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American Routes Shortcuts: Charles Neville

Charles Neville
American Routes

We’ve been celebrating the music of the Neville Brothers and the life of the late saxophonist Charles Neville. Charles was a transcendent person, living many lives during his six decades of playing music as a member of one of New Orleans most revered musical families, the Neville Brothers. Early on, Charles was in a traveling band with the Rabbit Foot Minstrels, later played the French Quarter clubs. He went on to integrate the prison band at Angola Penitentiary, joined with Big Chief Jolly of the Wild Tchoupitoulas to make Mardi Gras Indian funk, and backed up other greats, like Johnny Ace, Big Maybelle, and B.B. King. But he first heard his musical calling at home, with his brothers, Art, Aaron and Cyril. He told me what made family life special.

Charles Neville: There was no TV, and so when people came to visit, someone brought an instrument, and so whatever the gathering was, it turned into a musical kind of celebration. Dancing was really a group and even a family thing that could be done. 

Nick Spitzer: This Valence Street neighborhood sounds almost like a family and kids paradise.

CN: Yeah it really was, and you know aside from the people in the family there were entertainers who lived in the immediate area as well that we got to know. Yeah it was very segregated but also the neighborhood we lived in was mixed. When we lived in the Calliope project, there was an Italian owned stored, and my grandmother worked for that family. So we got to know the people in that family, so there was mixing and mingling unless we were being observed by outsiders. Then we had to keep the image of separation.

NS: This is amazing to imagine this level of intimacy within this segregated world.

CN: Part of the separation thing was a law. It was actually against the law for black and white musicians or entertainers to perform together in New Orleans and probably all over the South. There were white musicians who went to jail from the Dew Drop for being caught onstage with the black bands. There was a club we played at in the French Quarter after hours when the joint closed. They would close the door, put the “closed” sign on, lock the door, and patient people would stay in, and the black and white musicians would get onstage and jam until the sun came up.

NS: So they had to close the door, make it unofficial, unpublic, to then do what people were just going to probably do naturally.

CN: Right. It was the early 60s, late 50s when the Playboy Club came to New Orleans, and I got the gig at the Playboy Club with Little Snooks. We had a trio, myself, Snooks Eaglin, and a drummer, Clarence Brown, who played with Fats Domino for many years. It was still against the law for black and white patrons to be in the same place but that was a private key club so they couldn’t stop that.

NS: I think you were the first brother to actually get out of New Orleans and play in the early 50s. You had a band you toured with, the Houserockers.

CN: Yeah Gene Franklin and the Houserockers. It was playing with these seasoned musicians who I could ask questions of, you know, “what do I do on this tune?” They could explain how to play in harmony with them and how to voice lead parts and how to follow the singer and how to play in between the words the singers were singing. But then there was also dealing with the racism traveling on the road in the South as well.

NS: Let me ask you about playing with your brothers; is there an advantage to working with a band of brothers?

CN: There’s a definite advantage to working with the band of brothers. My uncle called about doing a recording, the Wild Tchoupitoulas, and I went down and we went in the studio just started playing. And it happened, the music came out like magic and there was this blend, we didn’t have to talk about well who’s gonna take the third, who’s gonna take the 5th? We just sang together and it blended. We started off and the energy was just flowing through us onstage, and from us it goes out into the audience, flows through the people, and then comes back to us. That is like the greatest feeling. I've played with other bands where the music was great and the feeling was great, but nothing like playing with the family.

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