A Conversation with Aaron Neville

10:28 April 04, 2017
By: John Wirt

“Where y’at?” Aaron Neville asked with a chuckle. “That’s a New Orleans thing.” 

Neville knows all things New Orleans. Even though he’s lived in New York for years, New Orleans, his music-saturated hometown, shaped and schooled the man and the artist he is today. 

“New Orleans raised me,” the singer with the angelically soulful voice said from the farm in southeastern New York state that he shares with his wife, photographer Sarah Friedman. “New Orleans is in my blood,” he said. “I drank that Mississippi River water.”

The Neville family—including Aaron’s brothers Art, Charles, and Cyril—lived on Valence Street on the edge of the Garden District and in the Calliope housing projects. Aaron grew up singing all kinds of music. His early repertoire included the music of Nat King Cole, Charles Brown, Sam Cooke, Hank Williams, doo-wop, and the cowboy songs of Roy Rogers and Gene Autry. Neville’s big brother, Art, was a major influence, too. “It all started with Art,” Neville said. “When we were growing up in the projects, Art had a doo-wop group. At first, they’d run me away. But later, they showed me how to do all the harmonies.” 

“Stompin’ Ground,” an autobiographical song on Neville’s 2016 album Apache, pays homage to his New Orleans-music friends, mentors, and heroes. The “Stompin’ Ground” shout-outs include Professor Longhair, Fats Domino, Smiley Lewis, Louis Armstrong, Mac Rebennack (the future Dr. John), “Scarface” John Williams, James Booker, and a little-known vocalist who gave the young Neville singing lessons—Issacher “Izzycoo” Gordon, aka Junior Gordon (“Blow Wind Blow”).

“Izzycoo called me Kevin for some reason,” Neville remembered. “One day, he said, ‘Hey, Kevin. You come hit this note.’ I hit that note, and I started singing with my brother Art’s group and it was on.”

Despite his career’s early launch, Neville struggled in music for decades. The good breaks he caught—including his 1960 Allen Toussaint-produced local hit, “Over You,” and his 1966 national smash “Tell It Like It Is”—didn’t bring him sustained stardom. He couldn’t even make a decent living at music and years of heroin use marred his life and career. 

“New Orleans is in my blood,” he said. “I drank that Mississippi River water.”

A decade after “Tell It Like It Is,” the Neville brothers’ uncle, George Landry, aka Chief Jolly, brought them together to record The Wild Tchoupitoulas. A landmark in New Orleans music, the 1976 album deftly blended Mardi Gras Indians chant with New Orleans funk. The following year, Neville and his siblings formed The Neville Brothers band. They performed and recorded together for 35 years. Their festival-closing Sunday appearances at the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival have become a Jazz Fest tradition. 

“I wouldn’t be where I’m at today without my brothers,” Neville said. “They gave me a chance to be me.”

But the wear and tear of being a member of The Neville Brothers band and a solo act eventually became too much. Neville left the group in 2012. “When I was with The Neville Brothers, it was a loud band,” he explained. “It made me sing too much, hitting high notes. A couple of times, I wound up with bruised vocal cords, nodules. I had to stop singing for a while and relearn all over again. So, I just figured, at my age, it’s time for me to slow down and do it like I should be doing. I do it when I want to do it. And I don’t want to be away from my family that much. I want to be home sometimes.”

Neville does his solo thing at a tempo that’s comfortable for him. Nonetheless, he lamented that he doesn’t perform in his hometown as often as he’d like. “They don’t call me down there,” he said. “I used to do the House of Blues every once in a while, but I haven’t heard from them. So, the only time I usually come down is to play Jazz Fest.” 

Fortunately—for Neville and New Orleans—he has two hometown gigs booked during the 2017 spring festival season. He’s delighted about making his French Quarter Festival debut on April 6. And he’ll play Jazz Fest again on April 28.

Whenever Neville returns to New Orleans, he's reminded of his late first wife, Joel, wherever he turns. “I buried Joel on our 48th wedding anniversary," he said. "So, when I go down there, it’s like she’s all over the place. But she’s always in my heart. I met her when I was 16 years old. If I wouldn’t have met her, I wouldn’t have made it as far as I did.”

Aaron Neville makes his French Quarter Festival debut on April 6.

Even at 76, Neville has no intention of retiring from the stage or the studio. “I’ll keep singing until the Creator says, ‘Break up son. It’s time to get out of here,’" he pledged.

In recent years, the singer has been adapting more and more of his poems into songs. Life in the country has been good for his creativity. “I’m writing all kinds of stuff,” he said. “But I can’t write unless I’m inspired. I write on my phone and then I email it to myself so I won’t lose it.” 

Neville writes some of his poems with rhythms that help them become songs. For his Apache album, he also collaborated with composers Eric Krasno (Soulive, Lettuce) and Dave Gutter (Rustic Overtones). The other New York musicians on the album include neo-soul specialists David Guy and Cochemea Gastelum (Sharon Jones & the Dap-Kings) and drummer Adam Deitch (Lettuce). “The musicians, you’d swear they’re from New Orleans,” Neville said. “They all like New Orleans, but they’re from right up here in the Brooklyn area.” 

Living in rural New York with his wife, Sarah, whom he married in 2010, and the couple’s Pomeranian Shih Tzu, Apache, Neville enjoys the serenity that eluded him for so many years. “It’s so peaceful,” he said. “I sleep with the window open. And I look out the window and see the stars at night and the moon whenever it passes over. Sometimes you hear some coyotes out in the distance, but all of that’s part of it.”

A man of profound faith, Neville prays every day. He believes divine intervention saved him many times during his dark, reckless past. “I have a prayer that says, ‘Lord, thank you for looking out for me in times when I didn’t know you were.’ But I know so many times the Lord was there. I saw his footprints in the sand.” 

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