Art Neville and Two Guys Named Bo
By my calculations, Art Neville, whose musical career spans over 50 years, will turn 70 on the 17th of this month. Way to go, Poppa Funk. Long may you groove. In honor of that and the fact that two other Meters members (George and Zig) celebrate birthdays in December, too, I thought I would do some random posting related to them for a while. So, let's start with two 1960s vintage numbers from Art, each having in common really only the singer himself and the fact that they were written by these two guys named Bo.
"Hook, Line and Sinker" (E. Bocage)
Art Neville, Instant 3276, 1966
(Tune into HOTG Internet Radio)
By 1966, when "Hook, Line and Sinker" came out, singer/pianist Art Neville had been recording with various labels* for over a decade, but never had a hit outside of his hometown. "Mardi Gras Mambo", a perennial local favorite of Carnival season, was his first record in 1954, credited to the band he would lead for many years, the Hawketts. He was just 17 at the time. By 1956, he was a Specialty Records artist, cutting numerous sides ("Cha Dooky Doo" and "What's Going On" were stand-outs) over the next three years, interrupted by a stint in the US Navy. Many of those sessions were under the direction of Harold Battiste, who was the local producer and A&R man for the Los Angeles based label. Art Rupe, Specialty's owner, had set up a production operation for Battiste in the Crescent City after having huge success with home-boy Lloyd Price ("Lawdy Miss Clawdy", 1952), and Little Richard's monumental sessions there at Cosimo Matassa's studio, using the A-list players who were defining the sound of rock 'n roll on so many records in the 1950s.
But, by the early 1960s, Specialty's run was over; and Neville hooked up with entrepreneur Joe Banashak, who had started several new local labels, generating fresh hits by employing Allen Toussaint to write and arrange songs, find and develop artists, and produce recording sessions. Toussaint had already helped Art's younger brother, Aaron, make his first single on Banasahk's Minit label; and the A-side, "Over You", had gotten up to #21 in the national R&B charts in 1960. Art seemed set to follow suit, when his second single for Instant (another Banashak imprint), the soulfully delivered, Toussaint-penned ballad, "All These Things", became a substantial hit in New Orleans and much of the Deep South in 1962; but it never broke nationally to become the major record it should have been. Paid no royalties on the sales of his hit, Art had to take a day job to support his family, temporarily sidetracking his music career. He managed to make a follow-up single ** for Instant in 1963; but it didn't do much anywhere. By then, Toussaint was going into the service himself; so, Art moved on to the small Cinderella label, owned by Irving Smith, who had co-founded Instant with Banashak, but parted ways with him. Smith issued three ultimately unproductive singles on him, the best being a big band take on Toussaint's "Lover of Love". Then, for the next few years, Art's only appearances on record were as a session musician.
1966 found him back with Instant, this time working with producer, writer, arranger, and pianist Eddie Bo. Art's great take on Bo's pounding dancer, "Hook, Line And Sinker", backed with "Buy Me A Rainbow", a ballad written by Skip Easterling, were released as Instant 3276. I'm featuring the top side, because it's such a strong song, with an outstanding arrangement by Bo that puts the horn section to good use - listen to that bari sax pumping under the second verse and chorus. The groove is insistent, strongly attacking every beat to drive everybody out onto the dancefloor. To match that feel, Art roughed up his vocal and brought plenty of energy to bear, making this rocker definitely one of his best studio performances; but, for whatever reasons, it failed to connect with the public.
One more Instant single for Art followed in 1967, "House On the Hill (Rock 'n' Roll Hootenanny)" with a great funked up popeye dance groove, but lyrics about as lame as the title, and "Darling, Don't Leave Me This Way", another nice ballad. But Art's efforts were suddenly completely overshadowed by the huge success of brother Aaron's Parlo single, "Tell It Like It Is", which had come out in late 1966 and quickly climbed to the top of the charts. Although the small label could not handle the demand for the record and folded, never paying Aaron anywhere near the royalties he was due, the gifted singer was deservedly thrust into the national spotlight, allowing him to tour nationally while the record was hot. Art became the bandleader for the tours, supporting his brother during his all too brief fling with stardom; but it wouldn't be long until Art would finally come into his own.
"Bo Diddley - Part 1" (Ellis McDaniels[sic])
"Bo Diddley - Part 2"
Art Neville, Sansu 481, 1968
(tune in to HOTG Internet Radio)
After running Aaron's road band during 1967, Art came home with the determination to start a new group that would include Aaron and their youngest bother, Cyril, on vocals and have a new sound with Art playing the Hammond B-3 organ. While he got it going, the band, Art Neville and the Neville Sounds, had a revolving rhythm section backing the brothers, plus Gary Brown on sax. They played around their home base, the Uptown New Orleans area, frequently at the Nite Cap; and soon the backing musicians solidified, Art giving the nod to three strong, young players: bassist George Porter, Jr, guitarist Leo Nocentelli, and drummer Josepth 'Zigaboo' Modeliste. Barely out of their teens, they already had master chops and quickly displayed an intuitive and uniquely rhythmic feel as a unit that lifted the whole group to higher ground. The make-up and concept of the Neville Sounds changed, though, when Art was offered a steady, well-paying house band gig at the Ivanhoe on Bourbon Street, with the provision that the unit must be a four-piece. The small club did not have room for more; so, suddenly, Aaron, Cyril and Gary were out (they soon started the Soul Machine with keyboardist Sam Henry); and Art and his already tight rhythm section went on to become a popular nightly attraction at the French Quarter bar, packing in the crowds and developing their own lean, mean, funkified signature sound based on improvisation and intense focus on the groove above all.
When Allen Toussaint and his business partner, Mashall Sehorn, heard them there, they quickly decided to hire them not just as recording artists but as the studio band for all of the Sansu Productions sessions. And in short order, the group was at Cosimo's new studio location backing the likes of Lee Dorsey and Betty Harris and beginning to bring to the forefront the funk that had always percolated within New Orleans R&B.
It was during this time that the quartet, who had yet to change their name to the Meters, cut tracks for their own first two singles, leading off with "Bo Diddley, Part 1 & Part 2", written and originally recorded by the great Mr. Diddley himself. Released on Sansu under Art's name only, this single grants a chance to hear what the band sounded like after just a year, more or less, of playing together: high- energy, fine-tuned and relentlessly funky. [Excuse, if you will, the occasionally harsh, slightly distorted sound on this single, which is a near mint promo copy. I think the fault is with the pressing] Taking on a song of iconic proportions, covered by countless bar bands (it may be easy to play, but not easy to play well!), they boldly upped the ante on Diddley's own proto-funk groove and made it their own, thanks in large part to Zig's driving, inventively sliced and diced beats, Porter's propulsive bottom end syncopation, and Nocentelli's playful riff-running and locked-in rhythmic chops. In other words, this was definitely already a Meters record in all but name. No B-3 here, though - just a piano, I think, way down in the mix. Usually very hands-on as a producer, Toussaint wisely gave this group a free hand to create and arrange the music on their own records, essentially allowing them to produce themselves, even if he and Sehorn got the credit. Probably what he contributed here were the effective, complementary horn charts.
And, by the way, Art's vocal is just way cool. His brother Aaron's one-of-a-kind pipes have always been so remarkable that Art's seemed lesser by comparison, which is unfortunate, because Art is a great R&B singer, who can deliver hard edged rock, sinewy funk, or heartfelt soul.
Neither "Bo Diddley" or its Sansu successor, "I'm Gonna Put Some Hurt on You", originally done for Toussaint by Raymond Lewis in 1962, got much attention from the public. But shortly thereafter, Toussaint would capture the band jamming in the studio like they had regularly done on stage at the Ivanhoe, and start releasing their fresh, funky exploits nationally through a deal with Josie Records and, later, Warner Brothers, creating hits and a legacy still resonating through the music of Sugar Town and beyond.
* NOTE: For a full rundown on the details of Art's recordings, plus discographies for all of the recording Neville family, Jon Tyler's nevilletracks is essential, offering the "Complete" Neville Recording Chronology. It's exceptional work by a devoted fan.
** ONE MO' THING: For a great overview of Art's career and a chance to hear one side of that 1963 Instant single, check out this entry from the B-Side. Thanks to Red Kelly for reminding us about it.