An Evening with Aaron Neville
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Until now, it’s been easy to separate Aaron Neville’s career into two separate but equal strains: the funky stuff he’s favored when working with his esteemed band of brothers, and the angelic balladry you associate with him when he’s punching his own time card as a solo artist. Casual fans might admit they don’t know much — to borrow a phrase — about Neville’s musical center, but they’ve perceived a certain split in his career. An education is about to be provided, then, in the form of Apache, a solo album that makes the case for Aaron Neville as the most holistic of soul men. Its hard R&B side matches anything the Neville Brothers ever recorded for true grit, while still allowing plenty of space for a singer who’s arguably the most distinctive vocal stylist on the planet to tell it like it is.
Apache also reflects Neville’s social and spiritual concerns, marking only the second time in his 56-year recording career that he’s co-written nearly an entire album’s worth of material. The words are straight out of a poetry journal he began keeping in the 1970s, which more recently migrated to his iPhone. The music was written and produced by a pair of collaborators well known to enthusiasts of the retro-soul scene, Eric Krasno (guitarist for the groups Soulive and Rustic) and Dave Gutter (frontman for the Rustic Overtones). Together, they’ve come up with a modern/revivalist marvel harking back to a golden age that produced classics like Marvin Gaye’s What’s Goin’ On (which Neville just happens to reference in the eco-conscious “Fragile World”).
“I call it The Other Side of Aaron,” says the 75-year-old legend, offering an alternative album title, “because people know me from doing the ballads and New Orleans stuff. They’re getting another feel of Aaron” — a record that touches on the mystic gumbo of “Yellow Moon” and sheer sweetness of “Everybody Plays the Fool” while diverging toward a third path we’ve never quite heard from Neville in the studio. And as much as he wants to surprise long-time fans with it, he says he’s “hoping that a lot of other people that might not even know me get turned on to it.” Which is far from unimaginable: It’s easy to picture a 20-year-old listening to the tracks that feature the Dap-King horns and wondering who this new guy is who’s following in the tradition of Amy Winehouse.
“Sonically, we knew we wanted to take it back to the soul/funk era,” says Eric Krasno (who’s produced and/or written for Ledisi, Matisyahu, Norah Jones, 50 Cent, Chaka Khan, and countless others). “When I first connected with Aaron, we talked about ‘Hercules’ [a 1973 single Neville recorded with Allen Toussaint and the Meters] and some of Aaron’s early recordings as references. And most of the instruments and gear we used on this record were made before 1975. But we also wanted to give it something fresh and new, and we used a lot of modern tricks to get where we wanted to go. Certain songs like ‘Be Your Man’ and ‘I Ain’t Judgin’ You’ get into some heavy funk, while ‘Sarah Ann’ and ‘Heaven’ take you to the warm, soulful place that Aaron does like no one else.”
If the final musical aesthetic of Apache is something of a hybrid, well, Neville knows all about hybrids. He is one, even at the core of his racial identity… which is where the title of the album comes in.
“We have Native American blood in us,” Neville explains. “My great-grandmother came from the island of Martinique, and they settled down in Convent, Louisiana, and they hooked up with some of the Native Americans back there — so we are African, Native American, and whatever else. Sometimes I say that with all the different colors we have going, we’re Heinz 57 — you know, the 57 varieties,” he laughs. “I have a picture of my grandmother right next to a picture of Geronimo, and they look like they could be sister and brother. When I was in school days, if they were doing a Thanksgiving play, they would always pick me to be the Native American in the play, because of my high cheekbones and all. When I was in my late teens, in the summer I’d be out front and my skin color would turn red, and I used to wear my hair straight down with a headband around it. So my uncle started calling me Apache Red, and then I just shortened it to Apache.”
He’s held on to the nickname with pride over the years. “My license plate used to be ‘Apache’ on my car in New Orleans. I have it tattooed on my back.” And, just in case that isn’t bad-ass enough… “My little dog’s name is Apache,” he adds — “my little Shih TzuPomeranian.” No wonder the appellation finally made its way from the license plate, the tat, and the Tzu to the front cover of the most personal album of his career.
If there’s anywhere that Neville has embraced being a crossbreed, as it were, it’s in his musical impulses. That comes out of his childhood, where he became immersed in all the New Orleans and R&B culture you’d expect — including Sam Cooke, possibly his foremost vocal role model — and a few things you wouldn’t.
“I guess the teacher probably thought I had ADD or whatever, because I wasn’t paying attention too much in class,” he laughs. “I had a song going through my head, you know? I used to sing my way into the movies. Whoever was running the door, I’d sing ’em a Nat King Cole song, and they’d let me in. I was into him and Charles Brown and Ray Charles and all the doo-wops. And I was also a big fan of Hank Williams, and the cowboys — Roy Rogers and Gene Autry and the Sons of the Pioneers.” If you don’t think there’s that much commonality between those genres, Neville can break into song and show you exactly which aspects of his vocal personality came from which strain. “With Nat, it was his diction, because I really wasn’t too good at the diction, but he was a master of it. You can hear the yodeling from the cowboys. And from doo-wop, I used to end all my songs with that little curly-cue thing,” he says, going into a spiraling falsetto that seems like it might never peak.
Neville’s last album, 2013’s My True Story, was a tribute to those doo-wop roots, featuring a lot of classic material. This time, he completely eschewed cover tunes, but paid tribute to his early years by writing about them in the song “Stompin’ Ground,” which is a veritable autobiography in 3 minutes and 22 seconds, packed with a wealth of names and nicknames that even a seasoned Louisiana music buff might require a scorecard to keep up with. Follow along with the details he packed into that song’s lyrics, if you can.
“That song is all about my roots in New Orleans. I gave a shout-out to Mac Rebennack and Scarface John. Scarface John was a guy that I sang about in the song ‘Brother John is Gone,’ with the Wild Tchoupitoulas [his uncle’s group, which led to the formation of the Neville Brothers as a band in the late ’70s]. Mac Rebennack, that’s Dr. John. He and I are the same age, and I used to hang out with him back in the day. The first time I ever went in the studio, he asked me to come do some background on somebody’s song, when we were both about 15 years old. And James Booker you’ve heard of; he was one of the greatest piano players who ever walked the planet.” Not everyone name-checked in “Stompin’ Ground” is so famous, “but they’re famous to me! Every time I call their name, I can see their faces and remember where I met ’em and what we were doing. Like Treacherous Slim and Second-Line Black and Stackalee. Big Chief Jolly, that’s my Uncle Jolly with the Wild Tchoupitoulas. Ratty Chin? That’s my brother Cyril. Art the Mighty Row is my brother Art. Horn Man is my brother Charles. Jabby, he was just a dope dealer back in the day,” Neville laughs. “And ‘Mole Face and Melvin’ — that was me and a friend of mine; we picked that up we used to go to different neighborhoods and get in fights.”
Musically, of course, you know Aaron Neville as a lover, not a fighter. The strange trajectory of his recording career began in 1960 when he recorded a single with producer/writer Allen Toussaint. It didn’t seem like a good omen when the record company misspelled his name as “Arron” on the label, but it was an auspicious beginning, musically if not commercially. The Toussaint-penned A-side was “Over You.” “I call it the O.J. song now, because of what he was talking about,” Neville says, referring to the murderous threats embedded in the deceptively upbeat tune. Neville himself wrote the B-side, “Every Day,” penned while he was doing time in New Orleans’ parish prison as a wayward youth in the late ’50s.
But it wasn’t till his second single, six years later, that Neville experienced at least a fleeting taste of stardom. “Tell It Like It Is” became a No. 2 pop hit and No. 1 R&B smash. And then there was no follow-up, “because the record company went defunct.” But still… “Guys would come back from the war and say, ‘Man, that was all you heard in Vietnam.’ I got to tour with Otis Redding and tear the Apollo Theatre up. That was cool, but meanwhile, the gigs slackened up, so I had to go home and take care of my family. So I worked out on the docks, and that was a hard job, but they paid me for it. I was happy to have a job,” he says, never feeling like the universe owed him a living as a musician, however much anyone else might lament having those gifts buried under a hardhat for so long.
In the late ’70s, the Neville brothers — Cyril, Charles, Art, and Aaron — came together as a backing unit for their uncle’s Wild Tchoupitoulas and finally decided to strike out as a unit on their own. The sibling group found success primarily on the touring circuit but also garnering attention for albums like their 1989 debut for A&M Records, Yellow Moon, one of the most critically acclaimed albums of that era, for reasons not the least of which was the spooky richness of the Aaron-penned title track. And when it rained, in 1989, it poured. That was also a very good year for Aaron’s solo career, as he had his first real hit in 23 years with “Don’t Know Much,” a No. 2 pop smash that was one of several duets with Neville that Linda Ronstadt included on her album Cry Like a Rainstorm, Howl Like the Wind.
For the quarter-century that followed, Neville deftly balanced the needs of dual group and solo careers. But eventually the demands of the road got to him. In 2012, the Neville Brothers played a farewell show at the Hollywood Bowl, then, feeling that their hometown deserved their real adieu, reunited in May 2015 for a “Nevilles Forever” all-star jam and goodbye blast in New Orleans during Jazz Fest.
“Now, I don’t have to be out there grinding as much,” he says. “I need time off to be with family and just live, instead of just giving it all to the road.I think all of us needed a change. There comes a time when you look at life and think about your mortality and say, ‘How much have I got left?’ And I wanted a chance to do some of the stuff that I’d always wanted to do, and I couldn’t do all of it. That was a hard gig, with the brothers. There wasn’t nobody fighting or anything like that. I wrote ’em a poem, saying what my brothers meant to me. But I wanted to do something else in my life before I got out of here. And I’ve got a lot more. As I say, I’ve got a long ways to go and a short time to make it in!”
Neville goes out on the road in two different formats now. One is with the Aaron Neville Quintet, which involves all the slinky ferocity fans have come to expect when they see one of music’s greatest vocalists fronting a full band. (And it includes at least a partial Neville Brothers reunion: Brother Charles is part of the fivesome.) The other is the smaller shows he does with his keyboard player Michael Goods, which make up in intimacy and spontaneity what they lack in group intensity. “I like the energy of the quintet,” he says, “and I also like the laid-back quality of the duo, just coming off the top of my head with things, not having to worry about whether we rehearsed it. Sometimes I put Michael on the spot, because I’ll come up with something he’s never heard before, but then he’ll catch it and that will make it even cooler. I bring the audience back to where I first started, with some Nat King Cole or anything that comes to my mind…”
And that mind is constantly racing, musically, just as it was in the days when the teachers would catch him deep in a distracted schoolboy reverie. “Because I’ve got about 10 million songs in my head. Some of ’em wake me up at 3:00 in the morning, and I’ve got to sing the whole song to myself before I can get back to sleep, to make sure I know all the words,” he laughs. His middle-of-the-night song insomnia can make for his next audience’s dream come true.
Neville no longer lives in New Orleans, which may baffle some of those who think of him as the city’s foremost musical ambassador, or at least tied with his late friend Allen Toussaint for that honor. He’s a New Yorker now — “from the Big Easy to the Big Apple,” as he puts it. “This is where my heart is right now.” He loves the transition he’s making to farm life with his wife of five years, Sarah, who inspired two songs on the new album, “Orchid in the Storm” and (obviously) “Sarah Ann.” But the transitions of the last dozen years have hardly been seamless or painless. And, yes, Hurricane Katrina was a turning point.
“I had been with my wife Joel since I was 16 years old, and I buried her on our 40th wedding anniversary, almost 10 years ago,” he says. When the hurricane was approaching, he instructed Joel to pack up three days’ worth of clothing and meet him in Memphis, figuring they’d come right back. On the day they expected to return, the floods hit, and they never did return to their home. “We were lucky enough to have insurance and be able to sell it, but I didn’t even want anything out of it. I was bitter,” he admits. “I was mad. I didn’t know at who. But it was just from seeing all those people that had lost their lives, while we only lost material stuff.” He still has family to visit in New Orleans, including two brothers, three kids, and a slew of grandchildren and great-grandchildren. But, prefiguring the change that he would soon be making in his professional career, he decided it was time for a geographical change of pace, moving to Nashville with Joel until her 2007 passing.
He didn’t directly write about those experiences in Apache, but you can hear his thoughts about how nature’s calamities are reflecting the way of the world in one of the new songs, “Fragile World.” “You look at the news, and it give you the blues,” he says. “Hurricane Katrina was bad, but you look around the world and so many disasters going on everywhere. It looks like the earth is saying, ‘Man, you’ve been misusing me all these years, and I’m fighting back now. I’m pissed at you.'”
After his wife’s death, while Neville was still too torn up about New Orleans to move back, he ended up in a different Louisiana locale, Covington. It was there that he met Sarah when she was assigned to shoot the Neville Brothers for a People magazine story about the group’s first post-Katrina Jazz Fest performance. They quickly fell in love, as reflected in Apache‘s lightest and most effervescent moment, “Sarah Ann,” which Neville acknowledges “has a little more of that doo-wop feel to it, like the Drifters or something.” Just thinking about the song, and about his bride of five years, Neville can’t help but break into a spontaneous refrain of “This Magic Moment.”
Sarah is not the only object of Neville’s affection on Apache. There is God himself, in “Heaven.” Neville also gave thanks for his blessings in a prayer of thanksgiving he posted to Instagram and other social media last January on the occasion of a milestone birthday. The prayer was accompanied by a photo of the famously buff singer lifting weights in the gym, which led one website to lead with the headline, “Aaron Neville is 75… and Fine!” Neville was decades ahead of the curve in taking care of himself, but…
“I’ve been working out all my life, off and on, so I was taking care of myself in some aspects. In some aspects I wasn’t. I went through changes until I was about 40, really,” he says, alluding to the fact that even a fitness buff can struggle with substance abuse problems. “It was what life was putting on me at the time, and how I accepted it. My mother turned me on to St. Jude, saint of the impossible. I used to go to this place called the Santa Ana shrine, where you go up the steps on your knees and you say a prayer on each step. I went there a bunch of times, and each time I went, my prayer was answered. So people can say what they want, but that’s my belief. If I didn’t have faith, I wouldn’t be here. Faith brought me through adversity after adversity. I remember sitting in the gutter one day, down in the dump — Joel and I had split up for a while — and I started singing ‘Ave Maria’ to myself, even though I didn’t even know the words. And it raised me up out of that gutter. Another night in New York City, I remember needing prayers, and I was sitting by a piano at 3 or 4 in the morning and started singing [a gospel song by] Sam Cooke and the Soul Stirrers, and it did the same thing… There are so many times when God saved me and I didn’t even have an idea that he was looking out for me.”
If Neville’s voice had that effect on himself at key moments in his life, it’s incalculable how it affects others. “I’ve had people tell me different things, like this lady who told me they had a 5-year-old little boy who was autistic, and they had to keep him in a padded room — and the only thing that would calm him down is if they put a headset on him with my voice. She gave me chills when she said that. All I could say is, it’s the God in me touching the God in him. I can’t take responsibility. I’m just a singer, you know. And I’m trying to make the tenderest notes that could heal, in some way. I used to say that I wish I could make a note so pure that it could cure cancer.”
It may not actually replace a doctor’s care, but Apache will provide the elixir for just what ails a lot of music fans, whether it’s offering a contemporary spiritual as deeply felt and divine as “Heaven” or just providing the cure for a serious funk deficiency. With a voice and spirit that are that much of a salve, the artist whose nickname was “Apache Red” really is a one-man musical Red Cross.
Charleston Music Hall
37 John Street
Charleston, South Carolina, 29403