Anyone who has heard Aaron Neville sing can’t deny that the man’s dulcet tones are the kind of fine-tuned natural instrument tailor-made for singing a capella. It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to realize that, so it’s not really surprising that Neville’s latest album, the Don Was/Keith Richards co-produced My True Story, is a covers-packed homage to the vocal-based music of the New Orleans native’s youth.
“It’s the music that formed my singing back in the days,” Neville said in a recent phone interview. “It was like medicine to me. I didn’t care what else was going on in the world. As long as I could sing along with Pookie Hudson, Clyde McPhatter, Sonny Til of the Orioles or the Flamingos and those guys, everything was all right. The music was innocent and it brings me back to those days and I feel like a kid.”
Two of his primary co-conspirators on this project are fabled Rolling Stones guitarist Richards and current Blue Note Records president and in-demand producer Was. Both have relationships with the New Orleans native that span decades.
“I’ve known Don for awhile and Keith too; (Was) produced (my cover of) the song ‘Crazy Love’ that was in the movie Phenomenon and we got a Grammy for when he produced me and Trisha Yearwood together doing ‘I Fall to Pieces,’” Neville explained. “Keith and I have been friends going back to when [the Neville Brothers] opened for [the Rolling Stones] back in 1981. Every time we run into each other, we’re like old friends and a lot of times we talk about doo-wop.
“Matter of fact, my doing the song ‘My True Story’ came about because Don Was was producing Voodoo Lounge with the Stones somewhere overseas and he was rooming underneath Keith,” Neville said. “Keith had this album on a loop over and over and over, and it was ‘My True Story’ by the Jive Five. So when I talked with Don about doing an album. He said he had to get Keith, and Keith was like, ‘What took you so long?’ So it was a labor of love for everybody.”
Many of the dozen songs that make up My True Story were part of the soundtrack of Neville’s growing up in the Calliope projects when he’d tag along with older brother, Art, whose love of doo-wop influenced the forming of his early group, the Hawkettes. The Drifters (a harmony-soaked “Ruby Baby” and equally effective “Money Honey”), Thurston Harris (a crackling “Little Bitty Pretty One”) and the Jive Five (the falsetto-kissed title track) are among the songs hand picked for “My True Story” by Aaron Neville. Brother Art even popped in to add some inspired Hammond B-3 playing to a reading of Hank Ballard’s “Work With Me Annie.”
When asked whether he felt recording this song with his sibling took him full circle back a few decades, the younger Neville was quick to reminisce.
“Arthur had a doo-wop group and they’d go out on a park bench and sing,” Neville said. “They used to run it their way until they figured I could hit the notes. There was a guy named Isabel Gardiner and he used to call me Kevin. He’d say to me, ‘Hey Kevin, hit this note.’ Then Art worked at a record shop and he’d bring all these things home, and the Clovers was one of his favorite groups so it got to be one of mine, too,” Neville said. “Hank Ballard and the Midnighters was another favorite. They wouldn’t play any of their stuff on the radio.
‘Annie Had a Baby’ had to be either played at home or on the jukebox at the sweet shop.”
The early love of doo-wop helped ignite a life-long passion for music for both Aaron and Art Neville, as well as their brothers, Charles and Cyril. The four siblings banded together in the 1970s to form their long-standing group, the Neville Brothers, while Aaron Neville, with the popular 1991 album Warm Your Heart, launched what has become a successful solo career alongside the group.
Now My True Story brings Neville back to some of his earliest musical roots.
And while nostalgia certainly plays a factor in Neville’s love of this genre, it’s also helped him get through some rough times whether it was his serving a six-month sentence for stealing a car when he was 18, battling drug addiction in the early 1970s or coping with the 2007 death of Joel Roux Neville, his wife of 40 years.
“[Doo-wop] has been medicine for me. It’s been very healing,” Neville said. “My new wife, Sarah, helped me to get to that point. She’s been very instrumental in my getting this record deal with Blue Note Records and hooking up with Red Light Management…I feel like I’m in a new place and it is like life is just beginning all over again.”