Environmentally and culturally, New Orleans’ Calliope Projects stood a long way from a 12-acre farm in New York State. Yet Aaron Neville, 76, who, from the age of one until he was 13, lived with his family in the projects and now resides in Pawling, New York, speaks glowingly of the diverse locales. Each, in their time, became havens in providing just what was needed for happiness.
“The Calliope was like an oasis to us,” remembers Aaron, a multiple Grammy–winning, legendary vocalist who will make his debut appearance leading his quintet at the French Quarter Festival on Thursday, April 6. “It was our town, our village—that was our world.”
Back in Aaron’s day, the grassy central courtyard of the newly constructed Calliope (erected from 1939–1941) was the perfect spot for kids to play baseball, and the oval sidewalk that surrounded it worked for skating or riding bikes.
The Calliope, and thus the Nevilles’ apartment, was also a hotbed of musicians, many of whom, like Aaron and his brothers, Art, 79, Charles, 78 and Cyril, 68, would go on to enjoy successful musical careers.
“Art was my first inspiration of all time,” Aaron declares. “He was a singer. He had a doo-wop group in the Calliope. They would go around and win all the contests and get all the girls. I used to go up and try to sing with them and they’d say, ‘Get away from me, kid.’ One day one of the singers, he used to call me Kevin for some reason, said, ‘Hey Kevin, come here and hit this note.’ And I came and hit the note and it was on then. They showed me how to do the harmonies and all that.”
“In the early days, we had a doo-wop group together with Aaron, Art and some other guys in the neighborhood,” recalls saxophonist Charles Neville, who presently performs with Aaron’s quintet and is heard on his brother’s latest album, Apache. “There were certain artists that he listened to like Clyde McPhatter and the Drifters and Sam Cooke and the lead singer of the Orioles. For a while he would sing Larry Williams [of “Bony Moronie” and “Short Fat Fannie” fame].
“At first he was copying the styles of those guys but his voice was unique, it was his. What developed was not any one of those things but a kind of compilation of the different styles—but he didn’t sound like anybody else. He could sing like other people if he wanted to but his singing was just him.”
“For a long time in my life, Aaron was my idol,” says youngest brother Cyril. “Other kids had movie stars as idols, I had them in real life. Aaron, me and my sister, Athelgra, would be in our kitchen [on Valence Street] practicing harmonies. The influences are all over the place starting with Art who, I imagine, influenced Aaron. The cats that Aaron introduced me to like Scarface John also have a lot of to do with how I perform on stage.”
Aaron references hanging at the Dew Drop with Scarface John and Mac Rebennack (Dr. John) in the lyrics of his tune “Stompin’ Ground” on his 2016 album, Apache, released on his own Tell It Records label. John “Scarface” Williams was a chief of the Apache Hunters Mardi Gras Indian gang and a member of Huey Piano Smith’s backup vocal group, the Clowns. Later, he led his own band, the Tick Tocks.
Scarface John was also the inspiration for the tune “Brother John,” first recorded by the Wild Tchoupitoulas led by the Neville’s uncle, George “Big Chief Jolly” Landry on their 1976 self-titled album. Jolly was a force in all of the brothers’ lives and his bringing them together for this historic recording sparked the formation in 1977 of the Neville Brothers, a band that ruled New Orleans and stirred the world for some 40 years. His influences on the brothers, however, predated and went beyond that notable event.
“Before we were born, him and my mom were a song and dance team,” Aaron explains. “They were the best dancers—lindy hoppers—in New Orleans. They were offered to go on tour with [bandleader] Louis Prima but my grandmother wouldn’t let them go because she was afraid they wouldn’t be treated right because of the Jim Crow laws. My mother said she would never stop any of us from doing anything we wanted to do and let Charles go on the road when he was just 15.”
“The cowbells and tambourines, all that came from Jolly,” Cyril agrees. “He didn’t go nowhere without a tambourine and didn’t knock on a door; he banged that tambourine.”
Not only was the sound and excitement of the Mardi Gras Indians a part of Aaron’s and his family’s life, but they also boast Native American blood. Their great-grandmother came from Martinique and settled in Convent, Louisiana, an area that was home to the Choctaws. Aaron once said that he has a picture of his grandmother right next to one of the legendary Geronimo and they look like brother and sister. Aaron remembers too that whenever there was a Thanksgiving play at school, he’d be cast as a Native American because of his high cheekbones.
That brings us to Apache, Aaron’s nickname since childhood, the name that’s tattooed across his broad back, the title of his latest album and perhaps, most importantly to Aaron right now, the moniker of his constant companion—his often-photographed, little Shih Tzu Pomeranian dog. According to Charles, who lives in a wooded area in Massachusetts, Apache has even gone on some tours. “Aaron’s always posting pictures and videos of Apache on Facebook,” Charles says with a laugh.
“When I was a teenager we used to play football out in the streets in the hot sun and my skin would turn red,” says Aaron when explaining his nickname. “They started calling me redskin, and Red Apache and Apache Red, and shortened it to Apache. I used to have a license plate with Apache on it. People that know me still call me that.”
Beyond his remarkable voice and spine-tingling falsetto, Aaron is noted for his love of doo-wop groups and singers like Nat “King” Cole and Sam Cooke. His local influences beyond brother Art include the great Johnny Adams— “he made me want to hit the high notes”—the Spiders’ Chick and Chuck Carbo and more. “I loved all the New Orleans musicians that came up around my era,” Aaron adds, mentioning Ernie “The Pastor” K-Doe, Benny Spellman, and the Del Royals, fellow Calliope residents.
Aaron is also renowned for his muscular physique, which, he says, was always just how he was. “People always thought I worked out because my body was already built,” says Aaron, who first experimented with weightlifting at age 13 when his brother Charles got into it. “So they’d be asking me how much I was benching. I’d say, ‘I ain’t benching nothin’.’ The first time I actually started going to the gym was in the 1960s. Once I started, it was like, ‘Oh yeah.’ I just liked it. I liked to be in shape.”
“In jail you do a lot of push-ups and whatever,” adds Aaron, who, when he was 18, spent six months in prison for auto theft. “Me and my boys would steal cars and take a joy ride in ’em. They were so easy to take it was ridiculous. That was all part of me growing up—I’m still growing up. The guys I was hangin’ with, if you had a dare, you were going to take that dare.”
Laughingly, Charles remembers his kid brother as being “adventurous.” “He liked being outside and going places and doing things. He liked exploring.”
Aaron, who often looks at the bright side of life, doesn’t disparage his time behind bars. “I had fun in there, it was like crazy,” he surprisingly declares. “You’d be clownin’ around and singing. There were a lot singers back there too.” When asked whether he made any reforms following his incarceration, he again has a surprising, yet frank answer. “I wasn’t quite ready yet then, I don’t think. That was back then, it’s who I was and where I came from to make me who I am.” (To Make Me Who I Am is the title of his 1997 release on A&M Records.)
Aaron seriously pursued working out, which he’s continued to do throughout his life. It was an asset when he began working on the New Orleans docks. “I was strong—you had to be,” he says. “The docks was a great job—you got paid good, you knew what you had to do, and nobody was over you. They’d tell you in the morning what you were supposed to do. We’d go on a shift and they’d have sacks of coffee or cotton bales or rubber bales or oil drums. Dudes would be showin’ off out there. It was a good payday and if you worked three days on the river you were all right. All that’s changed now.”
When Aaron was living on Valance Street, near the family home in the 13th Ward, which many consider Neville Headquarters, he met Tazzie Colomb. The highly respected bodybuilder, then just 17 years old, began acting as Aaron’s physical trainer. She continued to work with him when Aaron and his wife and childhood sweetheart, Joel, who passed on in 2007, moved to Eastover. “It’s always nice to have a trainer to give you that push,” he says. After moving to an apartment in New York City with photographer Sarah Friedman, who he married in 2010, Aaron continued to have a trainer to inspire him. And though there is a gym in their home in Pawling, Aaron says, that now rather than a trainer, it’s just him and Apache that head upstairs to the workout room. “Every time I get on the bench, Apache wants to get up on the bench with me,” Aaron says with a laugh.
“I like to do bench presses and curls and cardio on the treadmill and listen to music—a lot of doo-wop stuff, Marvin Gaye, Bob Marley. When I listen to a Neville Brothers concert from when we were on tour with the [Grateful] Dead and at Tip’s way back in the game, I can run.”
It was in the late 1950s and early 1960s when Aaron began writing poems, many of which would later become lyrics to songs. “If something was bothering me, I’d write about it and it would make it alright,” he remembers. “So I started doing that and through the years I had a paper bag full of poems. I didn’t t really think they were worth anything.”
The first 45 that Aaron recorded with Allen Toussaint, “Every Day,” a beautiful song that remains much-demanded in his repertoire, he wrote while incarcerated in Parish Prison. Toussaint wrote the flip side, the equally popular “Over You.” Aaron recalls that the Del Royals, a favorite of his whose members came from the Calliope, were in the studio that day recording a song he really wanted to do, the solid “Who Will Be the One.” One listen to that tune, released on the Minit label, makes it clear that it is right up Aaron’s doo-wop alley.
“‘Yellow Moon’ was a poem that I wrote on me and Joel’s 25th anniversary,” Aaron recalls. “She had a chance to go on a cruise with her sisters and while she was gone and the moon was sitting up there one night it inspired me to write ‘Yellow Moon.’ I can’t plan to write. I’ll wake up and I just put it [a poem] on my iPhone. I don’t write with pencil and paper any more. Sometimes, I wonder if I can still write. I can sign my autograph and sign a check but uh…”
Aaron says that he would sometimes bring his poems to the studio with perhaps a rhythm in mind but not a set melody “to see if anybody liked them.” “[Record producer] Daniel Lanois liked ‘Yellow Moon” and ‘Voodoo,’” he remembers. “He was the type of guy who wasn’t trying to create anything, he just wanted to use what was there. Between us and the musicians we got the groove on.”
On Apache, Aaron’s poems were lovingly set to music by producer/guitarist Eric Krasno and Dave Gutter.
According to Aaron, things changed “big time,” for him and the Neville Brothers after meeting and then teaming with vocalist Linda Ronstadt.
“I met Linda at the  World’s Fair when me and the brothers were playing at Pete Fountain’s club. She was playing at the amphitheater and came to see us after her show. Somebody told me she was in the audience so I dedicated a song to her and I called her up on stage to sing some doo-wop with us. Afterward, I asked her for her autograph and she said, ‘To Aaron, Love. I will sing with you any time, any place, anywhere and in any key.’ That was around the time that me and Allen Toussaint started [the nonprofit organization] New Orleans Artists Against Hunger and Homelessness and we were having a benefit the next day so I asked her to come down. The first thing me and her sang together was harmonizing on ‘Ave Maria.’ Our voices blended so good and management was there and said, ‘Wow, you should do something together.’ And I said, ‘I agree!’”
“She came down in 1985 to do a Hunger and Homelessness benefit and we talked about going into the studio. It took a few years, but it was right on time. We got in the studio in 1989 and we did ‘Don’t Know Much’ and I said ‘See you at the Grammys.’ And sure enough.”
Touring with Ronstadt offered the Neville Brothers, who opened the shows for her, larger audiences in arena settings. Aaron would perform with the Brothers and then do several numbers with the headliner. Ronstadt also produced Aaron’s first solo album, 1991’s Warm Your Heart on the A&M label. The recording included the hit “Everybody Plays the Fool,” a cover of the chart-topping tune by the Main Ingredient. Two years later, Aaron released The Grand Tour (A&M), a country and western flavored number that opened doors for both him and the Neville Brothers to country music fans.
Aaron, a very spiritual man who found inner strength from his devotion to St. Jude, has celebrated his faith through his music and his life. His rendition of “Ave Maria” brought reverence and goose pimples to thousands of people regardless of their religious associations or lack thereof.
“He introduced me to all of the gospel stuff,” remembers Cyril, mentioning classic groups like Sam Cooke and the Soul Stirrers, the Swan Silvertones and the Highway QCs.”
In 2000, Aaron released Devotion, an album of gospel and spiritually uplifting songs such as the beautiful “Mary, Don’t You Weep” and “Bridge Over Troubled Water.” It was a project he’d long wanted to do, just as he desired to someday record an album of doo-wop classics and favorites from his youth. He fulfilled that desire with his 2013 release of My True Story.
“His approach to everything in life is very spiritual and so is mine,” says Charles. “We know that music is a gift and that we are privileged to share the gift with other people.”
“I am more a spiritualist than religious,” Cyril offers. “Everything that we [the Neville brothers] do is about spirit. That’s how we grew up. Jolly wasn’t just my uncle, he was my spiritual guide too. You can feel our spirituality in our music and you can hear our concerns for humanity in our music. That’s a family thing. We basically know what we have is a gift and it was given to us.”
While Aaron now sings to the birds flying around his farm rather than with his brothers and buddies in the projects and on Valence Street, his quintet—his working band who makes the tour dates—remains primarily New Orleans musicians. It includes Charles Neville on saxophone, pianist and old Neville family friend Michael Goods, and drummer/vocalist Earl Smith Jr., with David Johnson on bass and vocals.
“We started doing the quintet before the Neville Brothers dissolved [officially in 2015],” Charles explains. “It’s been pretty much the same members since the beginning. The way he works with his recorded tunes is that he wants them to sound just like they do on the records. So pretty much that’s the way it is.”
Charles’ favorite part about working with Aaron’s quintet is that the band doesn’t perform just one style of music. “We do his new stuff, his old stuff, some old Neville Brothers stuff, some doo-wop stuff and some of the old rock ‘n roll tunes. It’s such a variety of things that we play. The gigs are always fun—they never seem like work. We’re always having a good time.”
Life and times change. The road, which the Neville Brothers often traveled, can become difficult and tiresome. Health considerations become a factor in decisions concerning where and how to live, and love and marriage enter into the equation. Aaron and each of the Neville brothers remembers their past glories as a group and family while they continue to explore and enjoy their individual lives and musical pursuits.
“I miss the thing with the Neville Brothers period,” Cyril declares. “I was missing the other stuff that Aaron and I used to do while we were the Neville Brothers. The good part about that was that everybody could still be an individual and then you came together and made this magic. There never was a dull moment.”
“One thing about being on stage with my brothers,” Aaron says thoughtfully, “is that I could look around and look at each one of them and see some of our ancestors in them—our mother and father and Jolly in their faces.”
Last year, Aaron Neville celebrated the 50th anniversary of the release of the song, “Tell It Like It Is,” that put him on the musical map. And no, he’s not tired of singing it; rather, it remains his favorite song to perform. “I’ve sung it for 50 years—you do the math.”