Sophisticated Cissy

At the core of The Meters you'll find the beating heart of Art Neville, the driving force behind the entire Neville family of musicians. Having a head start on younger brothers Charles, Aaron and Cyril, Art became fascinated with the organ playing at church, even before he was old enough to attend school. After that he was determined to learn to play the piano, and whenever he could find one to practice on, that's just what he did. He became a big fan of local stars Fats Domino and Professor Longhair and was friends with James Booker (who shared the same fascination with the 88 keys and would one day play on sessions for Domino and others). Art's passion would eventually rub off on his brothers.

In 1955, when he was 17 and still in high school, "Mardi Gras Mambo," a single on Chess Records by The Hawketts, featured Art on the vocal. Longhair's 1950 recording of "Mardi Gras in New Orleans" (as Roy "Bald Head" Byrd) and the Hawketts song were instant anthems for the Crescent City's yearly Fat Tuesday festival. Using his own name at Specialty Records in 1957 and '58, Art found a nasty groove with "Cha-Dooky-Doo" ('I'll set the world on fire for you!") and "Arabian Love Song" but found little interest in his music outside Louisiana. He served three years in the Navy starting that year, while brother Aaron Neville took over as lead singer of the Hawketts at live performances. By the time Art returned in '61, Aaron had hooked up with hometown label Minit Records and landed a top 30 R&B hit with the morbidly fascinating Allen Toussaint song "Over You."

Art went back to work fronting the Hawketts and laid down some studio tracks for the Instant label in 1962, the romantic ballad "All These Things" being the best known. Youngest brother Cyril Neville, barely a teenager in '62, showed an interest in drumming, and family friend Joseph "Zigaboo" Modeliste was more than happy to show him the ropes. In 1966, Zig had some pretty hot jam sessions going with Art on keyboards, Leo Nocentelli on guitar and bassist George Porter, in addition to brothers Aaron and Charles Neville joining in occasionally as singers. Soon they were playing French Quarter clubs as The Neville Sounds, and Toussaint and Marshall Sehorn took notice, hiring them as a permanent session band for their recently established Sansu Records (soul singer Betty Harris had been the label's main focus since '65).

The Meters

Aaron made more solo recordings and thanks to his early 1967 million seller "Tell it Like it Is" became the biggest of all the Neville names. As the session band for Sansu during this time, the locked-in lineup of Art, Zig, Leo and George emerged as The Meters, establishing a contagious funk groove somewhere between Booker T. and the MG's and James Brown's organ jams, infused with their own New Orleans rhythm. The first Meters single, "Sophisticated Cissy," appeared on the Josie label at the start of 1969 with a signature sound only they least until the inevitable imitations started to pop up. The instrumental single was inspired by the "Sissy" dance that originated in New Orleans during the '60s, sometimes called the Sophisticated Sissy (hence the title). The band followed with "Cissy Strut," another term used to describe the dance (taking into account the different spelling). Both were top 40 hits and went top ten R&B, the first chart hits in Art Neville's decade-and-a-half-long career.

The Meters (along with The Bar-Kays and, most notably, James Brown) paved the way for the funk of the 1970s, with a strictly-instrumental formula. "Ease Back" and "Look-Ka Py Py" (which does include vocals, but no decipherable words) also hit the charts in '69, followed by "Chicken Strut" and "Hand Clapping Song" in 1970. They worked further recording sessions, backing up Dr. John's 1973 hit "Right Place Wrong Time" and LaBelle on the number one hit "Lady Marmalade" in '75 (both produced by Toussaint). They opened for The Rolling Stones on U.S. and European tours in '75 and '76 and backed up Robert Palmer early in his career. In other words, the Meters were all over the place!

The band moved from Josie to Reprise Records in 1974, then to Warner Bros. around 1977, about the time Modeliste left, his place on drums taken over by Cyril Neville, whom he'd taught so many years earlier. They collaborated with George Landry and The Wild Tchoupitoulas, a black Indian tribe visible at Mardi Gras ceremonies, on an album produced by Toussaint. Afterwards, The Meters were jettisoned and the four siblings formed The Neville Brothers. They continue performing successfully using the most logical and accurate of their various stage names.

- Michael Jack Kirby


Sophisticated Cissy