“It’s a love, and it makes me whole. If I couldn’t sing, then I wouldn’t want to be here.” This is how Aaron Neville feels about his craft, more than five decades into a career which sees him now as a legend, a pioneer, a behemoth in the world of roots music.
“For me it’s about the love of the music. Not about the business, none of that stuff. I’m glad that I’ve been able to have longevity, to be still doing it. You hear of so many people falling by the wayside and I’m still around, I feel blessed.”
In 1960, as a 19-year-old, Neville released his first single, ‘Over You’. It was a precursor to his debut full-length release in 1965, Tell It Like It Is, and the beginning of a career which has seen him hit the lofty heights most can only dream of.
With brothers Art, Charles and Cyril, he was a part of The Neville Brothers (the first family of New Orleans R&B); he’s dueted with Linda Ronstadt, a collaboration which produced the Grammy-winning single ‘I Don’t Know Much’; and he’s released a slew of highly acclaimed solo records, mining the depths of R&B, gospel, soul and blues, his falsetto voice as recognisable as any other sound in music.
But it was another sound, another style, which initially made its way into a young Aaron Neville’s head – doo-wop, a vocal-based off-shoot of rhythm & blues which came about in the ‘40s, achieving larger recognition in the ‘50s and ‘60s. It was this music which first grabbed Neville, which had him careering off down a path he had no choice but to follow.
“The doo-wop stuff captured my heart,” he concurs. “It’s been there my whole life, everything I’ve recorded has had some kind of doo-wop essence in it, you know? It was the harmonies… my brother, Art, had a doo-wop group in New Orleans and he let me sing with them. Putting the harmonies together, hitting the high notes and singing the bass parts, all of it, it was fascinating to me.”
Despite the fact it was doo-wop that first ignited Neville’s taste for music, it wasn’t until some fifty years later that he’s been able to pay tribute to this style specifically. Yes, it’s permeated his music from day one, but it was only last year that Neville released My True Story, a record acknowledging the doo-wop numbers that have shaped his musical life – a covers record that tells his story.
“I’ve been trying for a long time to do it,” he says with a smile. My True Story came about via a couple of interesting connections – Blue Note Records head and producer par excellence Don Was (Rolling Stones, Bob Dylan, Iggy Pop, Elton John, Brian Wilson et al), and legendary Stones guitarist Keith Richards. Not a bad team to have in your corner.
“Don produced Voodoo Lounge by The Stones, and he was rooming underneath Keith in the hotel [in 1993],” Neville explains. “And Keith had this album on a loop, over and over and over, it was ‘My True Story’ (the song) by The Jive Five, so I knew he was into the doo-wop. And so Don asked him to be involved, and he said, ‘What took you so long, man?’”
As such, Richards takes on guitar duties on My True Story, which also features Eugene Pitt, the lead singer of The Jive Five, singing background vocals, along with the likes of Greg Leisz on guitar (Beck), Benmont Tench on organ (Tom Petty), George G. Receli thumping tubs (Bob Dylan), and bassist Tony Scherr (Bill Frisell). It’s a real rock ‘n’ roll band, which is interesting – doo-wop is very vocal based, the focus is on the voice as opposed to the band. With My True Story, it seems Neville has stepped away from that somewhat.
“Well, doo-wop was a feel, you know?” he explains. “It was an era. People didn’t start calling it doo-wop until later, in the ‘50s. They were calling it rhythm and blues, R&B. It was a sound I loved back in that era.” Regardless, with this record, as with all his others, Neville’s voice takes the spotlight, no matter who’s in the backing band.
“There have been many highlights,” he smiles, on his career thus far, and no doubt My True Story is one of them. And yet he’s not done yet, this stellar career having no foreseeable end. “We’re talking about doing some original stuff, I’m doing a lot of writing on my cell phone, on my iPhone,” he tells.
“I’ve got maybe a hundred little parts on my phone, some [of which] will probably turn into songs. Maybe the next record, I don’t know. I still want to do some more country, some more gospel, some blues. I never did a [full] blues album.”
For Aaron Neville, it’s a love. If he can’t sing, he doesn’t want to be here. But he can sing, he’s still singing, and it looks like he’ll be singing for a long time yet.
Samuel J. Fell
Aaron Neville plays the Byron Bay Bluesfest (April 18 & 19), plus Melbourne (April 21), Sydney (April 24) and Perth (April 26).