Before the Neville Brothers became a group, Art Neville had his own little group called the Hawketts. This was back in the 1950s, and I was basically just getting started. Artists like me, who didn’t have their own bands, would work with various groups around New Orleans. Wherever we had gigs where the Hawketts were the backup band, Art–who died on July 22 at 81–was always the guy who wanted to get it right. They were a very popular local group in Louisiana, and over the years I watched him grow.
He led a group of musicians that everybody wanted to be. His music–with the Neville Brothers, the Meters, the Hawketts–has been sampled and copied by many. It was funky; that’s why they called him Papa Funk. I can explain it a thousand times, but unless you get what funk is, you won’t understand. It’s a real good-feeling type of music that makes you want to move and dance.
And there is no music called soul or funk that Art Neville and his brothers didn’t contribute to in some way.
Thomas is a Grammy Award–winning singer
This appears in the August 05, 2019 issue of TIME.