To say that Ivan Neville grew up surrounded by music would be a huge understatement. His father, Aaron, scored a national Top 10 hit with the soulful ballad “Tell It Like It Is” when Ivan was just a young boy, and by the time Ivan was in his teens his dad and uncles—Art, Charles and Cyril—had formed the world-famous Neville Brothers, New Orleans’ First Family of Funk.
It was a given that Ivan, too, would enter the family business—a given to everyone, that is, except Ivan Neville! “I didn’t really know that that’s what I wanted to do,” Ivan says. “I felt like I was musically inclined and I could sing a little bit, and obviously I knew that all of those guys were musicians. And being in New Orleans, music was all over. But I was interested in regular kids’ stuff until I was 15 years old and started playing a little bit of piano.”
Once he dove in and made the commitment to pursue music, there was no stopping him. Today, with more than 35 years of experience behind him, Ivan Neville is one of the most celebrated Crescent City artists in his own right – a singer, songwriter and multi-instrumentalist who leads the acclaimed band Dumpstaphunk, has performed and recorded under his own name and has loaned his talents to the likes of the Rolling Stones, Bonnie Raitt and of course, the Neville Brothers.
On Thursday, May 2, 2019 a few months shy of his 60th birthday—on the same day he and Dumpstaphunk performed on the main stage at the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival—Ivan received the inaugural Songbook Award from the nonprofit organization 30Amp Circuit. The award honors Neville’s ongoing contributions to contemporary music that was presented at an intimate dinner event in the French Quarter following the Jazz Fest gig, with a career-spanning solo piano performance for dessert.
Although Aaron Neville had taught the young Ivan a few basic concepts on the piano, it wasn’t until Ivan was in the 11th grade that his interest truly took hold. While his classmates indulged in formal music lessons, Ivan snuck off to another room where a piano sat waiting, teaching himself to play Professor Longhair’s New Orleans classic “Big Chief.” When Ivan performed the song in front of the entire school at an assembly—“and everybody went wild”—he suddenly understood why the older members of his family enjoyed what they did so much. The next time there was a school concert, he tried his hand at Earth, Wind & Fire’s “All About Love” and girls screamed in approval
Ivan Neville, professional musician, was born that day. Neville formed a band called the Renegades, which played its first gig at New Orleans’ still-new (and later to become a landmark) club Tipitina’s. It was a fertile time for music in NOLA—“There were bands playing everywhere,” Ivan remembers—and he continued to make his ascent within the local scene.
Ivan’s next step was to enter a local talent show. He won first place, so he entered another, larger one—and won first place. By the time he graduated from high school, Ivan says, “I knew that I was going to be playing music.” Soon he was invited to join the Neville Brothers, which had solidified in 1977 after years of individual accomplishments, including Art’s success with the pioneering funk band The Meters. Ivan relished the opportunity to learn from such masters of the craft—he contributed keyboards, percussion and vocals to a few of the Nevilles’ early albums, taking everything in.
“I just felt like I was lucky and I was blessed,” he says. “I learned a lot about playing and rhythm, just watching them and being up there with them on stage. Probably the biggest lesson I learned was how to be in the music and not step on the music. It just came naturally to me.”But Ivan knew that his own growth as an artist lie outside of his family’s band. He formed his own bands and served as a sideman to some of the most important artists in rock, R&B and pop, including Bonnie Raitt. Neville played keys in the singer-guitarist’s band for some three years, an experience he calls “amazing. It was a training ground,” he says, “and it helped shape who I would become as a musician, especially accompanying others and being a part of a band.
Neville continued to contribute to music by an impressive roster of artists, collaborating with everyone from Robbie Robertson, the former songwriter and leas guitarist of The Band, to Rufus, the group formerly fronted by Chaka Khan.
And the Stones. The British superstars had befriended the Neville Brothers during a shared tour in the early ’80s, and when the Stones began work on their Dirty Work album in 1986, Ivan got the call to help out on keyboards, bass and vocals. The following year, when Keith Richards began recording his solo album Talk Is Cheap, Ivan, with whom he’d struck up a relationship, was his keyboardist of choice. Neville also became a member of Richards’ side band the X-Pensive Winos, not only playing with them on their 1988 tour but opening the shows with his own band as well. “It was an amazing time, a lot of fun,” remembers Neville, who was working constantly during this period. In 1988, he released his own debut solo album, If My Ancestors Could See Me Now, and although sales were disappointing it did produce a Top 30 single, “Not Just Another Girl.” He did some touring on his own and then, in 1992, Richards called him back to contribute to his Main Offender album. Ivan Neville was still in his early thirties and having the time of his life. “I had a lot on my plate, and it was cool,” he says. But that was about to change.
“Things started getting dicey,” Neville says. “I was starting to do a lot of drugs and the music was taking a back seat.” It wasn’t until 1998, four years after he released his second solo album, Thanks, which failed to make much of an impact, that Neville was able to get sober—he’s now been clean for more than 20 years.
“Around ’94-’95, I ended up getting a gig with the Spin Doctors. Those guys were great friends,” says Neville. “I was pretty lit during those days and not getting a whole lot of calls to accompany people. They were cool enough to have me come and play with them, which I did for two or three years. I did a record or two with them and in 1998 I got clean and sober, August to be exact. I had moved from Los Angeles to New York, then from New York back to New Orleans, then from New Orleans back to L.A. Basically I was running from myself. I would tell myself that I was following my career path, but I was trying to get away from Ivan.
“I’ll be forever indebted to those guys because they gave me a gig when I didn’t have a whole lot of options going,” he adds. “I was this guy Ivan Neville that had had some limited success as a solo artist, and I had the Neville family name, and I’d played with Keith Richards and played on Stones records and played with Robbie Robertson. But my life was pretty much a mess. And then I just switched it all around. I got lucky. I had some success in that arena, which is the most important success of my life.
Neville made his third solo album, Scrape, in the early 2000s, but the most important development in his career at that time was the formation of a new band that would take the unlikely name Dumpstaphunk. “In 2003 I got an offer to play the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage, and I decided instead of making it an Ivan Neville gig, I’m going to put together a band and we’re gonna call that band Dumpstaphunk,” he says. The name came about, he says with a laugh, because he was trying to describe the music, “the nastiest, funkiest thing there was.” The answer, he surmised, was a dumpster.
Ivan was also back playing with the Neville Brothers at the time, but gradually, he says, “Dumpsta became more of a full-time project.” The band’s sound, he explains, “is kind of a mixture of all the shit that we were influenced by, a combination of the Meters, Sly and the Family Stone, the Neville Brothers, Parliament-Funkadelic, James Brown. Plus, all being from New Orleans, it’s going to have a New Orleans kind of twist but a little bit different from traditional-sounding New Orleans stuff.”
Still going strong, Dumpstaphunk has played dozens of major festivals and has released three albums to date. Ivan has also been performing solo piano gigs and has worked again recently with Bonnie Raitt, as well as with singer-songwriter Ani DiFranco. Although the devastating Hurricane Katrina temporarily displaced Neville as well as virtually every other New Orleans musician, he’s now living there again,
Since he made that fateful decision so many years ago to follow in the footsteps of his relatives and become a musician, Ivan Neville has continually carved his own path. From his contributions to the music of the Stones, Bonnie Raitt and the Neville Brothers themselves, to his own solo recordings and bands to the still-evolving Dumpstaphunk, he’s created a legacy on par with those who’ve inspired him along the way. Now as he approaches his 60th birthday, he can both look back at a rich body of work and plan ahead. “I’m just trying to carry the message,” Ivan Neville says of New Orleans music, even while he’s taking that message into the future.