Aaron Neville

It’s been difficult to distinguish Aaron Neville’s career between two distinct but equal streams. There’s the funky music he enjoys when working with his illustrious band of brothers and the angelic balladry that you associate with him while he’s on his own as a solo artist. Although casual fans may admit that they don’t know much about Neville’s musical centre, they have seen a split in his career. Apache, Aaron Neville’s solo album, will provide an education. The album’s R&B side is as hard-hitting as anything the Neville Brothers have ever recorded, yet it still allows for the singer with the most distinct vocal style on the planet to tell the truth.
Apache also reflects Neville’s spiritual and social concerns. This is only the second time that he has co-written almost an entire album. These words come straight from a poetry journal that Neville started keeping in the 1970s. It was later transferred to his iPhone. A pair of well-known collaborators in retro-soul, Eric Krasno (guitarist of Soulive and Rustic), and Dave Gutter (“frontman for Rustic Overtones”) were responsible for the music. They have created a modern/revivalist masterpiece that harkens back to a golden era that produced greats like Marvin Gaye’s “What’s Going On” (which Neville only happens to mention in his eco-conscious “Fragile World”)

The 75-year-old legend says, “I call it The Other Side of Aaron.” He also offers an alternative title for the album, “because people know about me from doing the ballads, and New Orleans stuff.” They are getting another feel from Aaron,” a record that touches upon the mystic gumbo and sweetness of “Yellow Moon”, while veering toward a third route we have never heard Neville take in the studio. He wants to surprise his long-time fans, but he also says that he hopes that others will be inspired by it. It is easy to imagine a 20-year-old listening and wondering about the Dap-King horns.

Eric Krasno, who has produced and/or written music for Ledisi and Matisyahu as well as 50 Cent and Chaka Khan, says, “Sonically we knew that we wanted to take the soul/funk era back to its roots.” Aaron and I talked about “Hercules”, a 1973 Neville single recorded with Allen Toussaint, the Meters, and some of Aaron’s earlier recordings as references. Most of the gear and instruments we used for this record were created before 1975. We wanted it to be something new and different, so we tried a lot modern tricks. Some songs, such as ‘Be Your Man’ or ‘I Ain’t Judgein’ You’, get into heavy funk while ‘Sarah Ann’ (and ‘Heaven’) take you to the warm and soulful place Aaron does best.

Neville is an expert on hybrids, and Apache’s final musical aesthetic is a mix of both traditional and modern music. Even at the core, he is one… which is why the album’s title is so important.

Neville says, “We have Native American blood.” My great-grandmother was from Martinique. They settled in Convent, Louisiana and connected with Native Americans there. We are African, Native American and all other things. He laughs and sometimes I joke that we are Heinz 57 because of all the colors we have. I have a photo of my grandmother next to Geronimo’s picture, and it looks like they could be brother and sister. Because of my high cheekbones, I was always chosen to play the Native American in a Thanksgiving play when I was in school. In my teens, I would be in front of the camera and my skin would turn red. I used to wear my hair down with a band around my head. My uncle called me Apache Red and I changed it to Apache.

The nickname has remained with him with pride throughout the years. “Apache was my New Orleans license plate. It’s tattooed on me.”

It’s his musical instincts that Neville embraces being a crossbreed. This comes from his childhood. He was immersed in the New Orleans and R&B culture, including Sam Cooke, his most prominent vocal role model.

He laughs, “I think the teacher probably thought that I had ADD or something because I wasn’t paying too much attention in class.” “I had a song in my head, you see? I used to sing my own way into the cinemas. If I was the one opening the door, I would sing a Nat King Cole song and they’d allow me in. He, Charles Brown, Ray Charles, and all the doo wop were my favorites. Also, I loved Hank Williams and the cowboys — Roy Rogers, Gene Autry, and the Sons of the Pioneers. Neville can sing the song and reveal which parts of his vocal personality are derived from each strain. Nat’s diction was the most important thing. I was not very good at diction but he was an expert. The cowboys can be heard yodeling. He says that he used to end my songs with doo-wop’s little curly-cue thing, and he goes into a spiraling falsetto, that sounds like it may never reach its peak.

My True Story was Neville’s final album. It featured a lot classic music and was a tribute of his doo-wop roots. He avoided cover songs this time but paid homage to his early years with the song “Stompin’ Ground.” This song is a 3 minute and 22 second autobiography, filled with so many names and nicknames even seasoned Louisiana music fans might need a scorecard. If you’re able, follow along with the details he included in that song’s lyrics.

“That song is all my roots in New Orleans. I wanted to give a shout out to Scarface John and Mac Rebenack. Scarface John was a man I sang about in the song “Brother John’s Gone” with the Wild Tchoupitoulas [his uncles group that led to the formation the Neville Brothers as an act in the late 1970s]. Mac Rebennack is Dr. John. We are both the same age and used to go out together back in the day. When I was about fifteen years old, he asked me to do background music on a song. James Booker is a name you may have heard of. He was one of the most gifted pianists to ever walk the earth.” “Stompin Ground” does not include everyone, but they are all famous to me. Every time I call their names, I can see their faces and recall where we met and what they were doing. Treacherous Slim, Second-Line Black, and Stackalee. Big Chief Jolly, that’s me Uncle Jolly with Wild Tchoupitoulas. Ratty Chin? Cyril is my brother. Art the Mighty row is my brother Art. Charles Horn Man is my brother. Jabby was a dope dealer back then,” Neville jokes. “And ‘Mole Face and Melvin’ – that was me and my friend; when we got that, we used to go to different areas and fight.

You know Aaron Neville musically as a lover and not a fighter. His recording career took a strange turn in 1960, when he recorded a single alongside Allen Toussaint, producer and writer. Although it didn’t seem like a good sign when his name was misspelled on the label as “Arron”, it was a musical and commercially successful beginning. “Over You” was the Toussaint-penned side. “I call this the O.J. “Over You” was the Toussaint-penned A-side. Neville refers to the murderous threats in the upbeat, deceptively cheerful tune. Neville wrote the B-side “Every Day” while serving time in New Orleans’ parish jail as a young, rebellious youth in the late 1950s.

Six years later, Neville’s second single was released. It was only then that he had at least a brief taste of stardom. “Tell it like it is” was a No. 2 pop hit, and No. 1 R&B smash. Then there was no follow up, “because of the record company going defunct.” It was great, but the gigs fell apart, so I had no choice but to return home and care for my family. It was hard work, but I was paid for it. So, I started working on the docks. He says he was happy to have a job, and never felt like the universe owed him a living as an artist.

The Neville brothers, Cyril, Charles and Art Neville, formed a backing band for their uncle’s Wild Tchoupitoulas in the late 1970s. They then decided to form their own unit. They enjoyed success on the tour circuit, but also gained attention for albums such as Yellow Moon (1989), which they released for A&M Records. This album was critically acclaimed for its haunting lyrics by Aaron. It poured in 1989 even when it rained. Aaron’s solo career was also very successful in 1989, when he scored his first hit in 23 years with “Don’t Know Much”, a No. Linda Ronstadt’s album Cry Like a Rainstorm, howl Like the Wind included a number of duets with Neville.

Neville managed to balance solo and dual careers for the next quarter century. The demands of the road eventually got to Neville. The Neville Brothers performed a farewell show in 2012 at the Hollywood Bowl. Feeling that New Orleans deserved them, they reunited in May 2015 to play a “Nevilles Forever” all-star jam.

He says, “Now, it’s not necessary for me to be out there working as hard.” I need to spend time with my family and live, not just give it all to the road. All of us need a break. You reach a point in your life when you stop looking at the present and start to question your mortality. I wanted to have the chance to do some things that I had always wanted to do. It was hard work, especially with my brothers. There was no fighting, or anything similar. I wrote them a poem to express my brother’s love. Before I left here, I wanted to do more in my life. There’s a lot more. As I said, I have a lot to do and very little time.

Neville is now on the road with two different groups. The Aaron Neville Quintet is the other. This includes all the slinky ferocity that fans have come to expect from Neville when he fronts a full band. It also includes a Neville Brothers reunion, as Brother Charles is a part of the fivesome. He also does smaller shows with Michael Goods, his keyboard player. These show make up for the lack of group intensity by being intimate and spontaneous. He says he likes the quintet’s energy. “I also like the relaxed quality of the duo. I can just come up with ideas and not have to worry about if we practiced it.” Sometimes Michael is on the spot. He’ll hear something new, and then he will catch it, which will make it even more cool. I take the audience back to where it all began, playing some Nat King Cole or any other music that comes to mind …”

That mind is always racing musically just like it was back in those days when teachers would catch him in a schoolboy reverie. “Because there are about 10 million songs in me. Some of them wake me up at 3:00 AM, so I have to sing the entire song to myself to get back to sleep. His middle-of the-night song insomnia could be his next audience’s greatest dream.

Neville is no longer a resident of New Orleans. This may surprise some who consider him to be the city’s most prominent musical ambassador or tied with Allen Toussaint. He calls himself a New Yorker, “from the Big Easy and the Big Apple.” “This is my heart right now.” He loves the change he is making to farm life with Sarah, his wife of five-years. But the changes of the past dozen years have not been smooth or easy. Yes, Hurricane Katrina was an important turning point.

He says, “I had been married to my wife Joel since I could remember, and we buried her almost 10 years ago on our 40th anniversary.” Joel instructed Joel to take three days worth of clothes and meet him in Memphis when the hurricane approached. He figured they would be back. The floods struck the day they were due to return home, and they never returned to their home. “We were fortunate enough to have insurance, and to be able to sold it. But I didn’t want anything out it.” He admits that he was bitter. “I was mad. “I was mad. It was only from seeing all the people who had lost their lives while we only lost our material stuff.” He still visits his family in New Orleans, which includes three brothers and several children, as well as a host of grandchildren and great-grandchildren. He knew that his professional career would change soon and decided to change the pace of his life by moving to Nashville with Joel.

Although he didn’t write directly about the Apache experiences, you can still hear his thoughts on how nature’s calamities reflect the world’s in one of his new songs, “FragileWorld.” He says, “You look at news and it give your the blues.” Although Hurricane Katrina was terrible, you can see the many disasters happening around the globe. It seems like the earth is saying “Man, you’ve been misusing my all these years” and that it’s fighting back. “I’m pissed at your.

While Neville was too upset about New Orleans to return home after his wife’s passing, he found himself in Covington, Louisiana. Sarah was the subject of a People magazine article about the Neville Brothers’ first post-Katrina Jazz Fest performance. It was here that he met Sarah. They fell in love quickly, as is evident in Apache’s lightest, most exuberant moment, “Sarah Ann”, which Neville admits “has a little bit more of that doowop feel than the Drifters or anything.” Neville couldn’t help but hum “This Magic Moment” when he thought about Sarah Ann, his wife of five years.

Sarah isn’t the only one Neville loves on Apache. Neville posted a prayer of thanksgiving to Instagram and other social networks last January, marking a milestone birthday. The prayer was accompanied with a photo Neville, a famously fit singer, lifting weights at the gym. One website ran the headline “Aaron Neville is 77.5… and Fine!” Neville was decades ahead in taking care of himself.

“I have been working out my whole life so I was taking care in some ways. In other aspects, I was not. “I went through changes until about 40,” he said, referring to the fact that even fitness enthusiasts can have problems with substance abuse. It was the life I was being forced to accept at that time. My mother introduced me to St. Jude, the saint of impossible. I used to visit the Santa Ana shrine. There you climb up the steps and pray on each step. My prayer was answered every time I went. People can say whatever they like, but my belief is the only thing that matters. Without faith, I wouldn’t be where I am today. Faith helped me get through every adversity. I can still remember sitting down in the gutter, Joel and me having split up, and singing “Ave Maria” to myself. I didn’t know the lyrics. It raised me out of the gutter. I also remember needing prayers one night in New York City. I was sitting at a piano at 3:40 in the morning, and I started singing [a gospel song] by Sam Cooke and Soul Stirrers. It did the same.

It’s not hard to imagine how Neville’s voice would have an impact on others if it had at certain points in his life. I’ve heard people tell me different stories, such as this lady who said that they had an autistic 5-year-old boy and had to put him in a padded bedroom. My voice would only calm him down. When she said that, it gave me chills. I couldn’t help but think that it was the God within me touching the God within him. I cannot take responsibility. You know, I’m just singing. I try to sing the most tender notes that can heal. “I used to say that I wished I could make a note that was so pure it could cure cancer.”

Although Apache may not be able to replace medical care, it will offer the remedy for many music lovers. Apache Red, a name that was a nod to his voice and spirit, is truly a one-man musical Red Cross.

-Chris Willman

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