“Valence Street,” says one Rolling Stone writer, “has all the creative energy of the best Neville Brothers’ records — and then some. It has conviction and charm; it’s loaded with strong singles — spicy funk, heavenly ballads and righteous roots connections — yet hangs together as a composite picture of four remarkable brothers.”
Art, Charles, Aaron, Cyril…
Four powerfully unique personalities, the Neville Brothers thrive on an explosive fusion of diversity and unity.
Valence Street brings them home to the heart of their musical universe. Valence is the street in Uptown New Orleans where they grew up. Valence Street is their spiritual center — their mother, their father, and their uncle Jolly, the fabled Mardi Gras Wild Tchoupitoulas Indian Chief.
Valence Street, the brothers’ debut release for Columbia, is a sweeping landscape of their current musical modes while, at the same time, a reflection of their fabulously rich musical past.
Art Neville still lives on Valence street. “I look across the street,” he says in his relaxed honey-flavored baritone,” and see the double-shotgun house where, as kids, we soaked up the music of this city. The excitement of that music is all over this new record.”
As the oldest, Art was the first to make his mark. Back in the fifties, at the very birth of the R&B/rock era, he pioneered the new sound with seminal hits like “Mardi Gras Mambo,” “Cha Dooky-Doo” and “All These Things.” As founding father and mastermind of the Meters — the classic soul syncopators of the sixties and seventies — he earned the title Poppa Funk. Today he remains among the most revered keyboardists and vocalists on the contemporary scene.
Art’s strong character drives four of Valence Street’s strongest songs:
“Over Africa” is a bristling reminder of the vital connection between the Motherland and Mother Neville’s four brilliant sons.
“The Dealer,” Art says of his own composition, “goes back to my childhood and the good sense of our aunt, Virginia Harris, the wonderful woman we called Auntie Cat. She talked about playing the hand you’re dealt, and doing the best with it. The Dealer is the Lord. He’s not giving you any cards you can’t play.”
“Dimming of the Day” has Art in a mellow country/gospel mode, proving himself a storyteller of deep patience and hard-earned wisdom.
“Real Funk,” another Art Neville original, is straight-up autobiography, an irresistibly funkified version of how four brothers took the world by storm.
In more ways than one, Charles Neville was instrumental in that take-over. It was in 1976 when Charles heeded the call from Uncle Jolly to join his siblings to help create The Wild Tchoupitoulas, the sessions that, for the first time, united the brothers on record. They’ve been together ever since, not simply winning Grammys and accolades for landmark achievements like Fiyo on the Bayou (1981) and Yellow Moon (1989), but creating a lasting body of work cultivated from the fertile fields of New Orleans.
A saxophonist of soaring imagination and masterful technique, Charles contributed three compositions to Valence Street:
The album’s title song, an infectious instrumental romp, displays Charles’ uncanny knack for blending gut-bucket blues and sophisticated jazz.
“Until We Meet Again,” sung with tremendous sensitivity by brother Cyril, is a poignant love story. “I wrote it,” says Charles, “with Kathleen Kobrin, one of the great loves of my life. When our relationship was ending many years ago, this song seemed to reaffirm all the empathy and concern we had for one another. For years the sentiments existed as a poem. Then Saya Saito, the fine pianist, added music and it all came to life again.”
“Tears” was also written by Charles, along with Cyril and associate producer Tommy Sims. The connection goes back to Uncle Jolly, who embodied the spiritual connection to the mysterious beauty of Native American culture. “The words came to me,” says Charles, “after I spoke with Arvol Lookinghorse, the sacred pipe carrier for the Lakota Nation. His stories about his people and their struggles, their long rides and their holy ceremonies, stirred my imagination. In every honest word he said, there were tears — not simply tears of pain, but tears of strength.”
Aaron Neville speaks so softly, you lean in to listen. His is the most recognized voice in a family of distinct voices. His voice floats and flutters, a miracle of sweetness and light. Ever since his immortal smash from 1967, “Tell It Like It Is,” Aaron has been viewed by fans and connoisseurs as one of the planet’s premier singers. Steeped in the glories of gospel and the romanticism of doo-wop, Aaron can sing anything. His duets with Linda Ronstadt resulted in major hits and Grammys — “Don’t Know Much” (1989) and “All My Life” (1990) — and his solo albums, from Warm My Heart (1990) to To Make Me Who I Am (1997) — have established him as a major pop star. His musical and emotional allegiance, however, remains with his brothers.
“One of the reasons I love this record so much,” claims Aaron, “is because I get to hear Art and Cyril sing. They’ve always been my favorite singers, just like Charles is my favorite horn player. I’m blessed to have been born into this family.”
“A Little Piece of Heaven,” Valence Street’s first single, is its own kind of blessing, the sound of Aaron’s celestial tenor becalming a world caught up in frenzy and fear. In similar ways, his subtle interpretations of Pete Seeger’s “If I Had a Hammer” and the Cate Brothers’ “Give Me A Reason” soothe our turbulent souls, resolving doubt with conviction.
“I’ve been wanting to do both those songs for a long time,” says Aaron, “and welcomed the chance to sing them with my brothers by my side. ‘If I Had A Hammer’ is a strong message — basic brotherhood. I heard it with a little island flavor that brings out its simple truth. ‘Give Me A Reason’ makes me think of those times in my life when I’ve longed for peace of mind I couldn’t find.”
“The best compliments I received,” adds Aaron, “come from people saying my voice has given peace to a disturbed child. I want my music to be about healing. Healing and hope. I pray to Saint Jude, the saint of hopeless causes. The hope I receive from God is the healing hope I put in my song.”
“Cyril is our little brother,” says Art, “but Cyril has the heart and fire of a Big Chief. He’s lived that life and earned that respect.”
Cyril Neville is a man of deep soul and soul singer of impassioned originality. Beyond his vocal prowess, he is a superb percussionist, as well as an accomplished producer and composer. As lead singer for the Meters in the seventies, he established his own persona. Today, his Uptown All-Stars, with their roots-reggae attitude, is a cutting-edge force in modern rhythm and blues. In working with his brothers, he has demonstrated versatility, not only as a dynamic front man for live performances, but a studio wizard as well.
In speaking about “Utterly Beloved,” the beautiful ballad he wrote for this record, his normally bold voice turns reflective and whisper-quiet. “My wife Gaynielle was in Oprah Winfrey’s ‘Beloved,’ he explains, “and invited me to the set. Turned into a magical experience. A spiritual experience. Deep in the woods, women went to a prayer meeting. We were all transformed. Everyone was touched, transported. Then when I learned the production company was called ‘Utterly Beloved,’ the inspiration came. The inspiration is not only from the magic of the movie, but from my wife’s precious love. The song is dedicated to her.”
Recalling the origin of “Mona Lisa,” the Nevilles’ seamless collaboration with Wyclef Jean and the hip-hop high point of Valence Street, Cyril’s voice returns to full volume and animated enthusiasm. “My brothers and I came to the Sony Building in New York to meet the Columbia executives. They asked what other Columbia artists we’d like to work with, and Wyclef and the Fugees were at the top of my list. Through fortune or fate, Wyclef happened to be in the building. When he heard we were there, he came upstairs and said he was a fan of ours. Within minutes, we were all around a piano going over a song he’d recently written. That same night after our gig we headed to the studio and by 4 in the morning the mission was accomplished. Happened so naturally you just knew the hookup was meant to be. It was gas. Haven’t had that much fun since I did Sesame Street. Wyclef and the Neville Brothers are definitely on the same wavelength.”
The fact that Wyclef chose the brothers for what he calls his first love song is an indication of the Nevilles’ tremendous reach – back to the past and forward to the future. The seductive blending of voices; the grind of a slow groove that, like a mantra, clears the mind and warms the heart; the synthesis of so much sensuous sound underlines this group’s undeniable greatness. What began long ago as Valence Street is still alive today, a vital and inspired spirit, a musical life force that goes on and on, now and forever.
Filmography links and data courtesy of The Internet Movie Database.