The jukebox doesn’t work, but Jackie Neal’s name is still there, handwritten among the acts whose music once filled Parker’s Lounge.
She used to play there, as did her brother, Kenny Neal, both part of the blues legacy that began with their dad, Raful Neal, known as the Godfather of Baton Rouge Blues.
The elder Neal died in September 2004, his daughter a few months later in 2005. Both were preceded in death in 2004 by Ronnie Neal, Raful’s son and Jackie’s brother. He, too, was a blues musician.
Painted portraits of this trio hang in the Brick Gallery, where the West Baton Rouge Museum has been singing the “Neal Family Blues” since May.
That’s the name of the exhibit commemorating the blues legacy of Raful Neal and his family. The exhibit ends with a photograph snapped at the recent Southern Soul Blues Festival in Port Allen, capturing some of the youngest of the Neal grandchildren playing drums and guitar.
So, even amongst tragedy, the Neal story continues, and the museum tells it through Sunday, July 12.
One of the first items that will capture visitors’ attention is the jukebox. It stands in a corner of the gallery, its lineup of songs and artists reflecting a time in music history when singles were released on 45s and played on turntables. Or in jukeboxes like this one.
“Kenny Neal used to play Parker’s Lounge in Pointe Coupee Parish,” curator Angelique Bergeron says. “The jukebox quit working, but he bought it from them.
“We’ve set up an iPad by the jukebox,” Bergeron continues. “We have songs on it, and people can tap it to play the song they want to hear.”
She demonstrated, tapping one of Raful Neal’s songs. Music filled the gallery, bouncing off the walls.
Raful Neal was born the son of a Baptist minister in New Orleans but was orphaned at a young age. He was taken to Chamberlin in West Baton Rouge Parish, where he was raised by his uncle and aunt, Alfred “Freight” and Ada White Holmes.
Growing up in the country meant hard work in the fields helping his uncle, who he called Daddy Freight. But music came naturally, and he picked up his first harmonica at age 14 and began playing with other locals, including Buddy and Philip Guy of Lettsworth, Rudy Richard of Church Point, Murdock Stewart of Baton Rouge and James Johnson and Roy Lee Shepard of Erwinville.
“Buddy Guy left for Chicago and wanted Raful to go with him,” Bergeron says. “But Raful had just married his childhood sweetheart, Shirley Brooks, and they were starting a family. So, he stayed in the area.”
The couple would become parents to 10 children. A family portrait takes center stage on one gallery wall. All of the kids eventually would join their dad on stage.
“When the kids were growing up, I would come home from work, set about doing my stuff, and I would be listening to them,” Shirley Neal, quoted in the exhibit label, said. “I enjoyed the music. I would never run them outside or tell them to be quiet. And the neighbors were always so nice about the loud music always coming from our house. My favorite part is being in the crowd when they are playing. It makes me feel proud.”
Bergeron was a witness to Shirley Neal’s display of pride.
“I’ve been working on this exhibit for a year,” Bergeron said. “And when Kenny Neal played at last year’s Sugar Fest here at the museum, I was going to try to talk to Shirley about borrowing artifacts for the exhibit. But she was in the crowd dancing, and you could see the pride on her face. Never bother her when her children are on stage — her attention is only on them.”
Bergeron eventually sat down with Shirley Neal, along with other family members, and compiled an impressive collection of artifacts and family memorabilia for the exhibit. The show includes the three Silvertone guitars Raful Neal purchased from Sears and Roebuck in his early career; Kenny Neal’s collection of blues harmonicas, some given to him by the German harmonica maker Hohner; the signature red suit Raful Neal wore on stage; and his microphones and “money guitar,” covered in $20 bills.
The show also features a window card advertising the Broadway musical, “Mule Bone,” written by Harlem Renaissance legends Langston Hughes and Zora Neale Hurston. The show premiered in Lincoln Center in 1991 and featured Kenny Neal in the cast.
“The show was controversial,” Bergeron said. “Though it was written by Langston Hughes and Zora Neale Hurston, it wasn’t produced until the ’90s, because critics in the African-American community were concerned that it would show white people what went on in black homes.”
The show was a success, however, and enjoyed a run in Broadway’s Ethel Barrymore Theatre later that year.
“We’ve had the show up since May, and people are still coming in just to see this show,” Bergeron said. “The museum did an exhibit on Raful Neal 11 years ago, but we wanted to do something different with this show. We wanted to show his legacy.”
That legacy began with Neal’s performance on numerous records and three of his own albums. He was inducted into the Blues Hall of Fame in 1999, the Louisiana Music Hall of Fame in 2000 and played at the Super Bowl in 2002.
Kenny Neal began playing guitar and harmonica in his father’s band at age 13. Four years later he toured as bassist with Buddy Guy and later formed the Neal Brothers Band with four of his brothers, Lil’Ray, Noel, Larry and Ronnie. He’s now known as the American Blues Man, has produced more than a dozen albums and continues to perform.
Larry Neal is known for his great stage presence on drums and harmonica with the Neal Family Band, and Raful Neal Jr. (Lil’Ray) has performed with Bobby “Blue” Bland, Bobby Rush, Muddy Waters, B.B. King and Buddy Guy. Currently, he leads his own band, playing often at festivals, and smaller venues such as Teddy’s Juke Joint and Phil Brady’s.
Ronnie Neal, the fourth son, was a vocalist and percussionist in the Neal Family Band before his death in 2004. Noel Neal moved to Chicago to play bass for James Cotton, while identical twins Charlene and Darlene often sing and dance on stage with the Neal Family Band.
Darnell Neal has performed internationally, and keyboardist Frederick “Red” Neal continues performing with his brothers.
And then there was the flamoyant Jackie Neal, a crowd-pleasing vocalist who sang both with the Neal Family Band and as a solo artist. She released three solo albums before her life was tragically cut short in 2005 when she was murdered by an estranged ex.
Her legacy is immortalized among the legends in the Parker’s Lounge jukebox, forever preserved by her brother.