Neville Brothers saxophonist Charles Neville dies at 79
The New Orleans Advocate
By Keith Spera
April 26, 2018
Neville Brothers saxophonist Charles Neville died Thursday of pancreatic cancer in Massachusetts, where he had lived for many years. He was 79.
His brother Aaron Neville confirmed his death to WWL-TV.
Charles Neville was the second oldest of the four brothers who, for three decades, formed the core of the Neville Brothers, one of the most important and influential bands to emerge from New Orleans. For many years, the Neville Brothers were the closing act on the final Sunday of the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival.
In addition to his own considerable musical contributions, Neville was the father of popular singer Charmaine Neville, a familiar presence on local stages.
Born and raised in New Orleans, Charles grew up on Valence Street and in the Calliope housing development. In the 1950s, he toured with bands that backed such rhythm & blues stars as Johnny Ace, Jimmy Reed and B.B. King. He enlisted in the Navy in 1956 and was stationed in Memphis.
“I was really bummed out until I found Beale Street,” he said in an August 2017 interview with Gwen Thompkins, host of "Music Inside Out," which airs locally on WWNO-FM.
He joined singer Larry Williams’ band, but his music career was soon sidelined. As he described in the “The Brothers," the Neville Brothers' 2000 autobiographical oral history, he fell into a life of crime and addiction; he fought alternating cycles of heroin and methadone for two decades.
In the early 1960s, he served time at the Louisiana State Penitentiary at Angola for possession of marijuana. He rehearsed in the prison’s music room, collaborating with other incarcerated New Orleans musicians, including pianist James Booker and drummer James Black.
He moved to New York in the late 1960s, gigging with various artists. He finally returned to New Orleans at the behest of his uncle, George Landry, also known as Big Chief Jolly of the Wild Tchoupitoulas tribe of Mardi Gras Indians. Landry brought nephews Charles, Aaron, Art and Cyril together for the recording sessions for the 1976 album "The Wild Tchoupitoulas."
That collaboration gave birth to the Neville Brothers. Intermingling funk, soul and New Orleans rhythm and blues, they catapulted to national acclaim in the 1980s.
Charles Neville, who finally shook his addiction in 1986 via an intensive program in Eugene, Oregon, supplied one of the band's sonic signatures via his saxophone.
It snaked through the title track of the classic 1989 album “Yellow Moon" and that album's “Healing Chant." "Healing Chant" won a Grammy for best pop instrumental performance, the Neville Brothers’ only Grammy win.
Onstage, Aaron often introduced Charles as "Charlie the horn man."
A strict vegetarian and adherent of various Eastern spiritual philosophies, Charles told Thompkins he brought a “calming, centering energy” to the Neville Brothers.
He also led his own jazz combos, which performed at Snug Harbor whenever he was in town. After the Neville Brothers called it quits in 2012, he continued to tour as a member of Aaron Neville’s solo band. He was onstage when Aaron made his French Quarter Festival debut in 2017. Charles performed with Dr. John's band during last year's Jazz Fest.
He moved to rural Massachusetts in the 1990s; his wife’s parents gave the couple land on which to build a house. He has also said that he was eager to get away from the crime in New Orleans.
In Massachusetts, he performed with two of his sons as the New England Nevilles.
He was slated to take part in the Neville Family Groove, a celebration of the Nevilles legacy at Tipitina’s in November 2017. However, he was hospitalized at the time and unable to perform.
A benefit concert to raise money for his medical and living expenses was held Feb. 3 at the Academy of Music Theatre in Northampton, Massachusetts. Scheduled performers included Aaron Neville, Charmaine Neville and Charles' son Khalif, a pianist.
At the time, Charles was still hospitalized and too weak to perform.
Funeral arrangements are pending.
Born: 12/28/1938, New Orleans, Louisiana, U.S.A.
Died: 4/26/2018, Huntington, Massachusetts, U.S.A.
Chrles Neville’s western – singer, musician, songwriter:
Posse – 1993 [“Let That Hammer Fall”]