Art “Poppa Funk” Neville, keyboardist and founding member of legendary New Orleans funk godfathers The Meters along with his family band The Neville Brothers, passed away today at the age of 81. The news was confirmed by Nola.com’s Keith Spera, who cites sources close to Neville’s family.
Along with drummer Zigaboo Modeliste, bassist George Porter Jr. and guitarist Leo Nocentelli, Neville founded The Meters in 1965. The band’s 1969 self-titled debut album featured “Cissy Strut,” the first of what would become a catalog of ultra-influential tracks and a staple of the group’s early repertoire, dating back to when they went by Art Neville and the Neville Sounds. (Neville previously experienced success with another local New Orleans act, The Hawketts, including a lasting rendition of “Mardis Gras Mambo.”)
The quartet was soon joined by vocalist and percussionist Cyril Neville, the youngest of Art’s musical brothers. The two later left The Meters in 1977 after their final studio album, New Directions, to focus on The Neville Brothers which also featured singer Aaron Neville and late saxophonist Charles Neville, who passed away last year. The Neville Brothers held down the closing set of the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival for years, and the band played their final show together at a tribute concert during Jazz Fest 2015.
Besides their own recordings of classics like “Just Kissed My Baby,” “Hey Pocky A-Way,” “Sophisticated Cissy,” “Africa,” “It Ain’t No Use,” “Look-Ka Py Py,” “Chicken Strut,” “They All Ask’d For You,” “People Say,” “I Need More Time,” “Handclapping Song” and others, The Meters also became the house band for another NOLA legend, pianist/composer Allen Toussaint, and his record label, Sansu Enterprises. The band also backed up Dr. John on multiple studio albums and famously toured with The Rolling Stones in the U.S. and Europe in 1975 and ’76.
Along with Porter, Art partially reformed the band as the funky Meters in the late-’80s (first with Nocentelli and drummer Russell Batiste Jr., then later with guitarist Brian Stoltz replacing Nocentelli) and continued to play well into the 2010s. The founding Meters quartet reunited in 2000 for a one-off show and played sporadically in the years since—usually billed as The Original Meters—including a New Orleans Jazz Fest set in 2005, a performance with Dr. John of his album Desitively Bonnaroo at Bonnaroo in 2011, and multiple festival appearances and shows around New Orleans. The last performance of The Original Meters was at California’s Arroyo Seco festival in June 2017.
In an interview with Relix from earlier this year, Cyril Neville gave his brother Art all the credit for The Meters and The Neville Brothers, saying, “No Art Neville, no Meters, no Neville Brothers. I could go on and on. It all circles back to Art Neville.”
In January 2018, The Meters were presented with a Lifetime Achievement Award Grammy, though Art was unable to attend due to declining health. The keyboardist officially announced his retirement from performing in December 2018.