Aaron Neville is still a good ol’ Southern gentleman at heart.
The 65-year-old Neville, born and raised in New Orleans, is going strong with a new CD on Burgundy Records (Sony BMG) called Bring It On Home … The Soul Classics. In recent months, he has also appeared and performed on the popular TV reality show, Celebrity Duets, with Cheech Marin, and in between, he continues touring the country performing benefit concert tours to aid Katrina victims. He also dedicates many hours of his time to a charity he founded in the 1980s – New Orleans Artists Against Hunger and Homelessness, Inc.
As for his new album, it’s comprised of 13 all-time soul classics including Otis Redding’s “(Sittin’ On) The Dock Of The Bay,” and Sam Cooke’s “A Change Is Gonna Come,” as well as Bill Withers “Ain’t No Sunshine.”
It also includes collaborations with such artists as Chris Botti, Chaka Khan and Mavis Staples – and according to music critics, it’s “Aaron’s most remarkable work to date.”
“These classic songs have been pumping blood to my heart from the first second I heard them. They have been part of my life. Singing them, especially in the aftermath of Katrina, was a deeply spiritual experience. They helped me get through, they gave me hope. And for me, music has always been about hope,” Neville says.
Joe DiMuro, EVP/General Manager of Sony BMG’s Burgundy Records adds, “Legendary soul classics performed by one of the greatest soul voices of the 20th century … It doesn’t get any better that that. By putting our own twist on it, we are making these beloved soul classics new again.”
Neville, who has won 16 Grammys, says he had a blast making the album, which only took a few weeks to pull together. He also shares that, despite his fame, wealth and popularity, he’s still a down-home Southern boy with grassroots in Louisiana – a place he still refers to as “home.”
“When I was in the booth singing these songs, songs so connected to my life before Katrina, I couldn’t help but think how this storm has changed everything. I was thinking about all of those people in the water. Thinking of friends I might never see again. Thinking of how I lost my home, how three of my sons, my brother, Cyril, and sister, Athelgra, all had lost their homes. So much loss was on my mind. My family was luckier than most …”
In the Beginning
Aaron Neville is the third born of the famous four Neville Brothers – Art and Charles are older, while Cyril is younger; he also has a sister, Athelgra, who sings with the group The Dixie Cups.
Neville says his first music influence was Art: “I never heard a better singer or funkier keyboardist than my big brother.” As for his sister, he says they remain close and he recalls when they were growing up, “We always washed dishes together and we’d be singing and laughing at everything. She helped to mold me.”
Regarding Charles, Neville adds, “He was the family Jazzman. He blew sax and schooled me in the ways of improvisation. Brother Cyril was our James Brown and he was, and still is, a great singer. He burns with soul.”
Aaron Neville himself, was the first of the brothers to earn a spot on the national charts in 1966, with his “Tell It Like It Is” – a song that hit number one. However, the label – Par-Lo – went bust before he reaped any of the financial rewards from the song. But that didn’t stop Neville; he toured nationally and established his own status and unique singular style.
That style, he says, is rooted in the doo wop performers of the 1950s – The Moonglows, The Flamingos, The Clovers, and close friend, Pookie Hudson and the Spaniels. But he was also deep into gospel groups such as The Pilgrim Travelers, The Brooklyn-All Stars and The Blind Boys of Alabama – and then there were those yodeling cowboys.
In fact, Neville enjoyed the yodeling so much that he taught himself how to yodel and he even sang a tribute to country singer Jimmie Rodgers while adding his new found talent in the background.
“I remember I did a song called ‘Why Should I Be So Lost’ and I yodeled on it,” he says. “I loved those cowboys.”
While the 1970s came and went, the Brothers Neville, with their beloved Uncle Jolly, collectively created The Wild Tchoupitoulas – a dazzling array of Mardi Gras Indian songs that earned a place in American music history. They also continued to pursue other projects individually, and later, with Aaron as one of the lead vocalists, they were signed to Capitol, and then to A&M where, in the 1980s, they recorded a series of memorable albums including Yellow Moon.
In the 1990s, Aaron Neville’s solo career re-emerged and when Linda Ronstadt and George Massenburg produced his Warm My Heart, it became a bestseller. During this same timeframe he won two Grammys for his duets with Ronstadt, “Don’t Know Much,” and “All My Life.”
In the years that followed, Neville would be nominated for 16 Grammys in categories including country and western, pop, rhythm-and-blues, and gospel. In 1994, he and Trisha Yearwood won “Best Country and Western Vocal Collaboration” for “I Fall to Pieces.” He also won “Best Male Singer” for two years running in Rolling Stone’s critics’ poll.
“I love to do it all,” says Neville, a hint of the Southern drawl still present in his distinctive voice. “But, gospel is my first love and it’s like a cleansing to me. I also like the doo wop since my brothers and I are from the ‘College of Doo Wopology.’”
These days, Neville still looks up to friend Pookie Hudson and says that he hopes to one day team up with Hudson. When asked what he thinks of today’s music, Neville says there is definitely a different audience than when he started out.
“I like some of today’s stuff, but I don’t see myself doing hip-hop, but I do have to take my hat off to them – I could never do it,” he says. “I just think they should be singing a little bit more positive stuff.”
When he does listen to music, he likes his brothers, Marvin Gaye, Sam Cooke and lots of other “old school” artists.
“I like mellow music like Luther Vandross and music that you can sit down with your grandmother and your granddaughter and listen to and stuff that nobody is offended by,” he says.
Still a kid at heart, Neville has many colorful tattoos and in recent years, he has added a few to the menagerie. He hasn’t returned to his home state of Louisiana since the devastation, because he has asthma and was told by his doctor to stay clear.
“I would like to go back and see friends, but I don’t think the New Orleans that I knew will ever come back,” he says. “I am hoping they can get it back to some kind of normalcy for the people that are going to live there. I will always have it in my heart … I was born, raised and nurtured there. It was cool growing up in New Orleans because we always had music around us. It let us know what kind of direction we were going to go into; music was always what I planned.”
When it comes to his own fame, Neville says he is still the same kid “that ran through the projects in Louisiana.”
“I haven’t changed and I’m still the same person,” he says. “I have the same friends that I did when I was growing up.”
He is also quite health conscious, and says he tries to make sure he takes care of himself by working out daily and eating right.
“I’m trying to keep it all together,” says the 5-foot 11-inch vocalist. “I have a trainer who is a body builder, whom I have been training with for many years; she was 17 years old when we first started together, now she’s 36.”
Surprisingly, even though he was raised on good ol’ Southern cooking, he sticks to a lot of fish, especially when he’s on the road.
“I eat a lot of salmon, chicken and salad,” he says. “I’ve had my share of Southern food, so I don’t eat much of it anymore.”
On the Side
As for his personal life, Neville has been married to Joel for 47 years, and they live full time in Nashville, Tenn. Their four children range in age from 34 to 46. In his spare time, he enjoys working out, singing, driving around in his silver Corvette convertible and on occasion, he appears as himself on soap operas such as his favorite The Young and the Restless.
“I’m a big fan of Y&R and I did All My Children a few years ago – I’m a big fan of Erica Kane,” he laughs. “When I’m on the road, I watch a lot of TV. I’m not into the Hollywood scene at all. I’m a giving person, but what else is there? You live, and you die. What you do in between is what counts, so don’t make it a blank trip.”
Of his own legacy, Neville says he cannot think of what that will be since he’s “not going anywhere for a long time.”
Lucky for us.