Tell It Like It Is 

New autobiography, CD, and DVD delineate Neville Brothers' wide-ranging, disparate personalities

New autobiography, CD, and DVD delineate Neville Brothers' wide-ranging, disparate personalities

Aaron Neville

Devotion (EMD/Chordant/Tellit)

Devotion (Silverline DVD)

The Brothers

By Art, Aaron, Charles, & Cyril Neville & David Ritz

(Little, Brown, 384 pp., $24.95)

No family unit more exemplifies the ebb and flow of New Orleans popular music history than the Neville Brothers. Art, Aaron, Charles, and Cyril have participated in every Crescent City development from the doo-wop, blues, jazz, and R&B of the ’50s to soul, funk, urban contemporary, and hip-hop. Unfortunately, despite their considerable vocal and instrumental skills, the Nevilles have never enjoyed consistent commercial success. Aaron, the brothers’ finest pure vocalist, has scored the most individual hits. Art, the oldest, has headed more groups, while Charles and Cyril represent the siblings’ most musically experimental and politically radical branches, respectively. The Nevilles are currently back in the spotlight thanks to Devotion, a superb new gospel CD by Aaron, and an amazing autobiography, The Brothers, cowritten by the four Nevilles and acclaimed author David Ritz.

Devotion (EMD/Chordant/Tellit) is not only Aaron Neville’s debut spiritual release, it’s the culmination of a 20-year quest to find any label willing to let him record a gospel session. His glorious, spiraling falsetto is fuller and more impressive today than on his earlier secular triumphs. Aaron has become an assured, majestic stylist, and these talents are perfectly displayed on Devotion. Whether frolicking at the top of vintage quartet arrangements on “Mary, Don’t You Weep” and “By Heart, By Soul,” or soaring to the forefront on “Bridge Over Troubled Water,” “Morning Has Broken,” and “Were You There?,” his vocals are serene, yet imbued with an earnestness and strength that reaffirm the lyrical messages of ultimate salvation and peace. He can sing softly without sacrificing passion, and his emphatic delivery on “I Shall Be Released” underscores his joy at finally making a gospel CD.

Devotion also has an accompanying DVD, one of the few titles available in the new DVD-audio format. The DVD’s extra features include a 60-minute documentary with comments from Aaron and interviews spotlighting family members, friends, and priests from his parish. The disc also contains footage of a visit Aaron paid to the legendary Angola prison in Louisiana, where his brother Charles served three years on a drug violation. While some of the interviews and comments are self-serving, Aaron’s Angola visit is moving and unforgettable. This isn’t some star grudgingly fulfilling a commitment made by his manager. He’s fully aware that had he not turned his once troubled life around, he might be among Angola’s prisoners, and he’s able to empathize with them without sounding insincere. This poignant feature alone would make purchasing the DVD worthwhile, but the disc also includes many wonderful family photos that provide visual background to the vocal selections. The DVD’s sonic quality, even on a conventional player, is awesome, while the narrative revelations range from illuminating to troubling to heartbreaking.

Still, nothing on the DVD matches the insights contained in the brothers’ autobiography. The Brothers spares no gruesome or tragic detail in its compelling portraits. Ritz juggles narratives from each brother that cover everything from their views on music, sex, culture, and politics to the recurring drug problems that plagued all four at various times. They candidly discuss their struggles to find common performing ground as an ensemble, as well as some troubling situations they’ve encountered and survived inside and outside the family unit.

Art’s status as the eldest brother allows him to provide vital perspective. His accounts strip away the veneer of a New Orleans music scene brimming with talent but lacking either individuals or an infrastructure able to provide direction and a collective vision. His frustration with the city’s inability to offer its greatest musicians even a reasonable living standard becomes more obvious with each chapter. He also expresses his puzzlement at the clashes with his brothers that often kept the four from meshing as a unit, without exempting himself from blame for the creative battles and management snafus that short-circuited such great bands as The Neville Sounds and The Meters. Ultimately, he emerges as the group guru, able to look back with mutual degrees of satisfaction and regret over their fortunes through the years.

Aaron is more restrained and nonjudgmental in his statements. While he expresses anger about the meager royalties he received for the huge hit “Tell It Like It Is,” he accepts responsibility for his longtime troubles. Aaron cites immaturity as the major reason he became embroiled in drugs and crime. He calls doo-wop, gospel, and cowboy songs his principal stylistic influences, and says a love of music ultimately prevented him from wasting his life. Although grateful for his solo success, he is quick to emphasize that he considers his brothers—most notably Charles—more gifted musically.

It’s not surprising that the narratives of Charles and Cyril are more engaging, if frequently angry and bitter. Following his time in Angola, Charles worked and played in New York City during the height of ’60s social unrest. As a saxophonist who loved bop and the avant-garde, he was willing to venture into several wild situations: His tales of playing in experimental jazz-rock, folk, and blues bands, as well as his relationships and encounters with numerous folks living on the edge, are sometimes appalling but always riveting. Cyril, the youngest Neville, is the family’s most outspoken member on politics, race, and culture. He doesn’t spare his contempt for what he deems openly racist practices by law enforcement officials, other musicians, label executives, or concert promoters. Cyril is equally critical about established New Orleans social mores and what he perceives as the limited musical tastes of many African Americans. Charles and Cyril provide the book’s edge, while Aaron serves as the calming center, and Art adds historical foundation. Besides its enlightening social and cultural information, The Brothers is a treatise on African American survival in the nation’s no-holds-barred popular music universe.

It has always been a mystery why the Neville Brothers’ CDs don’t duplicate the versatility and brilliance of their concerts. Ultimately, both The Brothers and Devotion capture the magic contained in the Neville Brothers’ best music.

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