Aaron Neville, born January 24, 1941, is “the” voice of New Orleans. In a city that has a long history of diverse song stylists—from the early originators such as Louis Armstrong in jazz and Mahalia Jackson in gospel, to distinctive and influential R&B shouters such as Professor Longhair and Fats Domino, to generations of major movers on the pop scene such as Dr. John and the new heir apparent, Harry Connick, Jr.—it’s saying a lot to say that anyone singer is “the” voice, but Aaron Neville has certainly earned the honor.
Whether singing religious music, oldies, doo wop, R&B or pop, one can instantly recognize the soaring falsetto and quivering vibrato that is Aaron Neville’s trademark. In the ’60s Aaron had a national hit with “Tell It Like It Is”; now, over two decades later, Aaron has broken into the national charts with a duet performance with Linda Ronstadt.
At long last, Aaron is beginning to get the recognition this unique singer deserves. Busier than he has ever been in his long career, OffBeat caught Aaron in a rare moment at home between recording sessions and tours.
What makes you unique as a singer?
I don’t try to copy anybody. I’ve developed my own style, but I did copy at one time. I used to listen to people like Nat King Cole. I used to want to sing all kinds of music when I was younger. I used to sing spirituals, cowboy music, yodeling, doo-wop, slow standards like Nat King Cole. It was fascinating to be able to sing all those different kinds of songs.
When you recorded ”Tell It Like It Is” did you have any idea that it would become as big a hit as it did?
No, I didn’t. As a matter of fact when we did that session we recorded four songs, and at that time most of the hit songs were uptempo. I had my eye on another song we did called “Took You For A Ride” which was an uptempo song. But Art [Neville—Aaron’s brother] said no, “Tell It Like It Is” is the upsetter.
During that time you had a number of songs which were well received…
“Tell It Like It Is” was the only national hit, most of the other songs were regional hits.
Why do you think that string of songs stopped coming? Did the music change?
It was a thing of the record companies here in New Orleans running people through a lot of changes. The companies weren’t really paying us the way they should have been. Most of the artists in New Orleans were recording because they loved to sing, but really didn’t make much money. For example “Tell It Like It Is” was a national hit but I never got anything but a session payment on that.
You haven’t gotten any royalties on that?
No. I’m still waiting to get paid on that one.
How does that make you feel when you hear your song on the radio, a song you recorded years ago and that they still play on the radio, you know that it was a big hit, but you aren’t making any money from it?
I don’t feel bad anymore. I just mark it down as experience. Some of the people who did make money off it are no longer around, but I’m still around and kicking and making money now, so all of that is just water under the bridge now.
The Neville Brothers as a group and each of you as individuals have been at it a long, long time. Was there ever a period when you felt like giving it up or felt that it wasn’t ever going to work?
I guess it was bad for a while, but it never got that bad, although sometimes we had to do a lot of other things to keep the wolf off the house. You know, we did all kinds of odd jobs: longshoreman, truck driver, house painter, or whatever, you name it. But, I always had something in the back of my head that said I was going to make it. A friend of mine would always tell me: “patience is a virtue.” I always remembered that and had faith.
But how did you keep from feeling bitter?
Well there’s no sense in feeling bitter. The past is the past, there’s nothing you can do about that but what you can do is work toward the future.
I understand that the Neville Brothers are about to make a follow-up album to Yellow Moon. Was Yellow Moon the biggest album for the Neville Brothers so far?
Yeah, we’re about to go into the studio and yeah, that’s our biggest so far. In fact, it was album of the year all over Europe. Matter of fact, one of the cuts, “God On Our Side” was a big hit over there and they played it at that historical moment when they knocked down the Berlin Wall. A friend of mine sent me all kinds of clips and tapes from over there. He’s a member of a group called “Bananas”—British Awfully Niffy Aaron Neville Appreciation Society. He told me that when the story came on the news with pictures of people crying at Checkpoint Charlie and all of that, when they would show the news they would play our song all over Europe on the television and radio. We’re getting ready to go do a 10-weeks tour throughout Europe with Tina Turner, starting in May.
Why do you think that you have a fan club and the Neville Brothers have a number one record over in Europe but it’s been a long, uphill battle here?
Our music doesn’t fit into the categories they have for music here in the United States, so as a consequence they tell us we don’t fit into the radio formats. For instance, we never get played on WYLD. We’ll get played on a white station before we’ll get played there. You know most of the radio stations in the United States are into a certain format, you have to fit in their certain clique or style, or else they won’t play your music. If you don’t hit that formula or that vein that they’re in, they won’t play you. But over in Europe it’s different. They just want to hear good music, whatever it is.
It must be very difficult to find material for the Neville Brothers which is new but which also reflects your sound. For your new album will you be doing mostly original material or will you record songs from other artists and writers?
We’re going to be doing mostly our own material because everybody in the group is writing. We might do one or two covers, but mainly it will be our own material.
In addition to your singing career, you’re also write poetry. Have you had any of it published yet?
That’s right, I write poetry but I haven’t had any of it published yet. Well actually, “Yellow Moon” is one of my poems that’s in my book I’m working on. In the next album we’ll probably be using another couple of poems.
Do you write the pieces as poems first and then turn them into songs?
I write them as poems but I also have a rhythm in mind.
You’re about to do a solo album also?
If I can ever find the time to record it. Right now we’re doing the Neville Brothers plus we’ve got Mardi Gras and Jazz Fest, then we go on to Europe with Tina Turner, then when we come back we go on the road with Linda Ronstadt for ten more weeks.
What label is your album going to be on when you do get to record it and do you have in mind what kind of material you’re going to do?
My album will be on A&M. Yeah, I have a direction in mind. I’m going to have a couple of the oldies and some of the doo wop kind of things as well as some of my new material.
How did you feel when Linda Ronstadt called to ask you to be on her album?
Well, it didn’t just happen like that. I met her in 1984 when she was here with Nelson Riddle’s Orchestra at the World’s Fair. After her gig she came over to our gig at Pete Fountain’s Club. Somebody told me she was in the audience, so I dedicated a number to her and called her up the stage and she sang a doo wop song with us. Later she told me that was one of the highlights of her tour. I asked for her autograph. She gave me her autograph and told me that “I’ll record with you any song, any time, any place, just name it.” She was joking around but she was also serious. About a year later I called her to ask her to play on our Hungry And Homeless Benefit. She came down and at that time asked to sing with me. So we started going over songs together and found out that our voices blended well. That was in 1985. After a while our managers started talking with each other and got the ball rolling, about a year and a half later, we got together and did the record that’s out now.
You’re very active in the community trying to help improve the city with programs like the Hungry And Homeless Benefit as well as work with community centers in the uptown area, why?
I feel you have to do something to help besides just reaping your own benefits. If my name can lend some weight to a good cause, I’m all for it. I always say, but for the grace of God, there go I.