Aaron Neville - the Nawlins spirit'll never die


When Aaron Neville talks about the spirit of New Orleans never dying, he’s referring to the in-bred indomitability of the city’s people who have withstood hurricanes and floods and whatever else life has thrown at them down the years, a strength of character that infuses the music produced there.


There are other spirits associated with the place known variously as the Crescent City and the home of jazz, and Neville and his musical brothers have invoked these over the years, with various degrees of seriousness, as they rose to become the first family of New Orleans funk. There was the Wild Tchoupitoulas’ album, which the brothers helped their uncle George Landy (aka Big Chief Jolly) put together in 1976 by calling up the ancient chants of their ancestors the Mardi Gras Indians.


Then there was the Neville Brothers’ 1989 album, Yellow Moon, which was produced by Daniel Lanois whose voodoo infatuation the brothers encouraged by bringing in a stuffed bobcat, a few large rubber snakes and some thickets of moss to hang from the studio ceiling.


Mostly, though, the story of Aaron, the third oldest in a family of six siblings who include the founders of New Orleans groove masters The Meters and a sister who sang briefly in proto-girl band the Dixie Cups, is founded on that never gonna give up quality and the voice of a particularly fortunate angel.


“I never looked upon my voice as special,” says Neville in a perhaps surprisingly quiet tone for such a big, powerfully-built man. “It’s true that I could go up to whoever was on the door at a movie house or a baseball game and sing to them and they’d let me in for free but I’m not sure if that was due to a particular talent or just my boldness.”


The siblings’ parents, Amelie and Arthur, weren’t musicians themselves, although Amelie once had a dance partnership with Uncle George that had a chance at fame with Louis Prima vetoed by their mum and dad, and Arthur’s regular fishing pal, one Overton Amos Lemons became better known as Smiley Lewis when he had a hit with I Hear You Knockin’. The Neville house did, however, have a constant musical soundtrack.


“My folks were the biggest Nat King Cole fans – period - and I loved him too,” says Neville. “But there was all sorts of music going on at home – doowop and gospel, which were my big things, Fats Domino, Professor Longhair, jazz. I used to go to see Roy Rogers and Gene Autry movies and come out yodelling, which is where the country connection I explored later probably came from. You didn’t need a reason or an excuse to listen to music in New Orleans – you could just go out on the street and hear a second line band marching outside. It was a pretty exciting place to grow up in.”


Things got more exciting when, at the age of nineteen in 1960, Neville made his first record with a song written for him by New Orleans legend Allen Toussaint, Over You. By this time the Neville brothers had progressed from singing Hey Pocky Way (a chant that would surface again once Art and Cyril had formed the Meters) in the street to a rhythm beaten out on cigar boxes. Brother Charles had left for Memphis, where he played saxophone with B.B. King among others. Art had had some local success with the Hawketts and Aaron had served a six month sentence for car theft and befriended Larry Williams, the singer and writer behind Bony Moronie, Short Fat Fannie and Dizzy Miss Lizzy, who introduced Aaron to Toussaint.


“It was quite something to get your first record out back then but it was also a bit strange because I had to get used to hearing my own voice, which to me sounded like somebody else on tape,” says Aaron. “But that record got me out on the road on tour and although the record company said it didn’t sell outside New Orleans, years later when I met the Rolling Stones, they said they’d heard it over in England.”


Dodgy record company accounting would come back to haunt him when he became the first Neville brother to reach the national charts, with his 1966 hit Tell It Like It Is, and saw no financial return on a million seller as the company declared itself bankrupt. The record did establish his voice, however, even if he had to take a job in the New Orleans docks for the next few years to bring up his young family.


While Art and Cyril developed the Meters into the funky sound of New Orleans, becoming the studio band for LaBelle, Robert Palmer and Frankie Miller in between making definitive records of their own, Aaron continued singing, working manual jobs and dealing with drugs and alcohol problems until Uncle George gathered all four Neville brothers together to record the Wild Tchipitoulas album. It didn’t sell in vast quantities but it did lead to the Neville Brothers becoming a recording and touring group with Aaron as its totally distinctive lead singer.


“There’s a special feeling you get when you’re making music with your brothers and that’s something that’s never gone away,” says Aaron. “We did some dates just recently and it still feels great to be onstage together.”


With the Neville Brothers reaching a whole new audience, Aaron’s became the voice that other singers wanted to duet with and record producers wanted to take into different styles of music. He’s sung country with Trisha Yearwood, gospel with the Blind Boys of Alabama, jazz standards, Bob Dylan, Leonard Cohen, Sam Cooke and Temptations songs, and won Grammys or Grammy nomination in all the categories he’s lent that voice to. But the album that he credits as the most special, in career and music terms, is the one he recorded in 1989 with Linda Ronstadt, Cry Like A Rainstorm, Howl Like the Wind. The chemistry of their singing led to speculation that there might be more than music going on between them.


“No, we joked that our voices were married but we were just good friends and that’s the truth,” he says. “My wife was in the studio all during the recording sessions. There was something special going on with our voices, though, and I still sing some of the songs from that album in concert. My band and I have been together for about twelve years now and we cover a lot of bases – country, soul, gospel, doowop, jazz, rhythm ‘n’ blues and they all have a common denominator: New Orleans. I may not live there any more but the spirit’s still in me and my music and that spirit will be around long after I’m gone. It’ll never die.”


From The Herald, January 24, 2011.

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