Hard Times: Legendary saxophonist Charles Neville talks about the life of black musicians in the Jim Crow South

Last modified: Thursday, March 12, 2015

Looking back on his years as a young musician playing in the South in the 1950s, Charles Neville can recall the absurdity of some of the Jim Crow laws meant to segregate blacks and whites. Like the time he and his band played a strip club, yet were barred from seeing the white woman who was moving to their music: the club owner hung a curtain on the stage to separate stripper and band.

Then there were the not-so-absurb incidents — the scary ones — such as the day in Florida when he and a carful of musicians were suddenly arrested and fined on trumped-up charges of speeding by a white sheriff and another man who apparently didn’t like their bumper sticker.

“You knew things could get ugly,” says the legendary saxophone player and New Orleans native, who’s made his home in western Massachusetts since the late 1990s. “It was always in the back of your mind.”

Neville, 76, has been giving talks at schools and to various other groups for the last 10 years about his experiences playing in the old South. On Monday, he’ll speak at the Amherst Woman’s Club at 1:30 p.m. about that and other parts of his life.

The Grammy Award-winning musician, who took up the saxophone at about age 12, has long made his mark playing both with his brothers — Art, Aaron and Cyril Neville — and with scores of other musicians over the years, from blues and soul legends like Jimmy Reed and James Brown to a younger generation of players. He’s noted for his versatility on his horn, playing American Indian music, funk and be-bop in addition to staples like blues, jazz and R&B.

Born in 1938 in New Orleans, Neville grew up hearing music in his home and neighborhood and played in a drum and bugle corps before he took up the saxophone. He and Art, who’s one year older, formed a band as young teens, then played in a group called The Hawketts for a time. Inspired in particular by sax legend Louis Jordan, Charles Neville left school at age 15 to play music full time, touring at first with Gene Franklin and His Houserockers.

As he set out to play in the Jim Crow South, Neville says he was well aware of the barriers he’d face as a musician.

“I already knew what [segregation] was like,” he said. “I’d grown up with it, I’d learned there were certain things that as a black person you didn’t do around whites. ... It was just a reality of life.”

On the ‘Chitlin’ Circuit’

Neville said much of his early touring as a musician in the South took place on what was called “The Chitlin’ Circuit” — clubs that were safe and acceptable to black players. Though some of those clubs were in the upper Midwest and the Northeast, like the Apollo Club in New York City, Neville said the furthest north he went in those years was Washington, D.C.

In the South, he says, it was against the law for black and white musicians to play together, although he did get to know white players and would jam with them after hours in some clubs when there weren’t any customers around, and he also played for white and mixed audiences.

He recalls a jazz club in the French Quarter in New Orleans where “at the end of the night, the owner would hang up the ‘closed’ sign and then we could all play together. Even the cops would sit down and listen. If we’d done that when the audience was there, they would have had to come up and arrest us and end the show.”

He first got to know and back up some of the biggest names from that era, like B.B. King and Junior Parker, as a member of the house band in a New Orleans club, the Dew Drop Inn. Later he went on the road with several of those players, including Larry Williams, a rocker and R&B singer-songwriter whose songs, like “Dizzy Miss Lizzy,” were introduced to a wider audience in the 1960s when the Beatles covered them.

It was while touring with Williams in 1956 that Neville had one of his scariest encounters. The band members were driving in Williams’ Lincoln Continental, which had a New York license plate and a bumper sticker that read “This vehicle brakes for all blondes.” When they stopped for gas at a combination station/general store in a little hamlet, a white man came out of the building, Neville said, gave them and their bumper sticker a suspicious look, then said, “What you boys want?”

When they asked for gas, the man went back in the building and came out with a second man who introduced himself as the local sheriff — and the first man then revealed he was the deputy sheriff. They told the musicians they’d gotten a “report” that they’d been speeding on their way into town. They were promptly arrested and locked up in the back of the store; Williams was forced to wire for $150 to pay their “ticket.” And when they were released and got back in their car, Neville says, they saw that the bumper sticker had been scraped off.

“It was a scary moment,” he said. “We knew a lot of cops were members of the [Ku Klux] Klan, so you couldn’t know if something like this could lead to something even worse.”

‘Alcatraz of the South’

Neville did a two-year stint in the U.S. Navy, then returned to his music career before he was derailed by a growing drug habit and then a five-year jail sentence, in Louisiana, for possession of two marijuana joints. He believes prosecutors decided to throw the book at him because of a previous arrest for shoplifting in which his partner-in-crime had been a white woman.

“They didn’t like that at all, and they didn’t like her, either,” he said.

Sent to the Louisiana State Penitentiary in Angola — a brutal prison (and former slave plantation) sometimes called the “Alcatraz of the South” — Neville initially found the same kind of segregation and hostility between whites and blacks that he’d witnessed in much of day-to-day Southern society: “It was like an armed camp.” He got a job teaching in the prison’s music room, the one place where blacks and whites shared space, even if they did not mingle.

But one day he started talking with a white inmate from Texas, and at some point, Neville said, “He says to me, ‘You know, I’m 33 years old, and you’re the first black person I’ve ever had a conversation with. I was taught to believe that black people didn’t have the brain capacity of whites. ... I believe I owe you an apology.’ ”

From there, other white and black inmates in the music room began talking to each other, Neville says, and eventually did some playing together, while Neville gave music lessons to both groups. When he left Angola after serving 3½ years, he also left the South. Tired of the region’s racism and the violence surrounding the civil rights movement, he moved to New York City in the mid-1960s, where, he says, he found the atmosphere more open for blacks, though certainly far from perfect.

“I remember thinking, ‘Did I get to another planet?’ ” he said with a laugh.

In New York he would seek treatment for his drug problems while also rebuilding his musical career. In the early 1970s, he gigged with brothers Aaron and Cyril in the city, and in the late 1970s, he went back to New Orleans to record with all three brothers, with the group starting their first tours together. Over 35 years, the Neville Brothers have released 10 studio albums and been inducted into the Louisiana Music Hall of Fame, among other honors.

Over the years, as he’s traveled and gigged in the South, Neville says he’s been cheered by the end of segregation and other changes he’s witnessed there. And though he’s never forgotten what it was like to live and tour in the days of Jim Crow, he says he’s always tried to look at the positive things in life.

“I’m happy to make music and have something to offer,” he said.

Steve Pfarrer can be reached at spfarrer@gazettenet.com.

Charles Neville will talk about his music history in the South on Monday at 1:30 p.m. at the Amherst Woman’s Club. For information, visit amherstwc.org.


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