolen overcoat approached Charles.
Unhesitatingly, Charles embraced him, exclaiming, “Waterman Willie! When did you get out, brother?”
“Well, here you go.” Charles emptied out his pockets and handed Willie all the bills and change in his possession
Charles knew. He had made it out of the infamous Angola penitentiary and did more than survive; as a creative artist and human being, he thrived. He was a man – an intellectual with strong metaphysical leanings – deeply committed to expanding consciousness.
The second oldest of the four brilliant Neville brothers, Charles died on April 26th of pancreatic cancer. He was 79 and at peace. He had been at peace for years.
“When you go from criminality to spirituality,” he told me while I was ghostwriting The Brothers, the Nevilles’ autobiography, “your mantra is simple: gratitude, gratitude, gratitude.”
He learned saxophone well enough to gig with B.B. King, Bobby Bland and Little Walter. He also got hooked on heroin. Minor crimes landed him in Angola.
“My stint was a godsend,” he said. “Despite the inhumane conditions, there were books. I read everyone from Homer to Nietzsche. Ever since genius pianist James Booker was incarcerated, Angola had the baddest band in the land. It was where I was finally able to woodshed and seriously study the masters – Pres, Bird, Trane – with absolute focus. Reflecting on the non-attachment nuances of Zen Buddhism in my miserable piss-stained jail cell was a key to enlightenment. Not to mention getting clean.”
Once out, he eventually worked with siblings Art, Aaron, Cyril and their Uncle Jolly to form the incandescent Wild Tchoupitoulas, the Mardi Gras Indian funk band that brought the divergent brothers together for the first time. That was the mid-Seventies. In the following decades Charles toured with the Brothers, served as featured sideman on Aaron’s solo dates and played jazz clubs with his own group.