Art “Poppa Funk” Neville shaped the sound of New Orleans music for a half-century. The keyboardist and singer co-founded the Meters and the Neville Brothers, two of the most important bands to come from the city, and was the voice of the enduring Carnival season anthem “Mardi Gras Mambo.”
In the latest blow to a New Orleans music community that had already lost Dr. John and Dave Bartholomew this summer, Neville died Monday after years of declining health. He was 81.
“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.”
Arthur Lanon Neville was born on Dec. 17, 1937, the same day as New Orleans piano legend James Booker. As a boy, he lived in the Calliope housing development and Uptown on Valence Street. He was drawn to the Orioles, the Drifters and other doo-wop groups, as well as the piano-driven music of Professor Longhair and Fats Domino.
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He attended St. Augustine and Booker T. Washington high schools before earning his GED from Walter S. Cohen High, where he’d hang out in the music room with fellow members of the Hawketts, the group he joined in 1953.
He was barely 17 when, in 1954, he sang lead on the Hawketts’ remake of a country song called “Mardi Gras Mambo.” Local deejay Ken “Jack the Cat” Elliott had convinced the Hawketts to record “Mardi Gras Mambo” at his radio station. More than 60 years later, the song would still be a Carnival staple.
“I was so happy to record,” Neville recalled in a 2013 interview. Jack the Cat “had this song. It sounded good to me. We cut it in the station, with two or three microphones. I knew it felt good to do it. But I had no idea that it would still be around.”
He served six years in the Navy, including two on active duty. During three months at sea aboard the aircraft carrier…