It has been an honor in my life to know Aaron Neville, one of the greatest singers in the world. We have not always agreed on everything—particularly some of the musical courses he has undertaken. One of my treasured possessions is a letter he wrote me in 1980, which reads: “Dear Bunny, May God always hold you in the palm of His hand. Aaron J. Neville.” Aaron’s motivation was something critical I wrote about the Neville Brothers—something I can no longer even remember.
A few years later, on a plane flight to Houston, Aaron and I got in an argument about professional wrestling, at which point Aaron and his brother Art decided that my new nickname should be “Hatchetman.” One of their complaints was that People magazine always gave them five-star reviews; why couldn’t I? My rebuttal was that I knew them a lot better than People magazine. I knew what masterpieces they were truly capable of producing.
Nature Boy: The Standards Album, Aaron’s new release on Verve Records, is the sort of masterpiece I was talking about. And since we hadn’t spoken in over 20 years, I jumped at the opportunity to visit Aaron at his beautiful home in the gated Eastover community and offer my personal congratulations. I trusted that Aaron would forgive my previous transgressions.
Aaron, this is a fantastic album. Whose idea was it to do standards?
Well, it was me and my brother Charles. We’d been talking about doing stuff like that for a while. And then Ron Goldstein [President and Chief Operating Officer of the Verve Music Group] came up with the idea after hearing me do “These Foolish Things” on one of my earlier albums. He got in touch with my management and talked about it and thought it would be a great idea.
Did you have input picking the songs out?
Yeah, I picked out a few. “Summertime” is something that me and Charles have been doing for a while. A couple of ’em I used to do a long time ago, back around ’68 or ’69—no, it was earlier than that–at a place called Gloria’s Living Room when “Tell It Like It Is” was out. I used to play there with Willie Tee and I’d do “The Shadow of Your Smile” and “Cry Me A River.” “In The Still of the Night” is one that the Nevilles did on the Cole Porter tribute album [Red Hot & Blue]. [Producer/keyboardist] Rob Mounsey brought “Blame It On My Youth,” “Who Will Buy?” and “Come Rain or Come Shine.” “Our Love Is Here to Stay” is something I’ve been listening to Ella Fitzgerald sing. “Since I Fell For You” is a song Rob Mounsey came up with and it’s a song that my mother used to listen to by Annie Laurie back in the days. And “Danny Boy” was Ron Goldstein’s idea. He heard me singing it with Amasa Miller, I think, one time. He said we had to put that on there. And it’s got Ry Cooder on it so that put the icing on the cake.
Irish people all over the world are going to love you for recording “Danny Boy.”
What about “Nature Boy”?
My mom and dad were big Nat “King” Cole fans. My dad and my uncle—my mother’s brother [a.k.a. Big Chief Jolly]—were Merchant Marines. They would go overseas and come back and tell us stories about all the places they went to. I kind of picture them as being “Nature Boys.” It’s like a tribute to them really. I love the song.
I do, too. Do you know the story of the song?
I’ve heard a little of it. I don’t remember.
It was written by Eden Ahbez—he looked like Jesus. He was sort of an early hippie. He wrote the song on a napkin and gave away all the rights. He also had to settle out-of-court with a publisher because he based the song on a Yiddish melody. It’s a beautiful song, a beautiful sentiment.
Yeah, definitely. And he never mentions “Nature Boy” nowhere on the record! I didn’t actually realize that until I started recording it. I said, “Wow, you don’t never say the words ‘Nature Boy.’”
“Cry Me a River”—do you have a favorite version of that?
Julie London’s—oh yeah. I’ve heard other people do it but I mean, she’s the one that actually got me into wanting to do it, back in the day.
I just love the simple arrangements, Aaron—this could’ve been so overblown.
Yeah, Rob Mounsey did a great job of just cushioning the vocals with not too much elaborate stuff on it. He’s getting a lot of compliments.
It really showcases your voice—that’s the important thing.
When I hear it, I think teenagers and grandmothers and everyone in-between will love this.
I think it’s good, in a way, that the album isn’t very New Orleans-ish, except for you and you’re totally New Orleans. That’s very smart. You should sell a zillion copies.
Yeah, me and Charles are trying to come up with some songs for the next one. Plus I’m trying to get songs ready for the next gospel album. And they want me to do a pop album, if I have time.
What does “pop” mean?
I don’t know, man. The guy from EMI wants me to do a pop thing. I guess it would be, he said, anything that I would like to do—maybe some cover songs.
No, no, no! I don’t think so. It would have to be something that I liked, that I feel comfortable with.
Can you tell us something about Rob Mounsey?
He’s a great person to work with. I met him through Ron Goldstein. Ron Goldstein introduced us. When we first met, I liked him—he was cool. He was easy to work with and such a nice guy. He’s always got a smile, pleasant.
We recorded the tracks at the studio with Grady Tate and Ron Carter. Then we did the vocals over at Rob’s studio up in New York at his loft. It was real comfortable. I didn’t get to meet Roy Hargrove, Ray Anderson and Michael Brecker because they did their stuff separately. I wasn’t in the studio with them. I didn’t go in the studio with Linda [Ronstadt]. She did her part in Tucson.
I was intrigued by the photo inside the CD of your hand with a jar of honey and a bottle of cayenne pepper. Is that something you use for your throat?
Yeah. I don’t know if it works or I be psyching myself out. [laughs]
Have you been using that a long time?
Yeah, I heard Stevie Wonder was doing it one time so I said, “Well, if Stevie can do it, it’s probably alright.” You take hot tea, put a little honey in it and sprinkle a little cayenne in it—not too much ’cause it’ll choke ya. It kind of soothes your throat.
You’ve had problems with your throat in the past, right?
Yeah, I had the beginnings of a nodule at one time and then I had a bruised vocal cord at one time. I’m either on the road with the Nevilles or doing the solo stuff or in a studio and there’s no breaks.
Do you do vocal exercises?
Yeah. I just sing the notes, do the scales and stuff. I started seeing this guy in L.A.—he’s the vocal coach for Ray Charles and Stevie Wonder and Natalie Cole and James Ingram. I just had one session with him so I’ve got to go back and get some more sessions with him, to try to find an easier way to hit notes. I never had any lessons before. If I was doing it right or wrong, I don’t know.
What advice would you give to a young singer?
To try to take some lessons and find out how to exercise your voice and how to hit the notes—to do all the things that I didn’t do. Take care of it—don’t drink and smoke ’cause that hurts your voice. Treat it like it’s a gift from God and you’ll give back to Him with what you do with it.
I think you’re one of the most spiritual people I’ve ever encountered, Aaron. I think you really convey your love of God through your music.
Well, sometimes I be thinking why am I here? There’s some reason God sees fit for me to be here. A lot of my friends just fell by the wayside. Just recently I’ve actually been doing things to preserve myself—like the exercising. I was doing it off and on back in the day but now, I’m getting more religious with it. Trying to eat healthier and drink plenty of water. When I think about all the years I was abusing it…like I say, He saw fit for me to hang around.
You have a message to convey so do it.
What kind of exercise routine do you do?
I do the cardiac, the StairMaster, I do the weights. I’ve got a trainer when I’m home—her name is Tazzie Colomb. She shows me the right way to do the exercises without hurting yourself.
You’ve been lifting weights a long time.
Yeah, it’s been a while. Sometimes, when I wasn’t using weights, it looked like I was and people said, “Oh man, I know you’re lifting” and I wasn’t lifting so I said, “Well, I’d better start lifting.”
What do you do with all your time on the road?
When I’m on the road, it’s like I do the gig, I go to the hotel, turn on the TV, flip channels. I don’t go out nowhere. I don’t venture nowhere on the road. Every once in a while, I might go to a mall if it’s connected to the hotel. Other than that…
Oh no, no—that’s been over with.
How do you feel about the New Orleans music scene? It’s really burgeoning…
Yeah, yeah. I’m glad to see a lot of the guys getting recognition, like Irvin Mayfield and Wess Anderson and Trombone Shorty and his brother, James Andrews.
Jessie Hill’s grandsons…
Yeah, Jessie was my boy—he was cool.
I remember the days of the Gator Balls back in the ’70s and you were there and Jessie, and I was painting moons and stars on Jessie’s face. Those were the days, Aaron—you had that Thunderbird with the “Apache Red” license plate.
What kind of cars do you have now?
I’ve got a black Corvette, a white Lincoln, a green Sequoia. I gave my son the red ’Vette—the one with “Kemo” on it. It stands for “Kemo Sabe.” My son Jason took my Towncar, my daughter took my Land Cruiser. I need to put a lock on the gate! When Ivan’s here, he uses the Sequoia.
Ivan works with the Neville Brothers now.
Yeah, he does stuff on his own, too. His album Saturday Morning Music was just re-released—they’d done it at Bruce Willis’ house. It’s a great album.
What about the Neville Neville Land Studio?
We’re in the studio right now with the Neville Brothers, working on our next project. We’ve got some good stuff coming up—stuff from my sons Jason and Aaron, Jr., and Ivan and Cyril’s son Omari and Art’s son Ian. They’re putting some young blood into the Nevilles.
That’s great to have all your kids involved.
I just hope we done paid all the dues for ’em.
Well, musicians will always be paying dues. It’s rough, especially in New Orleans, to be any kind of artist.
It’s rough but I always can think of something worse I could be doing. I have done worse things to survive. I’m glad to still be around and still be doing this. And with my brothers.
What kind of material will be on the new Neville Brothers album?
Some funk stuff…we’ve got one tune called “Brothers,” which is a poem that I wrote, and we took some lines from that and made a song out of it. It could go for any brothers in the world. Ivan’s coming up with some funky riffs. We’re doing one that him and his two brothers wrote: “You walk outside without looking around, you talk out loud…” It’s real funky, it’s cool—it’s a today thing, you know.
How do you feel about hip-hop?
Some of it’s cool. I don’t like some of the negative stuff. I think because a lot of kids listen to it, they should be giving ’em a good message. ’Cause some of it’ll burn your ears.
You’ve been a really good role model for New Orleans. I don’t imagine you’ll ever leave.
I leave when the hurricane comes—I have much respect for them. I was here for Betsy and Camille. It never leaves your heart once you witness a hurricane.
Are you going on the road to play material from Nature Boy?
Yeah, I have a record release date coming up in New York. I think I might be doing it with Grady Tate, Ron Carter and those guys. I have a quintet that I work with too, featuring Charles with Michael Goods on keyboards, David Johnson on bass and vocals, Earl Smith on drums and vocals, and Shane Theriot on guitar. So we’ll be doing some gigs, too. Like I said, it’s do the Neville Brothers, do the solo, do the studio—non-stop.
How do you know what day it is?
I don’t. Somebody’ll fax me and tell me.
Are you still a wrestling fan?
Ah yeah—I was looking at it last night. They had a Smackdown.
Who are your favorite wrestlers nowadays?
I always liked the Undertaker. Some of my favorites are gone. Like Cactus Jack was one of my favorites. I’m good friends with Brett “The Hitman” Hart. He comes to spend time at my house during the Jazz Fest. He’s been coming for a few years. I like Brock Lessner, too.
What appeals to you about professional wrestling?
It’s a show. It’s entertainment. They’re doing some stuff that I wouldn’t do! Like people say it’s “fake,” but I wouldn’t fake myself falling off the top of the ring posts on my back. Somebody’s gotta do it.
Did you ever try wrestling?
No. I used to fight when I was a teenager. I’ve been giving that up.
Is there a message that you would like to impart to the people of New Orleans?
New Orleans—we’re sitting right here in the middle of Hurricane Alley. I go to St. Jude Church a lot, to the Novenas. I remember a couple of times when we had hurricanes coming this way and people were packing the church and would pray and some kind of way, that hurricane would turn off. So I like to tell the people of New Orleans to keep on praying, to keep our city safe and pray some more to keep down some of the killings. It’s getting ridiculous. We’ve become the Murder Capital of the World. We’re too nice of a city to be going through that kind of stuff.
Tell us something about St. Jude.
St. Jude is the saint of hopeless, impossible cases. My mama turned me on to him a long time ago. She used to go to the Novenas and make Novenas with me and my brothers. She also turned me on to the St. Ann Shrine on Ursulines Street, where you go up the steps on your knees. I’ve witnessed a few miracles so you know, I wear a St. Jude earring in my ear and I tell people about him. [pointing to the three bracelets on his left wrist] This is a one-decade rosary bead, one with the cross, one with a St. Jude medal. St. Jude is special to me.
Me, too. I named my son after him. Life can be impossible at times.
You seem like a pretty contented man, Aaron.
Yeah, I am. I’m home right now and that’s one of the nice things. I be on the road a lot, steady moving, here, there and somewhere else the next day. It all becomes a blur after a while. When you get home, you can mellow out.
It’s hard eating in hotels. Room service is ridiculous. In the morning, I ask for eggs scrambled. I say, “Like you do at home, you crack ’em over the pan and scramble ’em.” “Oh, yeah—we know how to do that!” The next thing you know, the eggs come all yellow—like powdered eggs! Man! I just wind up eating it rather than sending it back.
What’s your favorite po-boy?
Oyster, from Domilise’s up on Annunciation Street.
That’s the same thing your brother Art said when I asked him. What are your other favorite New Orleans foods?
Red beans is my favorite. I don’t know if fried catfish is a New Orleans food but that’s one of my favorites! It’s the river cat I like because you get all the toxins and stuff and that’s what keeps us young, you know—that river water [laughs].
Did you ever fish in the river when you were a kid?
No, we used to go swimming in it.
Oh yeah. I’ve done a lot of dangerous things. That’s what I’m saying [knocks on wood]—I’m still around. We used to go swimming in Lake Pontchartrain and I wound up underneath the seawall some kind of way and it was dark under there: all I could hear was glup, glup glup. I was swallowing water and the Lord guided me out of there because I didn’t know where I was. I think about that a lot.
That’s why I don’t worry about nothing. If something happens, hey—it’s about time. If it don’t, it’s cool.
You were great at Earl’s [King] funeral.
That’s my boy. Earl should’ve been the Historian of New Orleans. He had all the stories about everybody—anything you needed to know about New Orleans music, he could’ve told you. I was hoping he had wrote a book.
I liked what you said about going to the Dew Drop Inn as a kid.
Well, I wasn’t a kid—I was a teenager.
You weren’t intimidated?
No indeed—not in them days. I was like Iron Chest Charlie back then. No, I used to hang out with guys like Scarface John of the Tic Tocs—he sang with Huey Smith and the Clowns. That was my boy—me and him used to run together. That song “Brother John” is about him.
I was always big for my age so they didn’t know how old I was. My parents didn’t know I was going to the Dew Drop.
Did you get in trouble when they found out you were going there?
They would give me some words but nothing harsh. I remember I got my first hat at the Blue Eagle Club. That was a club where Bobby “Blue” Bland and Little Junior Parker was playing. I couldn’t go in. Me and my friend Melvin—they used to call us “Moleface and Melvin.” We was standing outside and two guys got in a fight and one of ’em hit the other one and knocked his hat off. A brand new stitched brim hat. And I caught it on the first bounce and put it on my head and was gone! [laughs] I couldn’t go back around there! It let me know what size hat I wore—I was a seven-and-one-eighth.
When they called you “Moleface,” that didn’t bother you?
No, I loved it! I thought it was cool!
The Blue Eagle was on Felicity and Saratoga, right? I’ve been around New Orleans all my life and started working for Jim Russell when I was a kid. That was my education and that’s where I met Earl.
Yeah, I know Jim. The first song I sang in public was with my brother’s band the Hawkettes at the YWCA on Claiborne. It was “A Mother’s Love” by Earl King. Art did a way-out version of that with the Meters—he sang the hell out of it!
Earl was always a helpful person to other musicians.
He was just a good person period—he was cool. He took things in stride and just made a joke out of it. Matter of fact, I’m thinking about doing some of his stuff with the Neville Brothers—like “Trick Bag.” People like all that New Orleans stuff. Jimi Hendrix listened to Earl King.
Everything really does come from New Orleans.
Yeah, that’s what Ernie K-Doe said.
I can’t imagine being anywhere else.
Neither me. I go places and people ask me, “What’s the prettiest place you’ve been to?” Man. I’ve been to some pretty places—Switzerland, Germany, the Bahamas. The prettiest sight to me is coming in on an airplane and looking down and seeing the swamps: “Oh, I know where I’m at now!”
What about New Orleans is so special, Aaron?
I don’t know—I guess it’s my ancestors here and the spirits. It’s the place of my birth and the place that I love. I love, I guess, being below sea level.