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Aaron Neville, Now and Forever

AP/Alex A. Menendez Photographs

Thirty years from now, with the Gulf having swallowed the southern parishes, from their homes on concrete stilts New Orleanians will catch the Canal Street gondola under silver pepper stars to an audio loop with Aaron Neville’s gorgeous reach.

“With your eyes so big and shiny
You can see the whole damn land
Yellow moon, can you tell me
If the girl’s with another man?”

That voice, the singer’s tale in cameo, is destined for longevity. How many vocalists today lay claim to truly cosmic reach?

Streisand? Sure. Paul Simon? Duh. Linda Ronstadt? Absolutely. How about Billy Joel? Nah. Norah Jones! Maybe. Whitney Houston? Um, well ... All right then: Aretha Franklin? Yes. And would everyone please stand for Dr. John?

Every singer has a different purchase on the simple force of beauty. The poetics of a given voice surround a song, teasing out the lines that last in the memory as if by some magical implantation. Neville is there by virtue of astonishing range and how his voice colors words in the rise of octaves unto a floating falsetto, like a cloud changing shape in the sky. The voice in its altitude gives new meaning to the words sung. Think of Al Green in his prime, the sinuous, cat-on-a-high wire quality, dancing high above instrumentation on “So In Love With You.”

Aaron Neville has a longer, more varied journey as a vocalist, much of which has been shaped by his love of gospel. The high notes are his mainstay. His take on “The Mouseketeer Song” summons a tenderness to make the hearts of many a baby boomer melt. But his CD Believe, a classic, taps spirituality from varied wellsprings. A childhood in pews of the Catholic Church shapes “Ave Maria.” His version of Hank Williams’ “I Saw The Light” turns on sharp lilts: “Then Jesus came like a stranger in the night,” he sings in a tenor baritone at medium tempo, then up like an angel: “Praise the Lord, I saw the light!”

The power of his falsetto pulls from a deep spirituality. In past interviews Neville has been blunt about his battle with a smack addiction and the St. Jude novenas he made in getting clean. On Believe, you get a sense of that past’s dark grip in his take of Bob Dylan’s composition, “Gotta Serve Somebody.” The guitar lines throb like some malevolent force coming fast behind – an evil spirit stalking you:

“You might be a rock ‘n’ roll addict
Prancin’ on the stage
You might have drugs at your command
Women in a cage
You may be a businessman
Or some high degree thief ...
But you’re gonna have to serve somebody … ”

And then the reach, the soaring voice trailing a message raw and hard: “Yes indeed you’re gonna have to serve somebody!”

In the new CD My True Story, Neville pays homage to the Doo Wop music of his adolescence in the 1950s, the lush harmonies of groups like the Orioles, Clyde McPhatter and the Drifters, the Platters and the Moonglows singing “Sincerely” – if all of this draws a blank on Generation X readers, find The Doo Wop Box on Rounder (you’ll thank me).

The midcentury hits that Neville covers on the new CD range from a mellow crooning on “Gypsy Woman” and a rhapsodic flow on “Be My Baby” to the ever-tender “Tears on My Pillow.” But in contrast to the high-octave harmonics of classic Doo Wop groups, who blended their voices with racing polyrhythms and rocking backbeats, the arrangements on My True Story lean to the spare side, and wisely so. Dispensing with the tempo-charged choral refrains leaves a wider space and room for Neville’s voice to roam. It is hard to imagine he’s 72 years old, his voice sounds so young; but hitting the high notes is an aerobics feat for any singer in that age zone, even with chops like a Neville.

The gem of this CD is “Little Bitty Pretty One,” a 1957 Bobby Day composition that Thurston Harris sang so well it was covered again and again by, inter alia, Clyde McPhatter, the Jackson Five, Huey Lewis and the News and the Doobie Brothers.

It opens with a melody of scat singing and then the lines:

“Oh, little bitty pretty one,
Come on and talk to me,
Let me grab you lovely one
Come sit down on my knee.”

The nimble bounce in Neville’s voice puts a different patina on this one, a surface with all the sweetness one associates with those timeless lyrics from an era when love songs carried grand cargo as sensations of the heart, the lyrics rocking a message of love more than sex, and the erotic joys of dancing to rhythms spinning something new and hot. I keep wondering if the old adage that everyone remains loyal to music of their youth will apply to rap and hip-hop. Do I hear younger readers groan?

It is a surpassing pleasure to hear Neville rewrite pages of his past, singing anew the standards on which he grew up. Yet I couldn’t help but think that an even more pared-down Aaron Neville classic is yet to come. Put this man in a studio, let that gorgeous voice go a capella and sing what it will. If he wants a piano, why not? This guy is one golden spirit.

“Me and [Allen] Toussaint would ride around with a tape recorder and one day we pulled up to a big semi truck. The motor was going ‘rumble rumble rumble’ with a nice beat, you know, and Toussaint recorded that beat.”

– Aaron Neville, Up From the Cradle of Jazz

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