Charles Neville, saxophonist with the legendary New Orleans’ Neville Brothers band, died on Thursday, April 26, in Massachusetts at the age of 79 years after suffering from pancreatic cancer.
Neville died on the eve of the 49th New Orleans Jazz & Heritage festival where for decades, until Hurricane Katrina, the Neville Brothers played the coveted closing slot on the final Sunday.
His younger 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 part of New Orleans’ favourite band that included his brothers Aaron, Art and Cyril. The Neville Brother’s instrumental ‘Healing Chant,’ which featured Charles’ sax playing, won a Grammy in 1989 for Best Pop Instrumental Performance.
According to the Times-Picayune, Neville grew up on Valence Street and in the Calliope housing development and became an accomplished reed player by his teens, when he left high school to play music professionally. He played with Johnny Ace, Big Maybelle, Little Walter and Larry Williams and had a place in the house band of the legendary Dew Drop Inn in New Orleans in the 1950s.
Neville served in the U.S. Navy in Memphis from 1956 to 1958 and claimed that he went AWOL to tour with bluesman B.B. King’s band. He was imprisoned for more than 3 years in the early 1960s at the Louisiana State Penitentiary, also known as Angola, for possession of a small amount of marijuana.
Mr. Neville had settled in New York in the mid-1970s, but returned to New Orleans to join his brothers in recording an album of Mardi Gras Indian songs with their uncle George “Big Chief Jolly” Landry. The project gave birth to the Neville Brothers Band, one of New Orleans’ most renowned ensembles ever.
After the The Neville Brothers farewell concert on May 2, 2015, Neville pursued solo projects and also played in his brother Aaron’s band.
Mr. Neville is survived by his wife Kristin Neville, daughter Charmaine Neville, sons Talyn Neville and Khalif Neville; sister Athelgra Neville Gabriel, and brothers Art, Cyril and Aaron.
Aaron Neville posted a longer tribute to his brother:
“My dear brother Charlie the horn man, just want you to know that if I would’ve had the choice of picking my brothers, I would definitely choose you. You were a great brother.
You’ll always be in my heart and soul, like a tattoo. You helped to mold me into who I am today and I’ll always be thankful. I’ll always see your special infectious smile on the stage next to me, it would always give me a smile.
I’m happy that we had a long hang together, the ups and downs. It took who we were and where we came from to make us who we are. And you are a great brother Charlie the horn man.
I know you have a spot in the heavenly band next to James Booker, James Black, Herbert Hardesty, Fats Domino, Johnny Adams all the jazz bebop players who you turned me on to. Dizzy, Charlie Parker, Miles and the list goes on. Momee, Poppee, Jolly Cookie, they are all waiting on you.
Some of my greatest memories are of growing up with you and family. Back in the Calliope projects, whenever I had a loose tooth, I remember you playing Tarzan and knocking it out for me. Or you would tie the string to my tooth and slam the door. Or when Mommee would leave you to watch us, you would play cowboys with us and we’d let you tie us and gag us and leave us in the closet til Momee came home, so you could read your novel. She’d say Charles where are the children? You would say, “oh they’re upstairs in the closet, we were having fun being tied up as cattle rustlers or something.”
Lol, so all and all you will be missed deeply by everyone that you came in contact with. The way you brought us around the world with notes from your horn, sometimes I would forget what I was doing while listening to you blow, like on “Caravan”, that brought us to India or Arabia, or like “Besame Mucho”. Or your solo on “Fever” or anything that came out of your horn. So dear horn man you take your well deserved rest with God in Heaven and play with the heavenly band. I know that you’re whole again. Jesus will wrap you in His loving arms and take away all the hurt of the world. We all love you very much. But I know that Jesus loved you best.
Love and respect always my brother, your big lil brother Aaron.”