LIFE LESSONS -- Of fame, health, music and being Charmaine Neville

Advocate staff photo by ADAM LAU -- Charmaine Neville sings during Dancing for a Cause at the Lamar-Dixon Expo Center in Gonzales on July 14, 2012.
Advocate staff photo by ADAM LAU -- Charmaine Neville sings during Dancing for a Cause at the Lamar-Dixon Expo Center in Gonzales on July 14, 2012.

The music scene in New Orleans is overflowing with talent, but no one captivates an audience like Charmaine Neville.

Along with performing an eclectic mix of blues, R&B and jazz, Neville engages the audience with stories about her life. One of her favorites was the time she met Aretha Franklin and Paul Simon.

“I was playing in this hole-in-the-wall spot called Benny’s. It was Uptown on Valence Street,” Neville said. “People used to come from all over the world to come to this hole in the wall — that’s exactly what it was — and Aretha Franklin came in one night with her two sons and they sat in with me. That was so spectacular, and the very next night Paul Simon came in. That place was special.”

Neville is the daughter of Charles Neville, saxophonist with the Neville Brothers. She grew up surrounded by music and talent, so it was only fitting that she would discover her musical abilities at a young age.

“I’ve been performing since I was 2 years old,” Neville said. “The first gig I got paid for, I was 8 years old and I got paid for singing country and western. That was my first paying gig, and I was singing with Kitty Wells at a rodeo that was here.”

Neville has performed worldwide with legendary performers such as Stevie Wonder, George Clinton and Michael Jackson. However, there is one event that stands above all others — the 1972 Diva Tour.

“The Diva Tour was the most spectacular tour ever in my life,” Neville said. “It was Betty Carter, Sara Vaughan, Nina Simone and Ella Fitzgerald. The band was Dizzy Gillespie, Don Cherry, Lionel Hampton, Baby George was on bass and Buddy Miles was the drummer. That was the most incredible tour that I’ve ever done in my life, and I was just a kid when I did that, but how phenomenal. That is something that I will never forget.”

Even though Neville has put in time and work to master her craft, she recently had to step away from music because of her health.

She was diagnosed with a hereditary stroke disorder, called cerebral autosomal dominant arteriopathy with subcortical infarcts and leukoencephalopathy, or CADASIL.

“I’ve been sick for such a long time that I haven’t really gotten back into what I need to do,” Neville said. “Since I’m getting better, all of that is going to change. I couldn’t sing. I couldn’t walk, but God brought me back. I couldn’t remember songs, who my musicians were, who my children were, who I was.”

With the use of hyperbaric oxygen to restore brain function, Neville has fought her way back to what she refers to as “living,” which includes performing every Monday at Snug Harbor on Frenchmen Street.

Still, the renowned singer has kept the same humble persona that has attracted audiences to her performances for years.

“I don’t consider myself anything special. I’m just another musician in this great city,” Neville said. “I consider my city something special. I do consider that. We have a way of life here that other people just don’t understand.”

In front of any audience, large or small, she promises a great and unforgettable show.

“I don’t care if I’m playing in front of five people,” Neville said. “It’s just like I’m playing for 15,000 people. I’ve done venues with 45,000, 55,000, 100,000 people and venues with five people, and I give the same.”