Interview: Aaron Neville

[Lightly edited for clarity.-Ed]

DH: Good morning Aaron, how are you today?

AN: I’m fine, how are you?

DH: I’m great, I’m in the beautiful city of Chicago.

AN: I just saw Buddy over in Australia.

DH: We’re excited to see you next weekend for our blues festival.

AN: I’m looking forward to it, me and the fellas, yeah.


Aaron Neville Louisiana Musicians Hall of Fame

DH: [You’re a] 3 time Grammy award winner, fabulous vocalist, Louisiana Musicians Hall of Fame member, and having just come back from [New Orleans] Jazz Fest, weekend one. I thought we’d lead off with who and what were your early musical life influences growing up in New Orleans, a place African met Creole met blues and jazz and formed that musical gumbo that’s so indigenous to New Orleans.

AN: Well, my early influences, first was my brother Art, and my mom and dad were big Nat King Cole fans. I was also a cowboy [fan], Hank Williams, Roy Rogers and Gene Autry. And later, doo-woppers, you know, Sonny Til and the Orioles, Pookie Hudson and the Spaniels, and when I was about thirteen I heard Sam Cook, so I had a lot of really cool influences.

DH: That is pretty cool. I would say that you might have had some kind of blues influences along the way, R&B, can you tell us a little about that?

AN: Well, we were an R&B band growin’ up. I was a big Bobby Blue Bland fan, B.B., and Junior Parker. Junior Parker, Bobby Blue Bland and B.B., I went to see them but I couldn’t go in. I was about 15 years old, at a club called the Blue Eagle in New Orleans, and they was rockin’ the place and me and my friends were hanging outside jammin’ on it.

DH: Nice. Have you collaborated with any Chicago area blues musicians?

[pullquote]Matter of fact I happened to write that when I was locked up in the Paris, northern Paris prison for auto theft back in 1959.[/pullquote]

AN: Not yet, no, but it’s always possible. People have never heard me sing blues, but I’ve been singing blues since I can remember. One of my favorite songs from back in the day was Further Down The Road by Bobby Blue Bland, and Little Boy Blue. The Thrill Is Gone, by B.B.

DH: Maybe Sunday night you’ll have a chance to do something with somebody here in Chicago.

AN: All right, that’d be way cool.

DH: Who of the famous musicians do you admire and why? Who are the people you hold out there as idolized by you?

AN: Idolized by me? Well, I called some of the names. Curtis Mayfield is one of my favorites, and Marvin Gay and Stevie Wonder, Frank Sinatra, Elvis, most of them are gone. I was friends with John Lee Hooker, we done shows together. Like I said, just happened to be out in Australia with Buddy Guy just a few months ago.

DH: How about your first song you ever did? Do you remember where it was, what the circumstances were? You came out with something in 1960.

AaronNevilleAN: Yeah, in 1960 I did a split session at Cosmo Matassa Studios with a group called the Del Royals. They all grew up in the calliope projects in New Orleans and they were doin’ a doo-wop song. They were a vocal group and doin’ a doo-wop song that I loved, and I wanted to do it, so I still sing that song today. It was called “Who Will Be The One,” by the Del Royals. And I recall a song that Alan Toussaint wrote, called “Over You.” When I made it back then it was a novelty song, but you couldn’t play it today because there’d be some slow walking and sad talking over you, flowers bringing. I don’t know if you ever heard it, but it was a novelty back in 1960 and I wrote the other side called “Everyday.” It was a slower, I don’t know what you’d call it, sort of a doo-woppish bluesy type thing called “Everyday,” along dreamin of the day that I’ll be free. Matter of fact I happened to write that when I was locked up in the Paris, northern Paris prison for auto theft back in 1959.

DH: Now that was something I had heard about. What was the charge, joy riding?

AN: Yeah. (laughs)

DH: So jump forward to 1967, there was a massive hit, or 1966? Tell It Like It Is. What was the environment back then?

AN: Well, the record company had me record a few songs, and at that time up-tempo songs were kind of the norm thing. But I was lookin’ at another song that I liked better, and they said, “Oh no, this is the one. ‘Tell It Like It Is,’ this is the one,” and sure enough it took off like a rocket. You know, it started runnin’ up the charts and was sellin’ back in New Orleans like 100,000 records in one week, something like that.

DH: So when you think back about your fabulous 50-year career do you have any particularly fond musical memories?

AN: I guess when I first started. The first time I sang in public was with my brother’s band, the premier band in New Orleans at the time back in the 50’s, The Hawketts. And Art did the song Mardi Gras Mambo. Anyway, I was sitting on the stairs with them one night, and the guy hit a guitar riff from an Earl King song called Mother’s Love and I started singing it and my brother Art said, “ You better finish it.” So the band came up behind me and I had to finish it, and it was the first time I sang in public, and I never forget that cause it’s on now.

DH: (Laughs) Yeah. You must have been a bit nervous back then.

AN: Oh I was yeah, but it was fun.

DH: Let’s get into the more current environment. About a year ago, January of 2013, you came out with your most recent musical project, My True Story. Was it both a PBS video or record? What was it?

[pullquote]It was like everyone had a smile on their face the whole while we were in there…[/pullquote]

AN: Yeah, it was a PBS video and a Blue Note record.

DH: What’s it all about, what’s the background to it, what type of music is it?

AN: Well, it’s doo-wop; it’s stuff I heard coming up. You know, I always tell people that I went to the University of Doo-Wopology. Like I said I was into Nat Cole and the cowboys but the doo-wop grabbed my soul and my heart. You know with the guys doin’ the harmonies and bass part. I could do all of the parts, just not all at once, and my brother Art had a doo-wop group that would sit out on the park bench at night. And they’d run me away, “Get away from me, kid,” until they found out I could hold a note and then they let me sing with them. I remember the first song I sang with them was “What You Gonna Do,” by Clyde McPhatter and the Drifters. So that’s where it all started. The doo-wop stole my heart, and all throughout school I had a doo-wop group. Junior high school and high school, we’d be in the boys bathroom with the good acoustics.

DH: The acoustics were good in the boy’s bathroom?

AN: Yeah, man. The high ceilings, built in echo chamber. The teacher would listen a while before he would come run us out, “You boys get to class,” and I was thinking to myself, “I am in class, I’m doin what I want to do.”


Aaron Neville, Keith Richards, Greg Leisz, Benmont Tench, George G. Receli, and Tony Scherr

DH: Tell us a little bit about working with Blue Note. And was it Keith Richards that was a producer and also played guitar on that record?

AN: Well, it was Keith Richards and Don Woods that co-produced the record and let me have a lot of input in it and the guys in the band. Greg Leisz on guitar, Benmont Tench on organ, George G. Receli on drums, and Tony Scherr on bass, and it was George and Keith on guitar and they would swap licks. It was like everyone had a smile on their face the whole while we were in there, like 5 days. We went in with 12 songs and we wound up recording 23 in 5 days. I was like a kid in a candy store, and they were letting me do the songs so I just had fun with it.

DH: On a more personal level, where is home for you? And maybe tell us about any hobbies you like to do, and what makes you happy?

AN: Well, right now I’m at home in New York with my wife Sarah, and she makes me happy. For my birthday this year, she bought me some lessons at the pool hall with a pool pro and he’s been showin’ me some stuff, because the only time I play pool is when I’m back in New Orleans. One of my friends whose left (that’s not dead) plays sometimes. His name is Marvin. He and I play sometimes pool together when I go down there, and I’m wanting to kick his butt so I’m taking some pool lessons and having fun with it. Matter of fact I have a lesson today at two o’clock.

DH: Nice. Work on the bank shots, the money shots and then go take some money from Marvin.

AN: We don’t play for money, we just play for the fun of it.

DH: Yeah, bragging rights.

AN: My other love is going to the gym and keeping in shape.

DH: What about causes? Do you have causes that are dear to you and that you’d like to share with us?

AN: Back in ’84, a man named Alan Toussaint co-founded an organization in New Orleans called NOAAHH (New Orleans Artists Against Hunger and Homelessness). That’s when I first met Linda Ronstadt, and also doing a thing comin’ up for The Children’s Fund with Paul Simon and Dave Matthews at the Megan Center in New York. Also doin’ a thing with the Wounded Warriors comin’ up, that’s one of my things. I look at these guys on TV, and they go to war and come back and you know with lost limbs, and the people just forget about them, but they’re our wounded warriors and I think they need our attention and help.

DH: I would agree, no question about it. It’s a very, very valid statement.

Dan Hack

Dan Hack

Dan Hack is a born n' raised South Side of Chicago guy. In fact he's still living in the same zip code as in his youth, when he discovered the album Electric Mud by Muddy Waters back in 1972, at age 13. He was electrified, and has been addicted to Chicago Blues ever since. He has been interviewing musicians and writing for BG:Blues and Music News since 2013.

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