Drummer Rickey and keyboardist Norman Caesar were born and raised in New Orleans' notorious Uptown funk neighborhood. Related to the Nevilles by marriage—Cyril's wife, Gaynielle Neville, is their aunt—they grew up in the 13th Ward on Valence and Chestnut Streets. That's deep in the heart of Neville territory. “Caesar territory also,” said Rickey Caesar
Those musical roots—the funk and Mardi Gras Indian rhythms—run deep in their sound whether they're leading their band, the Caesar Brothers' Funk Box, or backing one of many New Orleans Black Indian chiefs. “The rhythms just stuck with us,” Norman offers.
Since the two siblings were so close in age—Rickey is 44 and Norman, 43—their experiences both in life and music traveled a similar course. They attended the same high school, Walter L. Cohen, and both participated in the marching band, with Rickey blowing baritone horn and tuba and Norman on baritone horn and trombone.
“I used to play the keys on a clothes hamper when I was about four years old,” Norman remembers with a laugh. “That was my imaginary keyboard when Rickey used to play drums.”
Vocalists are also a strong tradition in the 13th Ward and the Caesar brothers are no exception. “We always sang in the church choir and also my grandmother, Thelma Housey, was a very excellent gospel singer,” says Rickey. “She was our biggest influence. Singing was always in our blood in our family.” On the brothers' paternal side, their father, Julius Caesar III, was a cousin of Barbara and Rosa Lee Hawkins of the renowned Dixie Cups.
“I grew up in the church as well,” Norman says. “We were around the Nevilles coming up and also [the band] the Louisiana Purchase with Terry and Phillip Manuel, who were singers in our neighborhood.”
When the brothers were in their pre-teens, they began playing with their older cousin, valve trombonist Emanuel Steib. “We really embraced his music and started firing up horns behind him,” Rickey says, adding that both he and Steib also became involved with the dawning of the Soul Rebels Brass Band.
The year 1988 marked the beginning of the group Deff Generation, which teamed the brothers and Steib with a bunch of Neville cousins—Aaron Neville Jr., Cyril Neville Jr., Damion Neville, Jason Neville and Omari Neville. It was with that band that they gained further recognition, particularly with the release of 1991s “Running with the Second Line,” considered by many as the first recording merging brass band music and hip-hop. In the group, the brothers double on instruments with Rickey on drums, percussion and tuba and Norman playing keyboards and trombone. “We switched off because we were like a brass band inside of a band,” Norman explains.
The duo of Rickey and Norman Caesar dubbed as the Caesar Brothers kicked in at the now legendary Benny's Bar, the Uptown place to go late nights following hot gigs at Tipitina's. They were also often called on to put their funky touch behind numerous groups, including with Uncle Cyril Neville and in the world of bounce. One of their specialties remains backing various Mardi Gras Indian chiefs.
“We've followed the Indians all our lives,” Rickey says. “Our first group of Indians was the Wild Tchoupitoulas when we were like three and four years old.”
“I can remember when I was small
Through much of their career, the Caesars have backed, toured and/or recorded with a variety of artists including Cyril, the Neville Brothers and funkmaster George Clinton, among others. Throughout it all, they have regularly gigged as leaders. The Caesar Brothers' Funk Box's latest release, In a Place Called New Orleans, which is filled with primarily New Orleans–centric material, also includes a host of guests including family members plus Troy “Trombone Shorty” Andrrws
“We want everybody to know that we strive to keep New Orleans music alive,” says Rickey, adding that along with originals they perform classics such as the Meters' “Love Slip Up on Ya” and Huey “Piano” Smith & His Clowns' hit “Rockin' Pneumonia and the Boogie Woogie Flu.”
“You can't forget Huey,” Norman enthusiastically reminds us. “We play New Orleans music the way it should be played. The Funk Box is like putting a quarter in the jukebox at one of these funky joints in New Orleans that you never heard of and the Caesars will be playin' it.”