This is another tough one for me. The man we in New Orleans call Poppa Funk, Art Neville has died at the age of 81.
I was lucky enough to know Art; not well, he was more of a neighborhood acquaintance. We’re both proud residents of the 13th Ward in Uptown New Orleans. Our conversations mostly took place with him on his porch and me on the sidewalk. I wasn’t a stalker: Art lived a few blocks up Valence Street from Adrastos World HQ. Plus, I know one of his sons and several of his nieces and nephews. Repeat after me: New Orleans is the world’s largest small town. Condolences to everyone in the Neville family.
When I was neighborhood leader, I used to walk the neighborhood a lot. The first time I saw Art, I almost didn’t stop to chat. As a hardcore New Orleanian, I try to hide my inner fan boy. Fortunately, Art was a warm and friendly man who was always glad to talk when he wasn’t on the road with the Neville Brothers or the Meters.
Most of our conversations were relatively brief and fairly long ago, alas. We talked about neighborhood stuff, the weather, food, the Saints, and music; always music. I wasn’t even sure if he knew my name, but I knew his. Besides, there’s nothing wrong with a bit of reflected glory, 13th Ward style.
We had two particularly memorable conversations:
I told him that my first date with Dr. A ended up at Tipitina’s where we saw the Neville Brothers. Art smiled and said: “So, we helped you get the girl? That’s great, man.”
One day we talked about the late San Francisco concert promoter/music mogul, Bill Graham. Near the end of his life, Graham was on a largely successful mission to boost Art and his brothers and bring their music to the world. In fact, the first time I saw the Meters was when they opened for the Rolling Stones at a Bill Graham Presents show at the Oakland Coliseum.
I told Art about playing basketball (badly) against Graham at Winterland before a Grateful Dead concert. Graham had sharp elbows and an even sharper tongue. The game was on the honor system, so I called a foul on Bill when he poked me with an elbow. He protested: “The fuck you say.”
Even then, I was a smart ass: “You gonna throw me out of the arena?”
He smirked and said: “What kind of asshole you take me for? Your punishment is a fucking no-call. Ya dig, shit-head?”
After telling Art this story, he nodded and said, “Bill threw some sharp elbows for us too. Most creative cusser I ever met.”
I hadn’t seen Art for many years when I heard the sad but not unexpected news. I wish I had gotten to know him better but as John Lennon put it, “life is what happens when you’re busy making other plans.”
I suspect my encounters with Art Neville were infinitely more memorable to me than to him. He was an unpretentious music legend and a good listener. The perfect audience, the perfect neighbor.
Finally, a quote from Keith Spera’s tribute to Art in the Picvocate:
“It was peaceful,” said Kent Sorrell, Neville’s longtime manager. “He passed away at home with his adoring wife Lorraine by his side. He toured the world how many times, but he always came home to Valence Street.”
And that’s where we met. He will be missed by everyone who loved his music, especially those of us in his neighborhood, the 13th Ward. He always came home to Valence Street.
Here’s some music, Poppa Funk style: