The Neville Brothers -- After 13 years, are the siblings about to be an overnight sensation?

By Ron Givens
Updated August 17, 1990 at 04:00 AM EDT

There’s family. And then there’s family. Take the Neville Brothers, a prime example of the rich benefits of musical kinship. Since 1977, when the four siblings first began to perform together, they’ve poured out album after album of incredible soulful funk-rock. Their common background in the vibrant musical environment of New Orleans has helped make them one of the best bands in America. But Neville unity has never been stronger than it is on their new album, Brother?s Keeper. On a number of the tracks the four men share lead vocals, instead of taking their customary individual turns at the mike. ”You are hearing the Neville Brothers, as opposed to just Aaron, Cyril, Charles, or me,” says Art Neville. Sharing the spotlight adds an extra dimension, spiritual as well as musical, to an already power-packed sound.

If musical excellence were the only criterion, the Neville Brothers would already be household names. Rock critics appreciate the way they blend established Louisiana pop traditions and contemporary rock energy. Those who’ve seen them in concert know that they excel onstage. Aaron, 49, may be the best known because of his big hit, ”Tell It Like It Is” and his recent duets with Linda Ronstadt. But Art, 52, was one of the Meters, a New Orleans R&B band that had a string of chart singles, including ”Sophisticated Cissy,” in the late ’60s. And Charles, 51, has played sax with such diverse performers as Joey Dee and the Starliters (”Peppermint Twist—Part I”) and Johnnie Taylor (”Who?s Making Love”). Cyril, 41, has worked in various New Orleans bands, with and without his brothers, since he was a teen.

For more than a decade the four men have been creating audio dynamite together — songs that overflow with sweet harmonies, dazzling polyrhythms , and an idealistic philosophy of life that combines equal portions of moral outrage and spiritual optimism. But despite critical hosannas, the Nevilles have never had a family hit. This year, thanks to Aaron’s work with Ronstadt, who also sings backup vocals on Brother’s Keeper, they are better known than ever before. ”She has exposed us to a wider audience,” says Charles. ”There are people coming to our concert who say they had never heard of the Neville Brothers.”

The new release, set to irresistible dance grooves, may well be the group’s breakthrough album. The songs, including ”Jah Love” cowritten by Bono of U2, have a musical clarity that puts the lyrics in sharp relief. If Brother?s Keeper does introduce the Nevilles to a mass audience, it won’t be because they’ve softened their message. The brothers can?t separate their music from their strong opinions on such issues as social injustice and racial equality. ”The people on this planet are in trouble, and a lot of it is our own doing,” says Art. ”Why don?t we straighten it out for our children?”

With the Nevilles, everything keeps coming back to the family. They formed the current group when an uncle — George Landry of the Wild Tchoupitoulas, a Mardi Gras performing troupe — reminded the brothers that their late mother has always wanted them to perform together. Now music has crossed over from the Neville brothers to their children and grandchildren. Aaron’s son Ivan has become a successful solo artist, after first performing with his father and uncles. Charmaine, Charles; daughter, has signed a record deal. Three other Neville sons and one grandson have teamed up to form a band in New Orleans called Def Generation. And earlier this year Aaron Neville III, age 2, made his debut at the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival, playing drums. ”His mother was with a drum troupe when she was carrying him,” Aaron explains. ”I guess he heard that in the womb. He came out playing drums.” Nothing surprising about that. Making music seems to come naturally when your name is Neville.