Charles Neville, whose calm and joyfully assured saxophone pulled together the sound of R&B favorites The Neville Brothers, has died at age 79, the family said.
The New Orleans native, who had overcome drug addiction to lead a rigorously healthy life in his final years, died Thursday at his home in the woods of western Massachusetts, a family statement said.
Singer Aaron Neville, the group’s frontman who has pursued a successful solo career, said that if he had to choose brothers, “I would definitely choose you.”
“You helped to mold me into who I am today and I’ll always be thankful. I’ll always see your special infectious smile on the stage next to me. It would always give me a smile,” he said in the statement.
The Neville Brothers — whose best-known songs included “Sister Rosa,” a tribute to civil rights icon Rosa Parks — brought together the rich heritages of New Orleans including R&B, funk, blues and Native American music.
The brothers, who were partially of Choctaw Indian ancestry, also helped put together The Wild Tchoupitoulas, which brought a wider audience to the Native American-influenced music heard at New Orleans’ Mardi Gras carnivals.
Known for his horseshoe moustache and upbeat demeanor, Charles Neville had his start in the house band of the Dew Drop Inn, a legendary R&B joint in the city, and recalled always being around music.
“The connection to the music started really early,” he told New Orleans public radio station WWNO last year.
“At home because everybody sang. There were songs about my grandmother cooking, or something. There were songs about everything that was happening,” he said.
“Horn Man Neville” went on to back up legends such as B.B. King and Ray Charles. He also discovered the music scene of Memphis, where he was sent — far from the oceans — when he enlisted in the Navy in the 1950s.
He spent several years in prison in the 1960s on marijuana charges and, in the state penitentiary in Angola, Louisiana, found a jamming mate in fellow inmate James Booker, the R&B keyboardist.
After moving to New York, he developed an addiction to the opioid methadone. He eventually kicked drugs and embraced Eastern religion in his late life, becoming a vegetarian and practising meditation.
He is survived by his wife Kristin, a Massachusetts native, and 12 children.