The four-time Grammy Award-winning singer shares the history behind his tribute to doo-wop on his new CD, “My True Story.”
Singer Aaron Neville
Tavis: Pleased to welcome Aaron Neville to this program. The legendary singer and New Orleans native has just released a terrific new CD for the Blue Note label. It’s called “My True Story.” The disc is a collection of classic doo-wop songs and serves as the basis for a PBS concert special this March.
Here now a sneak preview of “Aaron Neville Doo-Wop: My True Story.”
Tavis: When I saw the CD, Aaron, and it was titled “My True Story,” I felt like you’ve been keeping something from us all these years. If this is the true story, what have we been getting all these other years?
Aaron Neville: Well, I wasn’t keeping it on purpose. I’ve been wanting to do it all my life, really. The first time I recorded without Allen Toussaint, I wanted to do doo-wop. Everything I’ve done since then has got some kind of doo-wop essence in it.
Neville: I even done a doo-wop version of the Mickey Mouse march. (Laughter)
Tavis: Why doo-wop as the true story?
Neville: Doo-wop is the true music to me, man. Doo-wop was what nurtured me and grew me into who I am, and I guess even when I was in school the teacher probably thought I had ADD or something every day, because I’d be beating on the desks, singing like the Flamingos or the Spaniels or Clyde McPhatter or somebody.
Tavis: What was it about that sound, about that style, that so resonated with the gift inside of you?
Neville: I don’t know, I guess it caught me at the edge where I was trying to figure out who I was and all. Because I was a cowboy, I was a Nat King Cole; I was later on, Sam Cooke. But the doo-wop was something that just soothed me. It would reach inside of me and I don’t care what else is happening, it made everything all right.
Tavis: Right. You mentioned Allen Toussaint earlier on this program. He, of course, is an icon.
Neville: No doubt.
Tavis: In New Orleans and in this country, as far as I’m concerned. He’s been a guest on this program before, and since you mentioned him, I read somewhere where Allen, when you first recorded with him, tried to get you to change the way (laughter) – I see you laughing already.
Allen tried to get you to change the way that you sing. Whenever any of us hears your voice, all I need is like one or two notes and I know that’s Aaron Neville. It’s the song styling, the way you treat the song. But Toussaint tried to get you to change the way that you sing. Tell me about that conversation, about that experience.
Neville: Well when I’m singing I connect the dots with notes. He was saying, “Well, can you sing it straight?” I said, “This is how I sing. I can’t change that, either without the vibrato.” That was something that just was there.
Tavis: Yeah. So this is not – when we hear you sing and we hear you do that vibrato and your voice goes up and down and up and down and in and out and in and out, that’s not – it’s always been that way for you?
Neville: Yeah. It’s like since I can remember.
Tavis: Yeah. I assume after all these years that you’re okay with that, not that you ever were not okay with it.
Neville: I’m okay with it. (Laughter)
Tavis: You’ve got people like Toussaint trying to get you to change; obviously you’re okay with it.
Neville: No, he kind of felt out what I was thinking about, and then he tried to write everything after that to kind of fit what I was going.
Tavis: Right. To use your words, since your voice, your style of singing, is not straight, but we hear that vibrato, that up and down, that up and down, what’s the advantage, if there is one, to having that style, and is there a disadvantage? Is there stuff that you can’t sing or stuff that you think your voice doesn’t sound good doing because of the way you sing?
Neville: If it don’t sound good to me, I won’t do it. It’s simple as that.
Tavis: Right, right.
Neville: It’s like anything I sing, I have to feel it. I have to feel it. Like people ask me what’s the difference between recording and live performance. Recording is like you’re painting a picture, and you’re trying to – you want to audience who’s going to listen to it to be able to feel what you’re feeling.
When you get to the live, it’s like what you see is what you get. No overdubs or nothing, just energy to energy.
Tavis: I hear your point, though, Aaron – feeling right and sounding right are not always the same thing. It may feel right, but maybe your voice or my voice or somebody else’s voice doesn’t work for that particular material. I’m only raising that because how did you know that these tracks, these songs, that your voice would match the doo-wop?
Neville: Well, I’ve been singing those songs since day one.
Neville: It’s like since the first time I heard them. I wake up 3:00 in the morning with songs going through my head, and I can’t go back to sleep until I sing at least five or six of them. I don’t sing it loud, but just – (laughter) and so I got – I already talked to Don Was about part two and part three of the doo-wop. So many great songs from back in that era.
Tavis: So this is not the last, this is just the first.
Tavis: Yeah. So if this is the first and not the last, how did these 12 tracks make the first cut? Are these your favorites or are these -
Neville: Well, we went in the studio with 12 songs and we wound up recording 23. But it was fun, because like Keith would say, Keith Richards would say, “Tell the guys in the band Aaron’s going to do this song. Never mind, Aaron changed his mind. He got a new song.” (Laughter) So we wound up doing we songs in five days.
Tavis: Yeah. I get it, but for those who don’t or might not, how does a guy like Keith Richards, who is known as part of the great rock and roll bands, end up producing Aaron Neville singing doo-wop? How does that all work?
Neville: Well, me and Keith talked and it’s like we grew up on the same block because we were listening to the same music. We were like kids. “Oh, man, you remember this one?” Same thing with Paul Simon. It’s like you can see the same look on everybody’s face, because this music was magic.
Tavis: Yeah. Speaking of Paul Simon, it’s a great time to ask you about this special. There’s a clip right there as we talk about it. Paul Simon as a guest on your special.
I mentioned this special, “Aaron Neville Doo-Wop” is going to be airing on PBS stations around the country come March. Tell me about the special and how much, I assume, fun you had doing it. Tell me about it.
Neville: Oh, it was great. It was like the Brooklyn Bowl, and we had three days of rehearsals. The night of the show itself, it was just a fantastic show. So I looked at it and I’m satisfied with everything, and hey, it was a great show.
Tavis: Tell me why you think this stuff still resonates. The fact of the matter is that nobody is singing doo-wop today. The stuff you’re doing is covering some great stuff. But what makes you think that in 2013, that doo-wop, even if it’s done by Aaron Neville, can resonate with an audience?
Neville: I don’t know, I think the stars are aligned right, and everything’s in place. It’s just some great music and I’m hoping that I play it and young people hear it and they digging on it, saying “Wow, that’s great.”
I know there’s an audience of I ain’t going to say my age, because I’m 27, but. (Laughter)
Tavis: Audience a little older than you, yeah.
Neville: Yeah. So I’m sure – it’s some great music, and that’s all I can say.
Tavis: Yeah. To your point about young kids digging it, because your career has had so many different iterations, what’s an audience at an Aaron Neville show look like? Because we know you from Disney stuff to jazz out of New Orleans to doo-wop. So when I go to an Aaron Neville show, who’s in the audience?
Neville: Some of anybody. It’s like young and old and a lot of smiling people. They enjoy it, and that makes me smile.
Tavis: We talked about Keith Richards a moment ago, and Don Was, the co-producers of this project. Don was here I guess some months back, and he mentioned that he was doing this project with you, so I’m glad to have you on now that the project is out.
But how does it feel for you to be produced by Blue Note? Blue Note is such an historic, iconic label, and Aaron Neville on Blue Note, how’d that come to be?
Neville: I don’t know, I’m in awe by that. I’m just so happy and thankful to Don and Blue Note and all the people there, that they gave me a chance to do this music. I can’t explain the feeling. I’ve just been feeling great ever since, like can’t nothing bend my feelings now. I feel good about it, whatever happens.
Tavis: Do I take that to mean that there aren’t as many labels now as there might have been back it the day that are interested in Aaron Neville’s sound?
Neville: I wouldn’t say that, but probably not doo-wop, anyway. It’s like it had to be a special thing, and like when I talked with Don, Don, we worked together and he recorded “Crazy Love” for the movie “Phenomenon” with me, and also Trisha Yearwood “I Fall to Pieces.” We’ve been friends for a long time, and like I said, I think God put it together.
Tavis: I’m always fascinated by the ebb and flow of any particular person’s career, and I mentioned all the different stuff that you have done. But you talk about ebb and flow and the variations of things that you’ve done – Trisha Yearwood, Linda Ronstadt – it’s been all over the place. Was that by design, or have you just gone with the flow?
Neville: It went with the flow. That’s things that were supposed to happen. For a long time, nothing was happening. But whatever was happening when nothing was happening, but I was working on the docks or whatever, that’s the way it was supposed to be, and that’s how life is. Life works on its own terms, and you just roll with it.
Tavis: You mentioned working on the docks when nothing was happening. You have been for a good part of your career, your life, a longshoreman. How do you navigate those periods when what you really are is an artist, and nothing is happening and you’re working on the docks? How do you navigate that?
Neville: I feel like life is what it is. I was working, I was taking care of my family, because I used to be down in the ship hold, unloading cargo like cotton bales or coffee sacks or whatever, and I’d sing, because it’s a good acoustic sound in the hold.
The guy said, “Man, you ain’t got no business in this hold. You should be on TV with Smokey and them guys,” and I said, “Man, I got a family to feed.” I said, “When it’s time for me to get out of this hold, I’ll get out,” and hey, so that’s how I took life.
Like when “Tell It Like It Is” came out, it was a hit record and I got a few dollars and nothing else, and people said, “Man, you’re not bitter?” Ain’t got no reason to be. It happened for a reason.
Tavis: But how do you have a hit as huge as “Tell It Like It Is” and you end up back, as you say, in the hold?
Neville: Well, like I said, in my life, I think God’s been guiding me, man, serious. My favorite prayer is the time that he’s looked out for me when I wasn’t even aware, and I’m sure that was one of the times.
Probably back in the days I was like 25, if I would have got a whole lot of money I might not be here. So I’m here.
Tavis: But how did you keep the faith in – we close our show every night by saying “Keep the faith,” but how did you keep the faith during that period when again, you got guys in the hold telling you that you shouldn’t be here, so they even recognized the gift, the artistry, the talent.
But you got a family to feed, and I respect that, because there are a lot of guys who once they have a hit they think that they belong on stage, and they’re not going to do nothing but get on stage, and if they don’t, then their bills don’t get paid, they’re irresponsible where their other concerns are.
But you handled your business, but how do you process that on the inside when you know that you’re good enough and gifted enough to be on the stage?
Neville: That’s how, because I knew.
Neville: I had times when I was feeling low, separated from my wife at one time. I was sitting in the gutter trying to figure it out, and all of a sudden I just started singing “Ave Maria” to myself, and it lifted me and hey, man, I just got to wait. Time (unintelligible).
Tavis: Yeah. I’m fascinated by what you’ve just said, and I guess I wish I could sing like Aaron Neville, because there have been a whole bunch of times in my life that I wish I could sing something and lift myself up. (Laughter) Like a couple of days ago.
But I resonate with that, Aaron, because I grew up in a Pentecostal church, so I grew up in a tradition, and whether one can sing or not, if those old songs get deep inside of you and you start to sing those songs, it is amazing how you can lift yourself up out of a particular space with the right kind of song.
For me, that happens to be gospel music born of the church that I grew up in, but talk to me about those moments and times in your life when you’ve had to lift yourself singing to – I mean, “Ave Maria,” if you’re going to sing anything, that’s a pretty good thing to sing.
Neville: Oh, no doubt.
Tavis: But how do you lift yourself up with your own voice?
Neville: Well, I guess it’s God. The song, all I can say is like I had faith. When I was going through low times, my mother used to – she turned me on to St. Jude, who is – I was raised Catholic, so St. Jude is the saint of hopeless cases, things impossible. That’s him on this earring right here.
I prayed a lot. I still do. Every time I wake up I give thanks, and when I’m walking down the street I pray, and prayer’s gotten me through a lot.
Tavis: So St. Jude’s with you all the time, because I’ve never seen a picture of you when that earring was not present in your ear. So you never take it out?
Neville: I don’t – no.
Neville: No. St. Jude, he the dude. (Laughter)
Tavis: Yeah. He’s the dude that hangs out with you.
Tavis: Tell me about your early start. You mentioned your mom, and obviously we know the Neville Brothers, so you’re not the only one in this family who has a gift and a talent.
Neville: Oh, no.
Tavis: But how did – who told you all that you were good enough to sing and to be a group?
Neville: Well, our parents was our greatest fans. My mom and her brother, who was my Uncle Jolly, they were a song-and-dance team -
Tavis: Uncle Jolly?
Tavis: See, I love that. Uncle Jolly.
Neville: Yeah. (Laughter) He was a piano player. They were a song-and-dance team, and they had a chance to go on the road when they were – before we were born with Louie Prima.
But my grandmother wouldn’t let them go because of the Jim Crow laws that was happening down there. So she promised that they would never stop us from doing our dream. She let my brother Charles go out on the road when he was 15 with a minstrel show. (Laughs) So they were our greatest fans.
We didn’t know how good we were or whatever. I used to sing my way into the movies and to the basketball game.
Tavis: Wait, wait, wait, how’d that happen?
Neville: Well, whoever was on the door, I’d sing for them, and they’d let me in.
Tavis: They would let you in.
Neville: Yeah. (Laughter)
Tavis: Singers have all the luck, man, I tell you. So you just go to the game without a ticket and sing, and they’d say, “Okay, come on in.”
Neville: Oh, yeah.
Neville: I’d done it so many times so that, you know.
Tavis: Wow. You mentioned your brother Charles, who went out on the minstrel show, that your parents let him do that. I was about to ask you, but maybe I shouldn’t ask this because you’re only 27.
Tavis: So you weren’t around. (Laughter) You weren’t around back in the day of Jim Crow and Jane Crow -
Neville: Oh, no, I was there.
Tavis: – and segregation. So seriously, since you were there, did you all – what was your experience with that and what kind of obstruction did you have to overcome as a result of the time that you were growing up in?
Neville: Well, back in them days you knew where you were wanted and where you wasn’t wanted, and you didn’t let it bug you. You just didn’t go. Even when we were playing music back in those days, some of the places we could play music, but we couldn’t go out in the audience or anything. Sometimes the dressing room was outside in the back.
Tavis: So there were shows that you would play where they would say, okay, y’all Negroes can perform, but don’t you dare come out in the audience with these white folk.
Neville: Well, they didn’t say it like that, but you knew that. (Laughter)
Tavis: You got the point, though – stay up, keep your Black behind on the stage. Do not come out in this audience.
Neville: You know how that was, yeah. So hey, man, it was just how it was, and I remember going to school every day, I’d pass and speak to people every day and they wouldn’t say nothing to me, like I wasn’t even there for a couple of years. About the time I got ready to leave that school, people started speaking to me.
Tavis: I think I’ve asked this question, and unapologetically, but I think I’ve asked this question of every artist I’ve ever had a chance to talk to over the years on my radio and TV show, and that’s been 20-plus years now, but I’ve never talked to anybody from New Orleans without asking them their own version, their own take, on how the city influenced what they do and who they are.
Because whenever you talk to anybody from New Orleans, they are willing to admit unapologetically, as we head toward the Super Bowl in New Orleans, that the music has played as much a role in – the city, that is, has played as much a role in their musical development as anything else – any rehearsal, any teacher.
Part of it is just being in New Orleans, whether it’s Aaron Neville or Toussaint or Wynton Marsalis or Louis Armstrong. Anybody you’ve ever read or talked about New Orleans, there’s a connection, and the city has so much to do with it. So tell me how New Orleans has factored into your sound?
Neville: Well, New Orleans, when you’re born there, it’s just like music is just in the air, and all kinds. It’s not just no one type of music. But you can be just playing marbles or whatever and all of a sudden you hear the drums and you go to running. You don’t know what it is, and it’s a brass band behind a funeral.
A whole lot of people, they call it a second line. They dance and so all that just, it grows within you, and you grow up with the Mardi Gras and the Mardi Gras Indians, and they had their beat. It’s like a tempo. Not temple, but tempo, that you follow the beat of that drummer. New Orleans is a special place.
Tavis: Did I read somewhere that when you and your brothers first got together to sing, before you were called the Neville Brothers, was it the Hawkettes?
Neville: That was, yeah.
Tavis: That’s the best y’all could do? (Laughter) Come on, Aaron, the Hawkettes?
Neville: Well, thing about it, it was a pretty – the band was already together when my brother Art got with them and he was a singer, and they’d recorded this song, “Mardi Gras Mambo,” which is still being played around Mardi Gras time.
Neville: But it all started with Art had a group, a doo-wop group, in the (unintelligible) projects, and they’d sit out on a park bench and sing harmonies at night, and I’d run up to try to sing and they’d run me away until they figured I could hold a note. Then they’d let me sing with them.
They were going around winning all the talent shows and everything. They were like the premier band of New Orleans. Them, and I think Toussaint had a band called the Flamingos, and they were like the two best bands in the city.
It went on to Art, when I had “Tell It Like It Is” out, Art came on the road with me, and when that died down it went back and he started Art Neville and the Neville Sound, which was him and my brother Cyril and the guys that’s the Meters. A guy named Garrett Brown was playing sax because Charles was in New York.
We played at clubs until they got a chance to do the thing with Allen Toussaint and start the group the Meters, which later on a lot of rap groups started sampling their music. So that’s -
Tavis: Eventually it all morphed into the Neville Brothers.
Tavis: Y’all ended up where you started, basically.
Neville: Yeah, well that happened 1976, my Uncle Jolly, he was the chief of the Wild Tchoupitoulas Mardi Gras Indians, and he was going to do his music and he wanted us to do it, so he called us all together down there and along with the Meters, and go in the studio and do that album, and no rehearsal or nothing.
Just everybody knew what note they had. Nobody said, “You hit this note or that note.” So we decided to do the Neville Brothers.
Tavis: Yeah, and we’re all the better for it. I assume – I mentioned earlier, in case you just tuned in, that in March, PBS is running a special. “Aaron Neville Doo-Wop” will be on these PBS stations across the country in just a matter of weeks from now, in the month of March. I assume you’re going to be touring for this, though?
Neville: I’m starting already.
Tavis: You’re starting already, even before the special airs?
Neville: Oh, yeah.
Tavis: You still love the live thing? You talked earlier about the difference between recording in a studio and doing it live, but I assume you still enjoy hitting the road?
Neville: Not the road.
Tavis: Not the road. (Laughter) But the actual city?
Neville: I’m waiting on them to come up with something like “Star Trek,” so they can beam me (crosstalk).
Tavis: Beam me up, oh, man, you and me both. (Laughter) Wouldn’t that be great?
Neville: Yeah (crosstalk).
Tavis: Just beam me up, and you’re on stage somewhere.
Neville: And back home.
Neville: Without all of the “I’m sorry, but your flight has been canceled.”
Neville: The airport agony.
Tavis: Yeah. But when you’re on stage, is there anything better?
Neville: Oh, it’s great. It’s like you’re as one with the audience. To see people give you a standing ovation or whatever, just see them beaming, like they’re digging what you’re doing, is way cool.
Tavis: Yeah. Well, you’ve seen a lot of that over the years, and I suspect that you will see a lot more of it. His new project is called “My True Story,” Aaron Neville, and this is a project of him singing some of his favorite doo-wop stuff. We’re told tonight the first of maybe two or three other projects, but you’ll want to get the first one from Aaron Neville to add to your collection. Aaron, good to have you on the program, man.
Neville: Nice to be here. Thanks for inviting me.
Tavis: Good to see you, all the best to you. Good to see you, my friend.
Neville: Thank you.
Tavis: That’s our show for tonight. I’ll see you back here next time on PBS. Until then, good night from L.A., thanks for watching, and as always, keep the faith.
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