As a youngster growing up in New Orleans in the 1950s, Aaron Neville had a gift, one he learned how to use early on. Listening to classics by the likes of Nat King Cole and Sam Cooke, his own voice soared to an incredibly high register, expressed with a gentleness that sharply contrasted with his burly physique.
That combination of ruggedly handsome looks and startling vocals drew attention everywhere Neville went, helping him raise money from passersby to attend movies or basketball games. But more importantly, it helped his large and musically inclined family attain worldwide fame and financial success after Neville and his brothers formed the legendary vocal act The Neville Brothers in 1976, with his sister following suit as a member of the girl group The Dixie Cups (who sang “Going to the Chapel”).
Now 70, Neville is still touring the nation, although he does so now mostly as the leader of his own combo, the Aaron Neville Quintet. With a new gospel-music CD called “I Know I’ve Been Changed” currently in stores, the tour will bring him Sunday to the Luckman Fine Arts Complex at Cal State LA.
Speaking by phone from a pit stop in St. Louis last week between shows in Detroit and Oklahoma City, Neville shared some of the memories from his 50-year career and talked about his life and how the loss of his home in New Orleans to Hurricane Katrina inspired the new CD.
“The last gospel album I did was in 2005, but before Katrina,” recalls Neville, a devout Catholic, who wears a St. Jude medal as an earring. “This one was on the books and planned for a while, and I finally had the chance to do it with [legendary fellow musician] Alvin Toussaint. People usually take longer than five days to record an album, but we had to wait to fit everyone’s schedules, like Alvin and Joe Henry and other guest performers, and it was a real blessing how all this came together just quick like that.”
Neville now lives in New York City. He finds spending time in his beloved hometown too depressing after the damage Hurricane Katrina inflicted upon it. He packs each year with dozens of shows, noting that he prefers heading his own group now, because “I don’t know how much time I’ve got left, so I put the time into my solo stuff I’ve been wanting to do.”
Neville is of mixed African American and Native American heritage, with Cajun and Creole influences permeating his rich combinations of R&B and pop music. He burst onto the scene with one of the most seductive ballads ever recorded, “Tell It Like It Is,” in 1961, when he was just 20 years old, riding its popularity all the way to No. 2 on the Billboard singles charts.
While he kept performing live through the years, Neville hadn’t recorded an album in well over a decade before co-founding the Neville Brothers. And he didn’t attain solo chart success again until 1989, when he teamed up with singer Linda Ronstadt for a smash hit album of duets called “Cry Like a Rainstorm, Howl Like the Wind.”
Featuring two Grammy-winning singles, “Don’t Know Much” and “All My Life,” that reached the top spot on the Billboard singles charts, the album reminded a mass audience of his unique abilities and launched
his touring career to perennially popular status.
“Ronstadt opened a lot of doors for me, and she produced my first solo album in 1990,” says Neville.
“I met her in New Orleans in 1984, when she was down there for the World’s Fair, and she came to see the Neville Brothers perform. We talked about working together and started a couple years later.”
Since then, Neville has kept his career eclectic, recording songs in multiple genres. He is currently preparing a doo-wop vocals CD,
a tribute to the many doo-wop groups he enjoyed as a child, and is looking toward country and R&B albums soon after.
That mix of music will be prominent in Saturday’s concert, despite the show’s overall holiday theme. All music speaks to him,
and Neville interprets and offers it to the broader world.
“I love gospel, and I pick stuff that I can deliver to the people in any music I sing, whether it’s gospel, R&B, doo-wop , pop, whatever — I pick songs that let listeners hear my heart,” says Neville. “This tour is a mixture of all of it, a smorgasbord of everything. It’s a journey, a musical journey through my life. I just listened to great singers and learned different techniques from everyone.”
Aaron Neville performs at 8 p.m. Saturday at the Luckman Fine Arts Complex at Cal State LA, 5151 State University Drive, Los Angeles. Tickets are $25 to $45. Call (323) 343-6600 or visit ticketmaster.com.
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