Something Else! Interview: Charmaine Neville

Share this:

NICK DERISO: Charmaine Neville – yes, she’s one of those Nevilles – didn’t want to be a singer.

She wanted to tell jokes.

Convinced to go another way, Neville initially split the difference. She sang funny songs.

“When I was a kid, when ‘The Flintstones’ would come on TV, I never watched the show,” she said, “I just wanted to hear the music – because they were be-bopping and I thought their theme was just the greatest thing I ever heard in my life.”

Other early influences included “Peanuts,” “Tom and Jerry” and “Woody Woodpecker.” No kidding.

That infectious humor helped frame her terrific knack for phrasing. By the 1990s, Neville had established a series of regular New Orleans gigs – including a celebrated Tuesday night series at Snug Harbor. Releases like 1998’s “Queen of the Mardi Gras” – which includes rousing send ups of “Iko Iko,” “Carnival Time” and “If Ever I Cease to Love” – were instant classics. Adept at blues, jazz, soul, gospel, rock and funk, one of Neville’s more famous recordings is titled, simply, “UP UP UP.”

That made her dramatic appearance during the immediate aftermath of Hurricane Katrina’s devastation in her hometown all the more sobering.

Neville was actually one of those people from the Ninth Ward on their rooftops after the storm, and lives today with searing memories of swimming past and walking around the lifeless bodies of her neighbors in a frantic effort to survive the winds and waters.

“My oldest son tried to get me to leave, but I felt I needed to stay,” she said, “because there were other people here in my neighborhood who couldn’t leave and who needed help.”

At one point, she was transferring friends onto a flat boat – people in wheelchairs, people with nothing – trying to reach the high ground of the French Quarter, then returning for more.

There wasn’t any drinking water there, but Neville heard the phones were working. Maybe America would listen. Maybe somebody would help.

But care, Neville learned, had forgotten this third generation musician from one of the city’s most celebrated families. (She’s the daughter of Charles Neville, horn man for the Neville Brothers.)

Neville said she subsequently endured her own unspeakable horror, becoming one of several reported rapes as the city descended into lawlessness. Her attacker has never been arrested.

“He didn’t take anything from me,” she said, “because I still have my spirit and my soul. What he got was nothing. And he will be caught.”

Neville finally got her group to Canal Street, somehow, and eventually smashed in the window of bus and transported them out. A lingering memory, Neville says, is of the people she had to drive past in the now-full vehicle – their hands in the air, pleading for rescue.

Desperate, still, to tell the world what had gone on, Neville burst into the newsroom at WAFB-TV in Baton Rouge, shaking and filthy.

“Alligators were eating people,” she cried into a microphone. “They had babies floating in the water. We had to walk over hundreds of bodies of dead people.”

She remembered those on the road side then, their arms outstretched.

“We drove and we drove and we drove,” she said, “and millions of people was trying to get me to help them to get on the bus.”

Unbowed, Neville came back to the New Orleans area afterward, ever hopeful that her beloved hometown will be reborn. She ended up in a place in LaPlace, her shining dreams from before the storm still intact.

Slowly, she regained faith in her work, in her town. She’s performed a nearly endless series of benefits ever since, many in support of relief efforts for the still-grieving Gulf Coast.

“They can’t keep us down, as far as not paying insurance premiums or talking about bulldozing people’s houses go – none of that matters,” she said. “What matters is we know we’ll rise again. They can say whatever they want, we’ll rise again.”

Neville still hopes to open a shop called Just Desserts, which would serve her family’s legendary three-crust deep apple pie.

She’s rebuilding her home in the Bywater neighborhood of the Ninth Ward.

Like New Orleans, she’s rising again.

Nick DeRiso

Nick DeRiso

Nick DeRiso has written for USA Today, American Songwriter, All About Jazz, and a host of others. Honored as columnist of the year five times by the Associated Press, Louisiana Press Association and Louisiana Sports Writers Association, he oversaw a daily section named Top 10 in the U.S. by the AP before co-founding Something Else! Nick is now associate editor of Ultimate Classic Rock.
Nick DeRiso
Share this: