Charles Neville, New Orleans-born saxophonist of the famed Neville Brothers band known for their blend of funk, jazz and rhythm and blues, died Thursday of pancreatic cancer at age 79.
Neville, who lived in Massachusetts in recent years, revealed his fight with pancreatic cancer in January. A publicist for Neville confirmed his death in an email.
He joined the Navy in 1956 and began his music career that same decade, backing up blues greats B.B. King, Johnny Ace, and Jimmy Reed, the New Orleans Advocate reported.
“Charlie the horn man” rose to fame alongside his siblings Aaron, Art and Cyril as the Grammy-winning Neville Brothers band. The group was formed in the 1970s and gained fans with three decades’ worth of high-energy performances featuring a distinctive fusion of funk, jazz and New Orleans rhythm and blues.
The “Healing Chant” band disbanded in 2012, but Neville continued to tour with Aaron Neville’s solo band and take the stage at festivals, the Advocate reported.
Several musicians, including Harry Connick Jr. and Dr. John, celebrated the saxophonist’s legacy on social media.
New Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieu and U.S. House Majority Whip Steve Scalise, R-La., paid their respects to “Charlie the horn man” and the entire Neville family.
Neville’s death came a day before the opening of his hometown’s signature musical and cultural event, the annual New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival, which the Neville Brothers band had famously closed out for years. His daughter, singer Charmaine Neville, was set to perform May 5.
The New Orleans-born musician had his share of hardship, serving a five-year stint at Louisiana’s state prison in the early 1960s for possessing two marijuana cigarettes.
While confined to the notoriously dangerous prison, he worked in its music room, where he sharpened his skills alongside other imprisoned musicians, including pianist James Booker and drummer James Black, according to WWL-TV.
“I stayed in the music room practicing all day,” Neville said.
Aaron Neville wrote a lengthy message on Facebook in honor of his “great brother.”
“I know you have a spot in the heavenly band next to James Booker, James Black, Herbert Hardesty, Fats Domino, Johnny Adams all the jazz bebop players who you turned me on to,” Aaron Neville wrote. “Dizzy, Charlie Parker, Miles and the list goes on.”
The Associated Press contributed to this report.