Aaron Neville is one of the most gifted members of New Orleans’s talented Neville clan. With his pure, sweet voice—an unlikely match for his formidable physical appearance—he earned the family its first national fame, as well as its most recent exposure through his duets with pop singer Linda Ronstadt on her album Cry Like a Rainstorm, Howl Like the Wind.
Neville and his brothers Cyril, Charles, and Art had made a name for themselves in New Orleans’s rhythm and blues circles by the mid-1950s. Art had formed a band during high school called the Hawketts, who in 1954 had a big regional hit with their recording of the Carnival song “Mardi Gras Mambo.” Aaron, a member of the Hawketts, assumed leadership of the group when Art joined the U.S. Navy in 1958. That same year, however, Aaron was arrested for car theft and sentenced to six months in prison. While incarcerated “there was nothing to do but sing and fight,” he told Playboy contributor Steve Pond, so he honed his skills at both. Upon his release Neville promptly married and landed a record contract as a solo artist. His first success was “Over You,” recorded for Minit Records; it went to the Number 21 spot on the rhythm and blues loartist.
Throughout the 1960s Neville recorded intermittently for many labels, including Instant, Parlo, Bell, and Safari. In 1966 Parlo released the ballad “Tell It Like It Is,” which became a national Number 1 rhythm and blues hit and a national Number 2 pop hit. Due to an exploitive contract, however, Neville never received any royalties for the recording. Such dealings were common during those days, he told Pond: “You got paid for the session, and that was about it…. I had to take care of the family. I had jobs like longshoreman, truck driver, house painter. You name it, I done it, and sang on the weekends. I figured we ought to be able to get a big record out, but we never really did—at least that’s what the record company told us. Later, [Rolling Stones guitarist] Keith Richards told me, Tve been listening to you since the early Sixties.’ And I said, They told me my records weren’t gettin’ no further than Baton Rouge.’”
Backed by a three-man rhythm section, Art and Aaron played together through much of the 1960s as the Neville Sounds, but in 1967 producer Allen Toussaint broke up that alliance by hiring Art and the rhythm section to perform as his house band, the Meters. Toussaint also recorded some of Aaron’s work, but most of it was released only on small regional labels, if at all. Shortly thereafter Aaron went through a low period plagued by drugs, crime, and few professional singing engagements.
In 1975 all four Neville brothers reunited to back up the
Born 1941, in New Orleans, La.; mother’s name, Amelia (a dancer); married wife, Joel, 1959; four children. Has worked in a variety of jobs, including longshoreman, truck driver, and housepainter; has performed since the 1950s as a solo artist and as a member of the Neville Sounds, the Neville Brothers, and the Wild Tchoupitoulas.
Addresses: Record comparii; —A & M, 1416 N. La Brea Ave, Los Angeles, CA 90028.
Wild Tchoupitoulas, a musical tribe of “black indians” in flamboyant Mardi Gras costumes, led by the Nevilles’ uncle George “Big Chief Jolly” Landry. Their album, The Wild Tchoupitoulas, was released of “blackindians” in 1976. While touring to support the album, the siblings began performing whole sets as the Neville Brothers, singing four-part harmonies. This led to an album deal with Capitol; unfortunately, the brothers were marketed as a disco act and their album flopped. About that time, however, Bette Midler heard them and worked hard to further their success. She helped win the Nevilles another contract in 1978, which resulted in an album that featured Aaron’s quivering voice on the standards “Mona Lisa” and “Ten Commandments of Love.” Despite wide praise, the album was a commercial failure and another record contract was soon broken.
Although their recording career was foundering, the Nevilles were touring nationally, opening for popular acts like Huey Lewis and the News and the Rolling Stones. Those appearances were climaxed by the brothers’ transformation into the Wild Tchoupitoulas. Aaron Neville was also undergoing a personal transformation, replacing his dependence on drugs with a deep religious faith. In the late 1980s he worked with Ronstadt on Cry Like a Rainstorm, Howl Like the Wind, singing four duets. The tremendous success of these efforts set the stage for the Neville Brothers’ own album, Yellow Moon, which, according to Pond “brilliantly summarized the Neville Brothers’ social concerns and musical strengths.”
Despite a hard life, Aaron Neville has retained a childlike enthusiasm for singing. Pond quoted producer Daniel Lanois: “He just loves to sing…. Aaron sees music as ‘Oh, I love this country song, and I like that Bob Dylan song, and I’ll happily sing a syrupy ballad.’ There doesn’t seem to be a difference in his mind. He’s still innocent.”
“Over You,” Minit, 1959.
“Tell It Like It Is,” Parlo, 1966.
With the Neville Brothers
The Wild Tchoupitoulas, Island, 1976.
The Neville Brothers, Capitol, 1978.
Fiyo on the Bayou, A & M, 1981.
Treacherous: A History of the Neville Brothers, 1955-1985, Rhino, 1985. Yellow Moon, A & M, 1989. yoonthe Bayou, A & M, 1989.
Brother’s Keeper, A & M, 1990.
Orchid in the Storm (EP), Rhino, reissue, 1990.
Greatest Hits, Curb/CEMA, 1990.
Golden Classics Tell It Like It Is, Collectibles.
The Classic Aaron Neville: My Greatest Gift, Rounder Records, 1990.
Also appeared on Linda Ronstadt’s album Cry Like a Rainstorm, Howl Like the Wind.
down beat, June 1989.
Musician, October 1990.
People, June 12, 1989.
Playboy, July 1990.
Rolling Stone, July 2, 1987; April 20, 1989; December 14, 1989; August 9, 1990.
Neville, Aaron 1941–
Aaron Neville 1941–
With one of the most distinctive and refined tenor voices in pop music, Aaron Neville is a New Orleans-based vocalist who has enjoyed a long and successful career. Known for his 1960s classic “Tell It Like It Is,” Neville often collaborates with other vocalists and with his siblings as a member of the Neville Brothers. He created a body of classic soul music in the 1960s and 1970s that collectors eagerly sought out and revived as the twentieth century drew to a close. Neville re-emerged during the 1990s as a ballad singer, most notably in duets with pop singer Linda Ronstadt and country diva Trisha Yearwood.
Aaron Neville was born in New Orleans on January 24, 1941, the son of a merchant marine sailor. Although he lived in poverty in the city’s Calliope housing project, he enjoyed a happy childhood. Neville’s mother” showed by actions,” he told New Orleans Magazine.” She was just a nice person, so I guess I just picked that up from her. It was just so nice to be at our house. I can’t imagine growing up in a better atmosphere.” His mother sang to her children and nourished their special vocal gifts.” When I was about eight or nine,” Neville recalled in the same interview,” I would sing my way into movies or basketball games or whatever… Whoever was on the door, they knew I could sing, so they’d say, ‘All right, Neville, sing me a song and I’ll let you in.”
Neville and his brothers, Cyril, Charles, and Art, had begun performing in New Orleans during the mid-1950s as a rhythm and blues group called The Hawketts. In 1954, they scored a local hit with the song” Mardi Gras Mambo.” Despite the prospect of a promising music career, Neville was arrested in 1958 for car theft and served six months in prison.” They had eight people in a cell designed to hold four,” Neville told People magazine.” People sleeping all in the dayroom. Rats running over everything.”
After his release from prison, Neville married his sweetheart Joel (pronounced Jo-el), and launched his solo recording career with the single” Over You.” The single rose to the number 21 position on the national rhythm-and-blues charts. The success of” Over You” marked the beginning of a solo career that would span nearly 40 years.
At a Glance…
Born on January 24, 1941, in New Orleans, Louisi ana; son of a merchant marine sailor; mother’s name Amelia; Married wife Joel, 1959; four children. Religion: Roman Catholic.
Career: Rhythm-and-blues vocalist. Worked in a variety of jobs, including longshoreman and truck driver, 1950-1960s; performed with brothers as the Hawketts, 1950s, later as the Neville Brothers; solo career, 1960s-; released hit single “Tell It Like It Is,” 1966; recorded duets with Linda Ronstadt, 1988; Neville Brothers signed to A&M label, 1989; signed with A&M as solo performer, 1991; participated in Rhythm, Country & Blues crossover album, 1993; released The Grand Tour, 1993.
Addresses: Record label —A&M Records, 1416 N. La Brea Ave., Los Angeles, CA 90028.
Neville moved to Los Angeles and began a ten-year addiction to heroin. He also served another year in prison for burglary. Despite his legal troubles, Neville continued his musical career and teamed with his brothers in New Orleans as a member of the Neville Sounds. The Neville Sounds eventually evolved into The Meters, which became the house band for the great New Orleans producer Allen Toussaint. Neville teamed with Toussaint and recorded several solo records. He finally scored a hit with the 1966 single,” Tell It Like It Is.” The song, which was an exquisitely romantic recasting of a popular expression used by the 1960s black power movement, climbed to number one on the rhythm-and-blues charts and number two on the pop charts. Like many African American recording artists of the day, Neville reaped little financial reward from the record’s sales and was paid only a flat fee for the recording session.
Neville’s solo releases from the 1960s have achieved legendary status among soul music enthusiasts and collectors.” The early sides of Aaron Neville are just waiting to be heard,” wrote critics Michael Erlewine and Ron Wynn in The All-Music Guide to Rock. Because he earned very little money from his early recordings, Neville was forced to take jobs as a ditch digger and dockworker to support his family. He also struggled with heroin addiction and, for a time, put his music career on hold.” Those were some hard times,” Neville’s son Aaron Jr. told People.” We were eating mayonnaise sandwiches. And we didn’t have a refrigerator. We had an ice chest.”
In 1975, the Neville Brothers reunited following the death of their mother. They worked as a backup band for a” Mardi Gras Indians” band known as The Wild Tchoupitoulas and performed solo dates as well. During the late 1970s, the Neville Brothers recorded disco and pop tunes but achieved only moderate sucess. They continued to tour regularly, however, and began to benefit from the enthusiasm that younger musicians showed for their classic soul stylings.
By the end of the 1970s, Neville was able to break his long addiction to heroin. He credited his Catholic faith for giving him the strength to conquer heroin and wore two medals with depictions of St. Jude, the patron saint of lost causes. During the early 1980s, the Neville Brothers toured with superstars such as Huey Lewis and the News and the Rolling Stones. Neville’s solo career also enjoyed a renaissance in 1988 when he performed four duets with Linda Ronstadt on her Cry Like a Rainstorm, Howl Like the Wind album. One of the duets,” Don’t Know Much,” became an international hit. Neville and Ronstadt had met four years earlier when she joined the Neville Brothers onstage at a New Orleans concert.
In 1989, the Neville Brothers released their critically acclaimed album Yellow Moon. This album, which showcased Aaron’s powerful vocals, was a commercial success. Neville released his solo album, Warm Your Heart, in 1991 and recorded his album The Grand Tour in 1993. The title track of The Grand Tour became a hit country song for singer George Jones. In 1994, Neville recorded a duet with Trisha Yearwood on the Rhythm, Country & Blues album.
During the 1990s, Neville recorded the albums The Tattooed Heart and To Make Me Who I Am. In a 1997 commentary on the album To Make Me Who I Am, People magazine referred to Neville as” an established pop icon” and lamented the loss of the” spicy Creole gumbo” that had earlier characterized the music of the Neville Brothers. The Neville Brothers also continued to record and perform regularly. In 1996 they released the album Mitayuke Oyasin Oyasin/All My Relations, which incorporated world music influences into a contemporary New Orleans sound. Reflecting on the dramatic peaks and valleys of his long career, Neville told New Orleans Magazine, “Like I pray for a miracle—I feel I am a miracle. I made it through some odds.”
Tell It Like It Is, Curb, 1967 (CD reissue; original Parlo recordings).
Orchid in the Storm, Rhino, 1986.
Tell It Like It Is: Golden Classics, Collectables, 1989.
Warm Your Heart, A&M, 1991.
Aaron Neville’s Soulful Christmas, A&M, 1993.
The Grand Tour, A&M, 1993.
The Tattooed Heart, A&M, 1995.
To Make Me Who I Am, A&M, 1997.
Contemporary Musicians, volume 5, Gale, 1991.
Erlewine, Michael, et al., eds., All Music Guide to Rock, 2nd ed., Miller Freeman, 1997.
Billboard, July 3, 1993, p. 10; October 18, 1997, p.12.
Ebony, December 1991, p. 118.
New Orleans Magazine, December 1995, p. 60.
People, August 19, 1991, p. 61; May 1, 1995, p. 21; November 17, 1997, p. 33.
—James M. Manheim
Genre: R&B, Pop
Best-selling album since 1990: The Grand Tour (1993)
Hit songs since 1990: "The Grand Tour," "Use Me"
With his trademark high falsetto voice, Aaron Neville is a unique talent in popular music. Influenced by the flowing style of 1950s and 1960s vocalist Sam Cooke, Neville uses his sweet, flexible voice to embellish his songs with melisma, the singing of multiple notes within a syllable. While Neville during the 1960s and 1970s remained a "cult" singer, little known outside of his native New Orleans, he succeeded in crossing over to the popular mainstream in the 1980s and 1990s. Since that time, he has recorded everything from country to gospel, keeping his unique sound intact.
Raised in a rough section of New Orleans, Neville's early life was difficult, marked by drug addiction and time in jail. Although a tough youth, Neville was a devoted Roman Catholic who frequently sang gospel music in church. He began recording around 1960, but it was his 1966 hit, the catchy "Tell It Like It Is," that gave him his first dose of rhythm and blues success. In the 1970s he teamed with brothers Arthur, Charles, and Cyril to form the group the Neville Brothers; together they released a series of critically acclaimed albums, in particular Yellow Moon (1989), an inventive fusion of R&B, rock, and gospel that critic Robert Christgau called "their masterpiece." During the 1980s Neville pursued solo projects in addition to working with his brothers, recording a hit duet, "Don't Know Much" (1989), with pop and rock star Linda Ronstadt. A smooth pop ballad that received extensive airplay on mainstream radio, the song earned Neville a solo contract with A&M Records.
Neville's first album for A&M, Warm Your Heart (1991), is a well-rounded collection displaying his facility with different types of material. "Angola Bound," a tough song culled from Neville's prison experiences, features a classic "second line" sound, a shuffling type of rhythm unique to New Orleans music. On the atmospheric "It Feels Like Rain" Neville creates a mood of warm intimacy through vocal understatement, achieving a kind of quiet power. The spiritual "I Bid You Goodnight" features Neville backed with a strong choir, his voice floating ethereally over the arrangement. Despite the diversity of material on Warm Your Heart, the production is smooth and uncluttered, giving the album a cohesive feel. Subsequent albums of the 1990s steered Neville into more of a mainstream pop direction, although his vocal performances were always compelling. In 1993 he had a hit on the country charts with a first-rate version of "The Grand Tour," a song associated with country legend George Jones. The high-pitched tug in Neville's voice was well suited to the country idiom, pushing the single into Billboard 's Top Country chart. Neville fulfilled a lifelong dream in 2000, releasing his first gospel album, Devotion. On traditional spiritual numbers like "Mary Don't You Weep" and "Banks of the River Jordan," Neville's classic falsetto remains in fine form.
With a gentle voice that belies his large physical frame, Aaron Neville has proven his talent time and again in a variety of musical settings. Perhaps the most commercially successful singer to come out of New Orleans, he is seen by critics as a gifted representative of that city's rich musical heritage.
Warm Your Heart (A&M, 1991); The Grand Tour (A&M, 1993); The Tattooed Heart (A&M, 1995); Devotion (EMI Gospel, 2000). With the Neville Brothers: Fiyo on the Bayou (A&M, 1981); Yellow Moon (A&M, 1989); Valence Street (Columbia, 1999).