Art Neville, who has died aged 81, was a founder not only of the Meters, whose music in the late 1960s and early 70s helped to define the genre of New Orleans funk, but of the Neville Brothers, who were masters of various soul, blues and gospel styles and were distinguished by their intricate vocal harmonies.
The Meters provided the musical backup for innumerable soul and funk artists, including on big-selling classics such as Lee Dorsey’s Working in the Coal Mine (1966) and Labelle’s Lady Marmalade (1974). But they also had hits in their own right, notably in 1969 with Cissy Strut (1969) and Look-Ka Py Py. Their musical groove influenced artists as varied as Little Feat, the Red Hot Chili Peppers, Public Enemy and the Grateful Dead.
Once Neville, who was nicknamed Poppa Funk, quit the Meters in 1977 he joined his siblings Charles, Aaron and Cyril to form the Neville Brothers, whose best- known album, Yellow Moon (1989), contained several landmark tracks including the title song, a version of Dylan’s With God on Our Side, and Sister Rosa, their ode to the civil rights pioneer Rosa Parks. They toured with major artists, including the Rolling Stones, the Grateful Dead and Tina Turner, and were traditionally the closing act on the final Sunday night of New Orleans’s annual Jazz & Heritage festival.
Art was born in New Orleans to Arthur Neville and his wife, Amelia (nee Landry). His father was a station porter fond of singing tunes by Nat King Cole and the Texan bluesman Charles Brown. His mother was part of a dance act with her brother, George “Big Chief Jolly” Landry.
Art was the oldest of the four brothers. His interest in playing keyboards was triggered at the age of three, when his grandmother took him to a New Orleans church where he spotted the organ. “I turned the little switch and hit one of the low keys,” he recalled. “It scared the daylights out of me, but that was the first keyboard I played.”
He later began playing the piano and performing with his brothers, and in high school joined (and subsequently led) his first band, the Hawketts. He was the lead singer on their version of Mardi Gras Mambo, a regional hit in 1954. It became a regular fixture at New Orleans’s annual Mardi Gras celebrations.
In 1958 he joined the US Navy, emerging in 1962 to continue his musical career. He formed Art Neville and the Neville Sounds, which included Aaron and Cyril before they quit to form their own group. Now a four-piece completed by guitarist Leo Nocentelli, bass player George Porter Jr and drummer Joseph “Zigaboo” Modeliste, they played regularly at New Orleans clubs, backing artists such as the Pointer Sisters and Lee Dorsey.
In 1965 they became the Meters, whose refinement of the loping, syncopated rhythm called the “second line” became emblematic of New Orleans funk. Prime examples included the group’s hits Cissy Strut, Look-Ka Py Py, Chicken Strut (1970) and Hey Pocky A-Way (1974). Cissy Strut, which reached No 23 on the mainstream Billboard chart, was inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame in 2011.
The Meters made countless recordings as the house band for the songwriter and producer Allen Toussaint, with highlights including Working in the Coal Mine, which reached No 8 in the UK and the US, Dr John’s album In the Right Place (1973), and Labelle’s US chart-topper Lady Marmalade, a song about a prostitute in the French quarter of New Orleans with the famous line “Voulez-vous coucher avec moi, ce soir?”
In 1974 the Meters backed Robert Palmer on his album Sneakin’ Sally Through the Alley, and in 1975 Paul McCartney invited them aboard the Queen Mary ocean liner in Long Beach, California, to play at the launch party of the Wings album Venus and Mars. Also present was Mick Jagger, who invited the Meters to support the Rolling Stones on their tours of the US and Europe in 1975-76. The group now included Cyril, who joined for their album Fire on the Bayou (1975).
Art and Cyril quit the Meters in 1977 and formed the Neville Brothers with Aaron and Charles. The brothers had already gathered the previous year to back their uncle George Landry on the album The Wild Tchoupitoulas. At first the Neville Brothers were slow to gain recognition. Art recalled how when they used to play at Tipitina’s in New Orleans “you could have blown it up and not hurt anyone but the Neville Brothers”. Though Keith Richards hailed their 1981 album Fiyo on the Bayou as the finest of the year, sales were poor.
They failed to release another studio album until Uptown (1987), a conscious effort to find a more mainstream sound (with Richards and Carlos Santana guesting) that prompted accusations of a sellout.
A change of fortune came with Yellow Moon, sympathetically produced by Daniel Lanois, which successfully moulded the group’s collective skills into a coherent whole. In 1989 the group won a Grammy for best pop instrumental performance for the Yellow Moon track Healing Chant.
Outside the Neville Brothers Art began playing concerts with his former Meters bandmates, following a reunion at the 1989 New Orleans Jazz & Heritage festival.
They subsequently formed a new version of the band called the Funky Meters, and Art continued to perform with both outfits. He won another Grammy in 1996 with various artists for best rock instrumental performance for SRV Shuffle, a tribute to the guitarist Stevie Ray Vaughan. The Neville Brothers disbanded in 2012 but reunited for a farewell concert in New Orleans in 2015. Three years alter Art announced his retirement after more than six decades in the music business.
He is survived by his second wife, Lorraine, their two children, Amelia and Ian, a son, Arthel, from his first marriage, to Joan, his brothers Aaron and Cyril and sister Athelgra.
• Arthur Lanon Neville, musician, born 17 December 1937; died 22 July 2019