The Neville family
The rise of The Neville Brothers from the mid-1980s into the 1990s did not happen in a vacuum. Art and Aaron, sons one and three out of four, had productive careers and releases on their own through the 1950s and 1960s before they played with any of their brothers. Art started to work with Aaron and baby brother Cyril in what would become The Meters, but the real turning point for the family came in 1976. Their uncle George “Big Chief Jolly” Landry invited them and second brother Charles to participate in recording sessions with The Wild Tchoupitoulas, and the resulting lone album from that Mardi Gras Indian group turned New Orleans R&B on its ear. In quick succession The Meters would fold and The Neville Brothers (and Aaron in particular) would blend funk and soul for AAA radio, as well as pop and country audiences, until they disbanded in 2012. The Neville performance bloodline continued with Art’s son Ian and Aaron’s oldest son Ivan, both members of Dumpstaphunk; Aaron’s third son Jason, a rapper; and Charles’ daughter Charmaine, a jazz singer. And the Nevilles’ sister Athelgra entered the music business late, but is currently singing with The Dixie Cups of “Chapel of Love” fame.
The Newman empire
This family—the roots of which emigrated to Connecticut from Russia—has tripped the aural and visual imagination of audiences for 110 years, since Alfred Newman was discovered as an eight-year-old piano prodigy. He would bloom into a performer, composer, and conductor for titans of Broadway stages like Jerome Kern and Richard Rodgers as well as for hundreds of Hollywood films, eventually winning a stunning nine Academy Awards. His younger brothers Lionel and Emil followed the same path with less domination (only one Oscar between them, boo-hoo) but equal persistence in film and television music. Alfred’s sons also score, compose, and conduct for the screen—David sticks mostly to comedies, while Thomas has focused on serious movies and TV series—as does his grandnephew Joey. His daughter Maria wields prodigal talent in modern classical music, and his granddaughter Jaclyn is a TV and movie music editor. Thomas’ name recognition is surpassed only by his cousin Randy, the anti-pop singer-songwriter whose acerbic wit (“I Love L.A.,” “Short People”) has been eclipsed by his own film-music career, in particular for Disney/Pixar’s Toy Story franchise. Finally, Randy’s cousin Tim directed music videos for him and a few select names in the 1980s including Lou Reed, ZZ Top, and Huey Lewis.
The Norwoods of Mississippi
From humble beginnings, huge names. Willie Norwood could have been an anonymous college pep-band player or struggling Hollywood rocker, and then who-knows-what, had God not called him and his wife back to Mississippi. He returned to California a refocused man, placed his children in churches and their choirs, and even began to record and release his own gospel albums in 2001. While son Ray J grew up to earn more notoriety for sleeping with Kim Kardashian than for his rap and R&B, daughter Brandy did the family proud and then some, with a Grammy, a Broadway starring slot, multiple platinum records, and a solid film and TV career. But it’s their first cousin Calvin Broadus—Snoop Dogg—who really struck gold and raked in green with three decades’ worth of music, movies, and merchandise.
There are strong singer-songwriter families everywhere, but this network might be the strongest. Loudon Wainwright III and Kate McGarrigle were both rising stars in the 1960s and 1970s—Loudon as a folk artist and occasional actor, and McGarrigle as a musician with both The Mountain City Four and her sister Anna. (Third sister Jane stuck largely to songwriting and producing.) Loudon and Kate’s marriage resulted in singing siblings Martha and Rufus. Martha married Brad Albetta, her producer and bass player who’s also worked with artists like Sean Lennon. Rufus married Hamburg native Jörn Weisbrodt, an organizer of huge art and music events around the world, and fathered a daughter with Leonard Cohen’s daughter Lorca. Years after Kate divorced him, Loudon had a relationship with Suzzy Roche of three-sister act The Roches that produced another singing daughter, Lucy Wainwright Roche. Loudon has a younger sister, Sloan, with eight albums to her name as well.
The Warwicks and Houstons
The Drinkard family of Georgia and later New Jersey was large anyway, but spread far into pop culture starting in 1938, even above and beyond American opera queen Leontyne Price being a family cousin. Lee Warwick and Cissy Houston—the oldest and youngest daughters of the eight Drinkard children, respectively—would first work with The Drinkard Singers, a group assembled by their father that was so in demand, they managed to record the first gospel album to appear on a major label. They then spun off into another Drinkard-filled vocal group, The Sweet Inspirations, that released nine albums of their own but were even more highly regarded as backup singers, performing and recording with everyone from Yusef Lateef and Jimi Hendrix to Aretha Franklin and Elvis Presley. Lee’s two daughters each followed her into the industry: Dee Dee found occasional chart success in the 1960s and 1970s, but Dionne straight up crushed it with platinum records, Grammy awards, #1 singles, and [in]famous TV presence through the 1970s and 1980s. Through Dionne’s marriage to drummer Bill Elliott came sons David (a singer-songwriter) and Damon (a producer for Pink and other pop and rap stars of the last two decades). Cissy’s son Michael would become a songwriter as well, but her daughter Whitney soared into legend on the strength of her voice and the all-time record sales marks approached because of it. Her fatal fall from grace, marked at many points by her volatile marriage to R&B star Bobby Brown, was as harsh and tragic as her rise was majestic.
Hank Williams, times 3, plus 2
He lived not 30 years, but the 16 he spent performing pushed Alabama songwriter and guitarist Hank Williams to the rank of king of country music. During and after World War II he racked up dozens of #1 hits and popular favorites (among them “Hey, Good Lookin’,” “Kaw-Liga,” and “Your Cheatin’ Heart”) that would influence, or become fodder for, decades of artists to follow from Jerry Lee Lewis to The Rolling Stones. His namesakes have done pretty well for themselves, too. Son Hank Williams, Jr. has his own 50-year-long catalog including chart-toppers, Grammy and CMA awards, and seeing “All My Rowdy Friends are Coming Over Tonight” transformed into the theme song for Monday Night Football (minus a six-year banishment for a touch too much public racism). Grandson Hank Williams III is as outlaw country as they come, both notorious and beloved for stretching beyond the genre’s limits to play punk and various strains of metal. And two Williams ladies have also quietly staked their own claims: Jett (Hank Jr.’s half-sister) serves as executive producer for the patriarch’s rarest recordings, while Holly (Hank III’s half-sister) is a singer-songwriter with three albums of her own.
The Wilsons of California
After occasional diversional successes with writing music, industrial worker Murry Wilson represented the earliest business interests of the band founded by his sons Brian, Dennis and Carl, and their cousin Mike Love: The Beach Boys. On record and in concert Brian, Mike, and various combinations of relatives and hired hands would spread their California words across six decades, even if the personal and business relationships ran significantly darker. The two cousins would have particularly long solo careers beyond The Beach Boys as well. Brian and his first wife, singer Marilyn Rovell, would later be parents to Carnie and Wendy Wilson, who rose to fame as two-thirds of the singing trio Wilson Phillips. Carl, meanwhile, settled down with second wife Gina, the daughter of Dean Martin.
The Winans family
“You spelled ‘Osmond’ wrong.” Nah, we’ll gladly trade their cornball Billboard hits and Vegas schmaltz for the sincerity, spread, and staying power of this religious Detroit family. Young David “Pop” Winans, son of a choir girl, played the saxophone and sang in local pop and church groups until he and Delores “Mom” Winans started their family in 1954. Thanks to the parents’ long involvement in the clergy, all 10 children—and multiple grandchildren and other relatives—entered the music business, mostly in gospel but with detours into other genres. Chief among their efforts: sons #2 through #5 (Ronald, Marvin, Carvin, Michael) playing as The Winans, with five Grammys to their name; brother and sister BeBe and CeCe, with three Grammys of their own and the first gospel album to top the Billboard sales charts; and grandson Michael, Jr., writing and producing for artists signed with Sean “Diddy” Combs. Mom and Pop themselves even got back on the horse in 1989 and started releasing music together.
The Zappa family
To be honest, this final slot in our feature was the hardest to decide to fill. There were other larger sets of musical relations to consider, and still others who made more collective mainstream impact. Yet the notoriously unbridled, unstoppable creativity and lasting influence of Frank Zappa is pretty hard to ignore. The LA-by-way-of-Baltimore guitarist and bandleader has a discography of more than 100 albums released during and after his life, covering jazz, rock, classical and other genres with a thread of sardonic comedy throughout. His music very rarely landed on the Billboard charts, but his best-performing song “Valley Girl” was powered by vocals from his daughter Moon, who has occasionally appeared as both an MTV VJ and a guest rock singer in the interceding decades and spent 12 years married to Matchbox Twenty drummer Paul Doucette. Her little brothers, however, have much stronger commitments to performance. Ahmet joined Dweezil in their band Z and has also played with the likes of Steve Vai. Dweezil himself has the longest career of any of the kids: He’s released a clutch of solo albums and guested for a kitschy range of artists (Don Johnson, Winger, Spinal Tap), but more prominently turned his father’s work into a cottage industry with Zappa Plays Zappa concert tours and live releases.