By Rande Archer
Local history and soulful blues have found a crossroads this month with the West Baton Rouge Museum’s opening of the Neal Family Blues exhibit, honoring Raful Neal and exploring the musical talent of his family’s legacy. With its initial opening on May 9, the exhibit will be on display all the way through July 12.
Raful Neal was born on June 6, 1936 in Chamberlin, West Baton Rouge Parish. At the age of 14, Raful learned to play the harmonica, and eight years later played guitar along with Buddy Guy in his band Clouds. At 21, Raful married his wife Shirley, with whom he would have 10 children, all of them musically talented. His daughter Jackie went on to release three albums, and his sons Kenny and ‘Lil Ray garnered national and local fame respectively with the family blues tradition. Even Raful’s grandchildren carry on the family music tradition with forays into Hip Hop and rap with grandsons BroBro, Chris, and Tyree.
Following up from a previous 2004 exhibit, which was dedicated to the late Raful Neal who died before the exhibit opened, this exhibit will pay homage to the Neal family through the display of personal items ranging from Raful’s first guitars to Kenny’s first acting award. In addition, the exhibit features a display of personal photographs accompanied by stories and history about the family.
“We get a lot of national traveling exhibits here, we do a lot with the national endowment for humanity,” said West Baton Rouge Museum curator Angelique Bergeron. “They are great, but they do not really speak to the area. The local stories we can tell here I think will really resonate with the public, [the] people who grew up listening to Raful, his soulful blues.”
In addition to the exhibit the museum helped sponsor the Louisiana Blues and Southern Soul Society banquet that was held on Saturday at the West Baton Rouge Community Center in Port Allen. The banquet honored local blues legends Buddy Guy, Henry Gray, Lazy Lester and the late Percy Sledge in addition to other local blues musicians, such as Gene Fairchild, Lil Ray Neal, and Kenny Acosta.
In addition to performing nationally, Kenny Neal has played at Port Allen’s own Sugar Festival that is hosted each year in October. Kenny also plays at local venues, such as Phil Brady’s in Baton Rouge, which he performed at the previous Saturday continuing the local draw much like local favorite and younger sibling Lil Ray Neal.
“We have so many people coming from other places that are like ‘where’s this Louisiana music, where is it,’” said Bergeron. “I go to downtown Baton Rouge and it’s just wedding bands as we call them. It’s not the same; it’s not as authentic. And there are places that are keeping it alive. There’s still great music being made every day right here, in the Baton Rouge area.”