Half a Century into His Career, Aaron Neville Keeps the Faith | Music

Half a Century into His Career, Aaron Neville Keeps the Faith


  • Photo by Sarah A. Friedman
Aaron Neville claims he’s just a simple singer. When asked how he developed his signature falsetto, he says he never “tried to do anything special,” that he just expresses “his heart," and that his voice has merely changed along with him over the years. But he's clearly just being modest. Neville has one of the most distinctive voices in soul, one that will be on display when he kicks off the 2016–17 Duke Performances season Friday night in Baldwin Auditorium.

It is his voice that has allowed him to sustain his fifty-five-year career in popular music. His trembling vocals add a signature longing to everything they grace. As a result, the range of his work is staggering, from his early 1960s R&B sides like “Tell It Like It Is,” to the funk of The Wild Tchoupitoulas (recorded with his uncle, Jolly, some Mardi Gras Indians, and The Meters), his crossover work with the Neville Brothers, and his surprisingly excellent country covers. Perhaps because of this vocal versatility, Neville likes to experiment with new styles and musical textures.

“I don’t even look back,” he says, “I just keep on going, that’s why I’m happy with Apache.”

Apache is Neville’s new record, a muscular return to the harder, funkier sounds of his seventies-era work. By collaborating with soul revivalists like David Gutter (a previous collaborator with Aaron’s talented son, Ivan) and Eric Krasno, Neville says, the record achieved a harmonious balance between old and new.

"All these guys hang in New Orleans, so you might listen to Apache and think the players are from there, but they’re from Brooklyn,” he says.

Apache is a vital listen from an artist now in his seventies, whose belief in the spiritual power of song has sustained him.

“My faith is in the music, music is my life. It’s always my soul, the kid in me as a singer. Day by day, I greet whatever comes with a smile,” he says.

This is no shallow optimism, but a hard-earned faith shaped over decades marked by dramatic ups and downs. Neville says that when he's singing, he's praying, a sentiment to which many of his fans will readily assent. Even Bob Dylan recently called him “the most soulful of singers,” and jokingly suggested that if angels indeed sing, they must sing in Neville's voice.

On long airplane trips, Neville says he will listen to recordings spanning his entire career, starting in 1960 with his first recorded single, the Allen Toussaint-produced “Everyday,” and ending with Apache.

“It takes me on a journey, remembering where I was and what I was going through those fifty-five years,” he says.

In concert, he’ll share this journey with fans in the form of songs and stories, playing works that have inspired him over the years in addition to cuts from his own catalog. With only pianist Michael Goods accompanying Neville, the performance will be an intimate affair, with Neville playing R&B, soul, country, and pop, plus stripped-down versions of a few gems from Apache.

When asked how his famous musical family has sustained him over such a long, fruitful career, he again points to the music itself, which he says came naturally to him and his brothers.

“We didn’t have to tell each other, ‘You take this note, I’ll take that note.’ We just started doing it,” he explains. But Neville says not to expect a new Neville Brothers record any time soon, noting that brother Charles is busy with jazz, Art with The Meters, and himself with his own poetry and songwriting.

Talking with Aaron Neville, one is struck by his soft-spoken humility. But his modesty should not be mistaken for weakness: rather, it conveys how in touch he is with the precariousness of modern life, the power and belief necessary to protect what he calls a “fragile world."

“I pray for everybody, I hope the best for everybody” he says. At one point in the conversation, Neville points to the importance of music in this context, asking me just to imagine its absence. Without preaching, Neville's lifetime of singing underscores music’s vital role as a source of hope and inspiration.

But he concludes, “I’m just glad I’m still here and trying to do anything I can do to make it a better world for the people behind me.”

Aaron Neville has done just this so many times before, for those in all walks of life, and on Friday night he will, no doubt, do it once again.

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