The secret to Aaron Neville’s genius has been hiding in plain sight all these years. His perfectly balanced voice, a warm, conversational tenor that modulates effortlessly into an ethereal falsetto or rich bass notes, is a natural gift that has been carefully nurtured by growing up in a family of musicians. But the key to Neville’s voice is that he trained himself to use it as an instrument in emulation of the great vocal group R&B masters of the 1950s and ‘60s. His older brother Art started out singing on streetcorners and park benches in the Calliope project and Aaron grew up trying to break into that lineup. He formed his own vocal group in school, years before his commercial breakthrough with “Tell It Like It Is.”
The beauty and emotional fragility Aaron conveys in his singing is reflected in a life that turned from joy to tragedy all too often. The streets that brought him music also held trouble and Aaron found himself caught up in a world of petty crime, jail and hard drug abuse, a monkey that he couldn’t wholly shake of his back until 1981. His career with the Neville Brothers and as a solo act soared once he righted himself, and his love affair with his wife of nearly 48 years, Joel, flourished after some trying times. He married the 18-year-old Joel two weeks short of his own 18th birthday and she became his lifeline through the troubled years. At one particularly low point in 1972 she took their four children and moved in with her mother, forcing Neville onto the first steps of a path that eventually led to his freedom from addiction. After they reunited Joel remained Aaron’s muse. He wrote one of the greatest songs in the New Orleans canon, “Yellow Moon,” for her.
Neville flourished as both a member of the Neville Brothers and a solo artist, but health problems began to catch up with him as well as Joel in 2004. After the Nevilles’ Jazz Fest performance that year Aaron was hospitalized with acute asthma, a condition he has never completely recovered from. Then Joel was diagnosed with inoperable lung cancer. Miraculously, her cancer went into remission.
But then the tragedy that still clouds recent New Orleans history, the flood following hurricane Katrina, knocked Aaron literally off his moorings in 2005. His house and all his family possessions were lost. He relocated in Nashville with Joel, but the stress hit her hard in her weakened condition and the cancer returned. In January 2007 Aaron returned to New Orleans for the first time since the storm to bury his wife on their 48th wedding anniversary.
When the Neville Brothers reformed to play Jazz Fest in 2008 Aaron met the woman who would become his second wife, photographer Sarah Friedman. His world turned from grief to joy once more and he moved to New York, where he began a new phase of his life. With new management and a new label, Aaron was ready to revive his solo career even as the Neville Brothers decided to adjust their format to officially acknowledge the other family members who contribute to their performances by changing the name of the band to the Nevilles. The Nevilles play at Jazz Fest before the Dave Mathews Band on April 28. The band’s traditional closing day headlining spot at the Acura stage is taken, significantly, by Trombone Shorty who has earned the honor and is unlikely to relinquish it soon. Opposite Shorty on the Gentilly stage, traditional turf for the Radiators before they disbanded, will be none other than Aaron Neville.
Neville remains one of the greatest singers in popular music history, a guileless stylist whose voice has earned him Grammy awards and top 10 hits in pop, R&B, country and gospel categories. Now at age 72 he’s released an album he says totally represents him for the first time in his life. My True Story is Neville’s doo-wop album, a tribute to the giants of 1950s and ‘60s vocal group R&B. It was the music he grew up listening to and learning from. Strains of it run through all his work, but this is his first album completely dedicated to these classics. Blue Note president Don Was and Rolling Stones guitarist Keith Richards, both avid vocal group R&B fans themselves, co-produced the album. The joyful spirit of the session is a tribute to the happiness Neville has rediscovered in his life.
Aaron strolled over from his midtown Manhattan home to the Blue Note offices on 5th Avenue in the shadow of the Flatiron building for this interview. He was beaming with pride over the official poster for this year’s New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival, which bears his likeness. These days the only addiction Aaron is fighting is food as New York’s restaurants offer a challenge to his waistline. “I’m trying to diet,” he says with a laugh. “I’m eating a lot of salads.”
You managed to build an outstanding career in an unusual manner, from R&B hits in the ‘60s and ‘70s to the pop work with Linda Ronstadt, your career with the Neville Brothers. Gospel, country, you have had hits in every genre. People marvel at the fact that you’ve recorded a doo-wop album but really you’ve been recording this kind of material all your career.
Everything I’ve done has some kind of a doo-wop influence in it going back to the 1950s when I wrote “Over You,” then “Every Day.” Doo-wop has been the essence of me. Even through the Neville Brothers. It was always there. I even did a doo-wop version of the “Mickey Mouse March” [on Hal Willner’s Disney album Stay Awake].
Spencer Bohren told me a story about you and Cyril coming into Tipitina’s when he was playing there and you would sing all night with him, including some doo-wop songs. You probably did some of the songs on this album.
No doubt. We would go in there and it would be just him on guitar and us singing. Cyril and I used to sing together all the time. I’ll tell you one thing. Cyril is the soulfulest guy I know. The soulfulest singer. When he first started out he was like a combination of James Brown and Bob Marley.
A lot of musicians stay in New Orleans and aren’t well known outside of the city. New Orleans music is so often an end in itself, something that doesn’t aspire to go beyond the borders of the community.
I feel blessed and lucky that I was one of the ones who got known. You know New Orleans could have been like Motown. Art could have been a big solo artist. If he could have done something like “A Mother’s Love” by Earl King with the Meters, you would have got chill bumps. He recorded “All of These Things,” I recorded it a few years later, but it was his song. I was just copying him. Then he did a Lee Dorsey song called “Lover of Love” that was great, he has that natural high voice.
On the early recordings you do sound similar.
Yeah. Well that’s because I was copying Art back then.
Where the originals of “This Magic Moment” and “Under the Boardwalk” are heavily produced with those dramatic strings, you take it really low key and use the voices to phrase the string parts.
That was what we were trying to do. At that time the Drifters were one of the first groups to use strings like that. It was real good at the time. But today, it don’t need it. That’s what Don and Keith kept talking about. The voices are what it’s all about. Me and Don and Keith, we talked about not getting away from the core of the song, keeping it simple and respectful, like on “Gypsy Woman” I don’t wanna hear no taking away from what Curtis [Mayfield] was doing. The Drifters had so many songs, we’ve got four Drifters tunes, from different singers. We started out with Clyde [McPhatter], Johnny Moore and Ben E. King.
People I play the album for all say it sounds like these songs were written for you to sing.
We recorded the whole thing in five days, 23 songs. We have enough material for two albums. You can hear all the guys smiling on this record, they’re smiling the whole time. It was a labor of love. Nothing boring about it. Like Keith said once we got going we were acting like a bunch of kids hanging out.
You are very aware of the melodic center of the songs and because of that they sound completely fresh. Even when you introduce different arrangements, change tempo, dynamics and bring a different feel to the songs they evoke the spirit of the first time you heard them.
Each musician put his own feeling and soul into their part. They just wanted to contribute. They wanted to do this thing right and they did. Keith and Don knew these songs inside and out. The background singers have Eugene Pitt, he was the lead singer of the Jive Five, who originally sang the title track. Dickie Harmon sang with the Del Vikings, Bobby Jay was with Frankie Lymon and the Teenagers and one of the background singers was Joel Katz who sang with Johnny Maestro of the Brooklyn Bridge. Later on my bass player David Johnson and my drummer Earl Smith Jr. added background vocals on seven of ‘em. I’m in the background too.
It must have been fun singing with the guys from the original groups.
It was like we all knew each other. We talked about all listening to the same songs, “Did you know so-and-so?” “Oh yeah, I knew this guy from the Spaniels, Pookie Hudson.” Well Pookie was one of my heroes, with the Spaniels, and we talked about the Moonglows. I keep running into people who are huge doo-wop fans. Paul Simon, I did a thing with him at the Lincoln Center and we talked like we grew up on the same block. We started talking about all the same songs we listened to. I did that with Frankie Valli, We was on a plane from New Orleans to L.A., you know how long that is. And we sang the whole trip. He’s like “What about this one? What about that one?”
Did you hear those songs on the radio or did Art bring home the 45’s?
He brought home the 45’s and down the street from us was the sweet shop, a Rite Way drug store with a juke box. They wouldn’t play any risque songs, like “Work With Me Annie” by Hank Ballard and the Midnighters, we’d have to play them at home. Art used to go around with his vocal group and win all the talent shows. Some of those guys recorded later as the Del Royals. My first session with Toussaint I recorded two songs and they recorded four songs. There was one song they did that I wanted to do so bad called “Who Will Be the One.”
Art and I used to do duet stuff like “Cherry Pie” by Marvin and Johnny or the Everly Brothers together. The first time I sang in public was maybe 1953 or something like that and they played at the YWCA at Claiborne and Cleveland. I was sittin’ on the stage by the piano and the guitar player hit this riff which was the beginning of an Earl King song called “A Mother’s Love” and I started singing it. Somebody said “get up on it” and I was off. My mom was in the audience and she loved it. I had been singing all along.
Was there a moment when you decided to be a professional singer?
I never even thought about it. All I knew is that I wanted to sing and it was medicine to me. My dad punished me for singing on the corner but it wasn’t punishment if I had a song in my head. When I got to junior high school I had a doo-wop group and we used to sing in the girl’s bathroom with the good acoustics and all. The teacher would come down and say “Better get back to class.” I thought I was in class, ‘cause I knew that’s what I wanted to do. There was two girls and two guys in the group, I just saw one of the girls in the airport for the first time since then, her name is Evelyn.
Was your mom more supportive of you playing music?
My dad was supportive. He’d bring us to our gigs. But my mom and my uncle Jolly [George Landry], who was chief of the Wild Tchoupitoulas, they had a chance to go on the road when they were young but my grandmother wouldn’t let them go because of the Jim Crow laws and all that stuff. Because of that my Mom said she’d never try to stop one of us from doing what we wanted to do. So Charles went on the road when he was 15 years old with a minstrel show.
I moved to Valence Street when I was 13. Chief Jolly lived there later on right before he died. I used to go out on Mardi Gras day with Chief Jolly. We did some gigs with the Wild Tchoupitoulas, went on the road, I never wore the full regalia with the band, just wore a headband. I was into the music part of it. But I was always with him, I’d walk with him on Mardi Gras morning, I’d be there with him when he was sewing. I remember the last year he masked. The year before he died. The last year he was alive he had been in the hospital and they wouldn’t let him out of the hospital because he had a fever. Turned out he had lung cancer ‘cause he worked at this place where they made sheet rock. They gave him three months and that was it.
You’ve had to deal with a lot of problems and sadness in your life. But you also were with your childhood sweetheart Joel who became your life partner until she died.
Yes. From 16 to when she died in ‘07 I was 66.
How did you meet her?
I was walking down the street. I was with Idris Muhummad, the New Orleans drummer. His name was Leo Morris. We were walking and he knew her so I said “Introduce me, man.” This was when we were on Valence Street. I fell in love with her right there, I knew that’s who I wanted to be with. I met her in May of ‘57 and we got married in January of ‘59.
You went through some hard times. Going to jail, being addicted to hard drugs.
I don’t have no regrets about nothing or anything I did. Some of the things I’ve done give me compassion for people who’ve gone through it, maybe I can give them some wordly wisdom. I look at it as all the things I did, the world that I come from, has made me who I am. When I’m singing, the good, the bad, the pretty, the ugly, the sweet, the sour, it has all added up to make me who I am. People who are listening to me sing know that I’ve been there and I’ve done that. I hope that can give them some kind of comfort or something.
You were finally able to overcome your addiction in 1981, right?
Yes, I saw a cross on the wall up in Harlem. It was in a shooting gallery. People were tying up their arms and shooting up. I remember it was horrible. The stench… the blood, I was overwhelmed by it all of a sudden. When I first started I was in love with it. Then I found out that this was the devil. So I was praying. My mom had always believed in me, she sent me a St. Jude [Patron Saint of lost causes]. So I’m looking at the wall and there’s cracks on the wall and suddenly I realize I’m looking at a cross on the wall. Y’know. And I knew right then it was a sign. Telling me “Get me out of there.”
Did you follow through with meetings?
I didn’t go to any meetings at all. I just made up my mind. I didn’t want it no more.
When Katrina hit did you know Joel was ill?
She was diagnosed with terminal lung cancer in 2004. The doctor gave her three months to live. But her and my sister started praying to St. Jude. We all prayed every day. Then she went back for another CAT scan and they didn’t see it no more. So she proved them wrong. She was so strong. I don’t know if I could have taken something like that. She beat it but everything else took its toll. She lived three more years.
So many people were infirm before the Katrina flood and the stress took something out of them. They might not have died in the water, but the stress took them in the next few years.
It knocked the wind out of everything. All of a sudden New Orleans was different. No matter how hard core you were, no matter how deep into it. You could see all the musicians, you could tell by the look in their eyes they was hurtin’. You might have left the city taking three day’s worth of clothes and thinking you’d be back in the city in three days. I called down to find out what happened to our home. When I heard it was in three feet of water. I said “I don’t want to take anything out of the house. I don’t want nothing.” I left it there to be gutted. I felt violated. I lost all the pictures, tapes of recordings.
Can you describe your feelings after Joel died?
The loss is indescribable. I thought I would never stop crying. I cried all day every day. I couldn’t sing for crying. My heart was breaking. The last time I had been through something like that was when my Uncle Jolly was in the hospital dying of cancer. It was the hardest time of my life, man.
And then, miraculously, a new love entered your life.
I fell in love again with Sarah. I’m happy I’m alive and moving in the right direction with a new life in New York. It’s nice to feel at home in a different place you know. She came to New Orleans to photograph the Brothers when they reformed to play the Jazz Fest in ‘08. Something passed between us, an attraction. So I got her card and I called her later on. I gave her one of our books and said “Here, read this book. Then give me a book report.”
This record’s kind of like a tribute to her isn’t it? The way you sing “This Magic Moment,” it’s like you’re singing to her.
If it wasn’t for Sarah I probably wouldn’t be doing this record. She helped me make some moves that I really needed to make, like with my manager, my bookings, signing with Blue Note. She got me to change my image, wear different clothes.
Do you have a bucket list?
No, I don’t think about no bucket list. If I ain’t gonna do it, I ain’t gonna do it. People ask me when I’m going to retire. Don’t even think about it.
You must be looking forward to Jazz Fest.
I’m looking forward to playing all these songs and just looking to play a good Aaron Neville show. And this year I’m on the poster. I’m looking forward to seeing my sister Athelgra this year. She’s with the Dixie Cups. Growing up me and her were real close. We sang together, washed dishes together, put the clothes up on the wash line together, played together. All the time we were singing together. And we’d laugh at anything, I couldn’t look at her without cracking up.
When the decision was made to change the Neville Brothers to the Nevilles was there a big meeting between the brothers and other family members?
I’d been talking about some changes for a long time. The way I look at it I’ve got one more shot at this, at doing what I really want to do. I don’t want to wait and end up not doing what I want to do. I’m going to go ahead and do my own thing right now. And you never say never with the Neville Brothers. Maybe we’ll reunite for Jazz Fest next year. The Blue Note record came out really good and I have to work on it to let people know about it. It’s just something I had to do. I have to get something out of it too.
Well, it’s not like the Neville Brothers played that many gigs anyway recently.
That’s right. For a couple of years we weren’t playing at all. I don’t know what the deal was, I just know that the time was right for me to do this and I’m just so happy and blessed that Don Was and Keith Richards were there to help me make this record. To help me tell My True Story.