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, 1938, 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.
He was arrested on charges of possession of marijuana in 1963 and imprisoned for three and a half years at the Louisiana State Penitentiary in Angola. He stayed in practice by playing with other jailed musicians, including the great New Orleans pianist James Booker.
Upon his release he moved to New York City. He became involved in modern jazz and toured with soul singers like Johnnie Taylor, Clarence Carter and O. V. Wright.
He returned to New Orleans in 1976 for a recording project: “The Wild Tchoupitoulas,” which brought the Mardi Gras Indian tribe led by his uncle George Landry (a. k. a. Big Chief Jolly) into the studio with a band featuring his nephews, the four Neville brothers. The album’s fusion of traditional street chants and funk made it a cornerstone of modern New Orleans music.
The brothers decided to keep working together. In New Orleans, the Neville Brothers were a supergroup. Art Neville had sung the 1954 hit “Mardi Gras Mambo” and in 1969 formed the influential New Orleans funk band the Meters, which Cyril Neville later joined. Aaron Neville had a Top 10 pop hit in 1966 with “Tell It Like It Is.”
The brothers brought their old repertoires and a growing new one to their concerts, gaining nationwide and worldwide followings on tour. They were the perennial finale on the main stage at the annual New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival and played New Year’s Eve shows at the Fillmore Auditorium in San Francisco.
The Neville Brothers recorded more than a dozen studio and live albums, although the only one to sell as many as a half-million copies was “Yellow Moon” (1989).
Mr. Neville also recorded with Diversity, a group mixing jazz and classical musicians, and with Native American musicians in the group Songcatchers. He released an album as a leader, “Safe in Buddha’s Palm” — the title reflected his longtime interest in Eastern philosophies — in 2008.
In the 1990s he moved to rural Massachusetts, and he performed with his sons, Khalif and Talyn, as the New England Nevilles. But he returned often to New Orleans, and after the Neville Brothers disbanded in 2012 he joined Aaron Neville’s touring band; he also performed in New Orleans with a daughter, the singer Charmaine Neville. Failing health prevented him from joining a Neville family reunion concert in 2017.
In addition to his three brothers, he is survived by his wife, Kristin Neville; his sister, Althelgra Neville Gabriel; and his children — Charmaine, Khalif, Talyn, Charlotte, Carlos and Charles Neville; Charlene White, Rowena Alix and Charlestine Jones — as well as numerous grandchildren.
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