An amazing life
As a boy, Charles Neville was taught to deal cautiously with whites while, at the same time, that he alone could define what he became
WEDNESDAY FOLK TRADITIONS at the Porter-Phelps-Huntington Museum, 130 River Drive, Route 47, Hadley. Wednesday, 6:30 p.m. In the Sunken Garden. Tonight: Charles Neville and Youssoupha Sidibe. Legendary Grammy winning saxophone virtuoso known as “The Horn Man” joins the Grammy nominated Senegalese Master Kora player combining New Orleans with Reggae and ancient African Harp styles. Picnickers welcome on the museum grounds beginning at 5 p.m. General admission $12, $2 children 16 and under. 584-4699, http://www.pphmuseum.org.
Charles Neville sat with Nan Parati at his side for an evening of stories about growing up in New Orleans. With questions, and other promts from Parati, Neville launched into some very interesting stories about his life.
The evening began with Nan Parati, the owner of Elmer’s Store in Ashfield, saying “The Neville family is absolute royalty.”
Parati should know. The longtime art director of the New Orleans Jazz Festival, she lived in New Orleans — where the Neville family gained its musical fame — for 25 years.
“And, tonight,” she continued, “we have Neville after Neville after Neville.”
It was the middle of March and, for the second time, Grammy Award-winning musician Charles Neville, who frequently performs in our area, had attracted a full room to Elmer’s. He performed with what he calls “the new Neville Brothers” — his sons Khalif, 16, and Talyn, 10.
In the kitchen, his oldest son, Carlos, was cooking up New Orleans cuisine.
And in between music interludes, Charles Neville talked about the odyssey of his life.
Neville was born in New Orleans in 1938, with a caul on his head — a “veil” of embryonic membrane that some believe is a sign that the newborn will have a deeper connection to the spirit world.
“It means you could see spirits,” Neville told the crowd. “And it’s true. I saw them when I was a kid. I used to see things all the time that other people didn’t see.”
Neville grew up on Valence Street, in a neighborhood that was poor in almost everything but music. Thirty years later, Neville’s instrumental, called “Valence Street,” would become the title song of a Neville Brothers’ 1999 album.
When he was about 13, Neville’s family moved into a public housing project. “These projects were new in the 1940s,” he explained. “For us, it was a step up. In the projects, the bathroom was on the INSIDE and we had lights — electric lights.”
He said the complex, in those days, was well maintained and included a large grassy oval where he and his friends played football. Downstairs from the Nevilles lived Alvin “Red Tyler,” a saxophonist now remembered for his recording work with Fats Domino in the 1950s. He also worked with Little Richard and Lloyd Price — even Neville’s brother Aaron — before his death in 1998.
Neville said live music was always wafting from the buildings and from his own home. He said that his father could sing like Nat “King” Cole and that his mother was also a singer. Everybody played something — or sang,” he said. “When we were kids, that was before everyone had a TV set.”
“So, when people came over to visit, they brought instruments or records. There was no TV, so you couldn’t put your kids in another room. We all played.”
At age 12, Neville joined a drum and bugle corp, playing snare and bass drum. But after seeing “King of the Jukebox” Louis Jordan perform, Neville told his mother he wanted a saxophone.
Neville’s great aunt promised to buy him a saxophone if he got straight A’s on his report card. “I was a good student, but I studied hard and got straight A’s,” he said. “The day after, she took me to a music store and I got a saxophone.”
Jim Crow South
Neville’s first experience with racism occurred while playing marbles on the sidewalk with other neighborhood boys. A little girl, the daughter of the neighborhood’s white grocery-store owners, was riding her bicycle through their playing area.
“So I grabbed her and moved her away,” Neville explained. “But when my mom found out about it, I was whipped — right in front of them all,” he said, meaning his brothers and friends.
When Neville told his mother that punishment was unfair, she replied, “You cannot put your hands on a white girl. I want to live to see you grow up. You have to understand you don’t touch white folks.”
Neville dropped out of school when he was 15, after attending a high school in which lighter-skinned blacks and Creoles received preferential treatment. To get into school dances, he said, students had to pass “the paper bag test”: if your hand was darker than a brown paper bag, you wouldn’t be admitted. Neville said he failed the paper-bag test.
He said his mother earned $8 a week, working for a laundry. He said black people were paid less than white people for the same jobs.
He recalled that a cousin got a higher-paid job by “passing for white” and Neville’s parents told him not to say “hello “to this cousin, if they saw him on Canal Street, so as not to give away his racial identity.
“Could you ever have imagined you would become somebody someday?” asked Parati.
“Oh yeah,” Neville asserted. “Our parents — besides teaching us to behave a certain way around these (white) people — also told us: Don’t believe you are what they say you are — because you’re not.”
As young teens, Charles and Art Neville formed a band called Turquoise, then later joined a band called The Hawkettes.
At age 15, Charles joined Gene Franklin and His Houserockers and hit the road.
“Everything was segregated,” said Neville. He said it was against the law for white and black musicians to play music together.
“If there was a white girl dancing with a black guy, somebody was going to get beat up — maybe both of them. We played a strip club and it was against the law for a black musician to see a white girl strip. So they hung a sheet up” to keep the black musicians from seeing the white dancers.
For a while, Neville played with Larry Williams, whose hit records included “Bonie Maroney” and “Dizzy Miss Lizzy.”
“With Larry, we also had one of our encounters with the KKK,” Neville recalled. Band members were traveling in Williams’ luxury car, which had a bumper sticker that read: “This car brakes for blondes.” When they stopped for gasoline, the service station attendant got the sheriff and both men claimed the vehicle had been “speeding.”
He said the men were taken out of the vehicle, placed under arrest and locked up in the back of the store. They were fined $150 for speeding and when they went back to their car, the bumper sticker was scraped off, along with the paint, says Neville.
“That was one of the realities of life. Traveling as a musician — or as anybody — an encounter with whites could enter into a life-or-death situation.”
In the early 1950s, the Dew Drop Inn was a major club for nationally renowned musicians and Neville was a member of the house band. He got to know and play with major musicians, including Junior Parker, B.B. King, Big Maybelle, Johnny Ace and others. From 1954 to 1956, he was on the road backing some of those musicians, as well as James Brown and Ray Charles.
“My introduction to drugs was in the Navy,” Neville says.
He enlisted in the Navy from 1956 to 1958, hoping to be enrolled in the US. Navy School of Music. But he said he was told the “negro quota” was already filled. At first, he was disappointed at being stationed in the South — in Memphis.
“The gig was cleaning toilets,” he says of his Navy career.
“But then I found Beale Street and I was home.” Neville said he got a job in the house band of a local club and became friends with B.B. King.
Neville said heroine, morphine and amphetamines (speed) were easy to obtain in the Navy. “I had no understanding what being addicted was like until it happened,” said Neville. “My life became a constant cycle of ‘Get the money. Then find someone with the dope.’ Round and round.”
What broke the cycle years later, he said, was finding an old friend, a musician who used to do drugs. The friend told him, “Hey, that ain’t my life anymore.’”
“I wish I could say that,” Neville thought.
“That started me getting clear,” said Neville, but it took me 20 years. Neville said he has not used drugs since 1987.
After the Navy, Neville enrolled in Southern University in New Orleans, but took to the road again, touring as a musician. Back in New Orleans, he was arrested for possession of two marijuana joints and sentenced to serve five years in the Louisiana State Penitentiary, in Angola.
Nicknamed “The Farm,” it is one of the largest maximum security prisons in the United States.
Neville said the Angola prison was a former “slave-breeding plantation,” with segregated quarters in which inmates mostly worked in the cotton fields or sugar cane fields when he was there.
“It was my bad luck to come in during the cane harvest,” he said.
Because laborers were needed, he was sent in to harvest sugar cane without any training and tore open one of his hands with a caning knife. He was ordered to keep working.
Because hitting inmates with whips had just been “outlawed” by the state, Neville said inmates who didn’t work efficiently in the field were beaten with axe handles because “the law doesn’t say nothin’ about axe handles,” as the field supervisor put it.
He said someone made a tourniquet out of a knotted piece of cloth and tied his hand, to stop the bleeding. “But when I picked the knife up, it fell out of my hand.” Neville still has a scar from the injury.
He eventually got a prison job in the music room, which was in the prison’s education building.
Neville said the education building was the only area in the prison that wasn’t segregated. At first, he said, there were white inmates who didn’t want to see him there. Eventually, he had a conversation with one of them, who told Neville he had been brought up to believe “that black people didn’t have the brain capacity of a white person,” and that at age 33, Neville was the first black person he’d ever had a conversation with.
Neville said he started talking to other white guys and they started talking to him.
“That one little incident kind of led to a revolution — but only in the music room,” he said.
Neville has plenty of horror stories about life at Angola. At first, he tried to get along without any weapon because the guards told him that prisoners caught with a one get an automatic two years added to their sentences. But an older, wizened inmate, who gave Neville a sharpened length of pipe, told him “it’s better (the guards) catch you with it than for the inmates to catch you without it.”
“I kept it with me,” said Neville, “and I’m glad I had it.”
Another time, Neville was assigned to kitchen duty on a Sunday, when the prisoners were served “fried chicken” dinners. Neville said everyone liked Sunday dinner but wondered why they were never served chicken wings.
When he opened the refrigerator that Sunday, he found out why: Instead of chicken, the fridge was packed with nutria — a large swamp rodent common in the Louisiana wetlands.
“But it did taste like chicken,” he told the groaning audience.
A new start
Neville was released after serving 3 1∕ 2 years. He moved to New York City, where he got treatment for his drug addiction and restarted his musical career.
Neville played with many musicians in New York, then rejoined his brothers Aaron and Cyril in 1972, in a group named Soul Machine. They started working on Mardi Gras songs learned from their uncle, Big Chief Jolly.
In 1976, Art, Aaron, Cyril and Charles Neville recorded an album of these songs, called “The Wild Tchoupitoulas,” which was the beginning of The Neville Brothers as a group.
Last year, The Neville Brothers were inducted into the Louisiana Music Hall of Fame for their 35 years of songwriting, recording and performing together.
They have produced 10 studio albums, three live albums and six compilation albums.
Neville met his future wife in New Orleans and then moved to Huntington, Mass., with her in 1999. Today, he often performs with his group, the Charles Neville Quartet.
At one point, Parati asked him if he felt bitter about the discrimination he faced in his life. “I’m not angry about anything,” he replied. “I don’t have any resentment. I’m happy to be alive and happy to have something to give to people.”
Staff reporter Diane Broncaccio has worked at The Recorder since 1988. Her beat includes west county. She can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org or: 413-772-0261, ext. 277.
Geoff Bluh is a part-time staff photographer who has worked for The Recorder since 1995.