For over five decades, Aaron Neville has entertained audiences with his unique wailing vocals and willingness to defy fitting neatly into any musical genre. The four-time Grammy award-winning New Orleans native has explored a wide array of styles spanning pop, R&B, soul, country, rock & roll, doo wop, jazz and gospel.
Neville’s latest album, My True Story, is his debut release under the legendary Blue Note Records. Produced entirely by Don Was and Rolling Stones’ guitarist Keith Richards, My True Story’s 12-track sequence pays homage to some of Neville’s favorite songs growing up in the Big Easy. “I’ve done standards. I don’t know if you would call that ‘jazz,’ but I do it all,” says a monotone Neville with his heavy New Orleans accent.
Relaxing in his dressing room backstage prior to showtime at Atlanta’s Cobb Energy Performing Arts Centre, Neville, who wears an arching crucifix tattoo across his left cheek, speaks in great detail about recording My True Story with both Was and Richards. The trio ended up recording 23 tracks over five days each in one take. Richards shared with Neville during those sessions that he “felt like he was back in the ‘50s.”
“It was cool,” says a raspy Neville with a slight chuckle soon following. “The music just brought us back. It was a bunch of hard musicians in the studio acting like a bunch of kids. It was a labor of love for all of us.”
Neville’s chart-topping hits include “Tell It Like It Is” and the duet with Linda Ronstadt, “Don’t Know Much.” He continues to perform with his siblings as part of New Orleans’ first family of music, The Neville Brothers. Aaron’s brother, Charles, joined him onstage in Atlanta and played saxophone. The Louisiana Music Hall of Fame inductees heard everything from local jazz bands playing for funerals to the sounds of drums from Mardi Gras Indians’ experienced when growing up.
Neville’s knack for performing and singing, he says, stems from being saturated with New Orleans’ spirited musical legacy. “We’ve heard that since we were kids,” says Neville. “like the Satchmos, Professor Longhairs and Fats Dominos. We had a lot in front of us to give us guidance. All of that contributed to our thing.”
Neville’s career endured its share of hard times. Even with hit records, he experienced not receiving royalties because his first record label folded. As audience preferences shifted in the early 1970s, Neville’s record sales began to dwindle. Following Hurricane Katrina, Neville’s home was wiped out by the storm.
Despite the odds, Neville remained passionate about music. He continued to record, entertain audiences and got more in touch with his spirituality. Neville says, “I would like to see the world in a better place. I like to see all mankind be more kind to each other and not so many wars and killings everywhere on Earth.”
Post-Katrina, he performed numerous benefit concerts. Before he goes on stage, Neville pulls his band and brothers together for prayer. “I pray all of the time,” says Neville. “That’s my saving grace all day long. We live in a crazy world. I pray to be safe, for my family and that I have patience with everybody. That keeps me centered.”
Once Neville takes center stage, his repertoire includes soulful ballads, funky conga-based jams, band member solos and impromptu renditions of some notable standards. He likes to leave his audience and fans with one thing in mind. “[Aaron] came into this world to sing and that gives me joy,” says Neville. “And I’m gonna do it ‘til God comes. That’s the bottom line.”
This post was written by Christopher A. Daniel, pop cultural critic and music editor for The Burton Wire. He is also a contributing writer for Urban Lux Magazine and Blues & Soul Magazine. Follow Christopher @Journalistorian on Twitter.