New Orleans. Wet bodies press close in the pit. Their faces red from the daylong parades, the tourists have come to usher in Mardi Gras with New Orleans musical royalty. Like the mosquitoes outside thirsting for a fresh taste of life, the drunk, the sober, and the merely tipsy crowd the House of Blues stage. It is midnight, and the Neville Brothers—Art, Charles, Aaron, and Cyril—are running through a brand of New Orleans funk, zydeco, jazz, soul, rhythm-and-blues fusion uniquely their own. If the city had a soundtrack, it would sound like this. The whole creaky wooden room is caught in the city’s primal rhythm. They clap, they writhe, they pound the railings. A security guard in the corner of the room grooves all by his lonesome.
Then at 1:30 a.m., Aaron Neville, the centerpiece of the outfit—a mountain of a man, his arms and chest busting the bounds of a distressed jeans vest—puts down his tambourine and reaches for the microphone. The party atmosphere suddenly dissipates. He is a daunting figure, but those close enough to see his eyes find a gentleness, even a shyness, in them. He adjusts his earpiece, absently stroking the cross-like tattoo on his left cheek, and nods toward the band. Like a schoolboy singing for the first time before the class, Neville tentatively begins Amazing Grace. His fragile falsetto is barely audible after the pounding party music of the past hour. But the throng falls still. From the stage comes the voice of a battered angel: an ethereal sound with edges roughed by hell. As he reaches for the high notes, the muscle below his right eye twitches. Otherwise, there is no movement in the performance. None is necessary. The revelers are listening, perhaps for the first time this evening—listening and turning deep within. Past the booze, the weird hats, and the plastic beads, Aaron Neville has brought redemption into the room. Never mind that it wasn’t invited.
Neville does not perform a song—he confesses it. The music is charged with the details of his personal life. Listen closely, and you can hear his simple faith and the well-earned scars of prison time, heroin addiction, and the burglaries of the distant past woven into each phrase. This is not just rhythm and melody: There is something real here, and these people know it.
The congregation now under his spell would make any priest green with envy. Neville can go into the night dens where clerics cannot and deliver his music—”medicine,” he calls it—to the afflicted. This music saved Aaron Neville’s life and became his path to Christ. And so he goes out night after night, pointing the way to others.
With the towering image of Neville clutching the microphone fresh in my mind, I recently made my way up the walk of his home to talk with him about his life, his music, and his recent CD of religious music, Devotion, released last fall.
Lovely Lady of the Projects
It was a very different Aaron Neville I found at his two-story French Quarter–style home in New Orleans East. At the edge of a posh golf course, his home is a far cry from the Calliope Housing Project where he grew up downtown or the shotgun house where he was born uptown. Visitors can’t help but see a statue of St. Jude peering from the bushes out front, and in the foyer, a statue of Our Lady of Fatima casts a gentle glance at all who enter.
In the oversized pinkish den, beyond the baby grand, the soap All My Children blares on the television. And over at the breakfast table is the man himself. For the first time since I have known him, Aaron Neville looks all of his 60 years. A pair of glasses teeter on the edge of his nose. He appears every bit the father of four and grandfather of six. His hulking mass is bent over a long table as he studies a crossword puzzle.
“The last name of TV’s Nanny?” Neville yells to his wife in the kitchen. “Joel, what’s her last name? Fran what?”
It is hard to imagine that this unassuming, soft-spoken, cool guy in the blue muscle shirt and loose pants has won four Grammys and sold millions of albums. Yet here he is, gently rising to shake hands with me and confessing sheepishly that he loves the soaps, especially All My Children: “I used to put Erica Kane [a character on Children played by Susan Lucci] on the guest lists for our shows. Never did come though.” He turns the volume down on the tube, and we get down to business.
From his birth in 1941 to the present, Neville tells me, song was never far away. He was first exposed to music by a pair of doting grandmothers who would fight over “rocking rights” to the tot. Sitting on their knees, little Aaron heard spiritual sounds that would soak deep into his memory and his soul. The sounds of Mahalia Jackson, Brother Joe Mays, Sister Rosetta Tharp, and Nat King Cole regularly filled the Neville home. He was also taken with the yodeling sounds of the singing cowboys Roy Rogers and Gene Autry. Today you can hear their ghosts in his singing. “It stuck in me, you know,” he tells me in his New Orleans drawl, a childlike smirk on his face.
The possibility of reaching God through song would also stick with Neville. His father attended Trinity Methodist Church across the street from their home on Valence Street in New Orleans. Aaron and his brothers would occasionally sing in the choir. But his mother, Amelia, was a Catholic, and her sons would be raised in her faith.
At Amelia’s insistence, the Neville children attended St. Monica’s Catholic School. Nearly 60 years later, Aaron Neville recalls the experience with fondness: “St. Monica’s was always a safe place for me. Between that and my mom, I was taught morals—something the world is lacking today a lot.”
In addition to morals, the catechism, and the poem Lovely Lady Dressed in Blue, Neville learned something else from the white sisters who taught in the all-black school: racial tolerance and brotherhood. All these years later, he cannot forget their witness. “They had to run from the Klan, got death threats,” he said. “And that taught me a lot. Even today I don’t see no color. I saw a holy lady, and she was teaching me—they were like my parents away from home.”
St. Monica’s also introduced Aaron to a song that would haunt him for the rest of his days. “I became fascinated by the Ave Maria,” Neville recalls. “I didn’t know the words. I didn’t know what they were talking about, but it just used to do something to my heart. And later on in life, it became a light at the end of the tunnel for whatever I was going through. I would get a cleansing feeling. That sound of praising the Blessed Lady was like a saving grace for me, especially when I was at the bottom of a pit.”
To Hell and Back
During his early years, Neville could be seen harmonizing on street corners or on the basketball court. He laughingly recalls trilling a few bars to get into movie theaters for free. Singing was a way of life for Neville, and when his older brother Art began doing it professionally, Aaron was determined to follow suit.
But the pit beckoned. While still in junior high, Neville began smoking marijuana. Now part of a doo-wop group, the Avalons, he was exposed to a gritty musical world where drug use was all too common.
Eventually he would join his brother Art’s group, the Hawkettes. It was during this time that he met a girl named Joel (pronounced JOE-EL) Roux. She was devoted to Neville, regularly coming to hear him sing. And though he was falling in love with her, drugs and a bad crowd were pulling him in another direction. “I went to jail. Me and my partners had been stealing cars for a while,” Neville said in a recent biography, The Brothers (Little, Brown & Company, 2000). “We’d carry knives—small cleavers I’d take from Mommee’s kitchen that I’d sharpen at the grocery store. We’d cut someone every once in a while.”
As a result, Neville became a repeat visitor to the local jailhouse. When he finally got out, he would marry Joel. Since he was only 17 years old at the time, his mother had to sign the marriage certificate for him.
In the early 1960s, Neville went solo and signed with a local record company. But fame and fortune were not in the cards. Though the records sold modestly, a lousy contract deprived him of royalties. Desperate for a break, he parted from his wife and children and fled to Los Angeles in 1962 at the urging of his friend, the late Larry Williams. Williams was a former headliner (Dizzy Miss Lizzie) who was now into “management.” He promised to jump-start Neville’s career. But Williams seemed more adept at managing burglars and prostitutes than budding musicians.
His hopes dashed and his career in limbo, Neville turned to heroin for relief. “It’s definitely the devil,” he tells me as if picking a painful scab. “I quit a thousand times. Until I went to rehab, I didn’t understand what it did.” The substance would consume him for more than a decade.
Heroin wasn’t cheap. To fuel his habit, Neville agreed to take part in “scores”: quickie burglaries throughout L.A. One heist, at a clothing store on Sunset Boulevard, would change his life.
“I was high at the time,” Neville said. “I had to be high to even think of doing something like that. And this particular night, I had a funny feeling when I went.”
Halfway through the burglary, Neville and his gang were spotted. Everyone scattered in different directions. Lost in a fog, Neville sought refuge in a nearby van and closed the door.
“And I’m high, so in my head everything is funny to me. Outside, I hear a voice say, `Come out of there now,’ and `What are you doing in there anyway?’ And I’m just laughing, rolling in the back of the van. And I’m trying to get the door open. But it’s stuck. I can’t move it.” He is suddenly animated, grabbing at the air. “I’m trying everything I could to open that door. And the next thing I know, the parking lot is full of people and the sheriff and all. Then the door opened, and I said, ‘Thank you, Jesus: I was glad it happened. I had been praying for an answer, because I had come there [Los Angeles] to sing, not to rob or nothing. And I had my answer from God. I just sat on that running board, crossed my legs, lit a cigarette, and had a smile on my face.” Though he considered himself divinely blocked from pursuing a life of crime, a trial and a possible stiff sentence still awaited him.
Back home in New Orleans, Amelia and Joel Neville were praying novenas at the Shrine of St. Jude on the edge of the French Quarter—praying that the saint of hopeless cases, the saint of last resort, the saint of the impossible would intercede on Aaron’s behalf.
Fingering the St. Jude medallions dangling from his earrings, Neville remembers praying to his “man” himself. While awaiting trial, he returned home on bond. He joined his mother most afternoons at the popular Shrine of St. Ann downtown. Crawling up the steps of the outdoor shrine on his knees, he asked St. Jude to help him to sing, to break free of the drugs, and somehow to deliver him from prison.
On the day of his sentencing in California, Neville was assured that a lenient judge would hear his case. “But the judge was on vacation,” he says, rolling his eyes, “and this other judge was giving out time like it was ice water.”
“I said, ‘I want to get out of here.’ But I knew if I ran I’d never be able to sing, so I had to take my punishment. So I went in front of the judge, and I had my St. Jude prayer book in my pocket and my St. Jude medal. And I’m standing there and that judge said I was found guilty, so he sentenced me to what the law prescribed: one to 14 years. My legs turned to butter. And then he said, ‘But I suspend that sentence.’ I looked over at my lawyer, and he just shook his head. My lawyer was holding me up. So, hey, St. Jude was my man.”
Neville would serve a year fighting fires east of Los Angeles at a forestry work camp. But the fire of song deep within him would not be extinguished. During that year he broke free of drugs and began working out with weights. Despite the personal improvement, his heart ached for New Orleans and the wife and children he had left behind.
Returning to the Big Easy was tough at first. Neville took jobs digging ditches and working on the docks to make ends meet. Eventually, he signed with a new local fledgling record label, Par-Lo. While at Par-Lo, Neville recorded a song that thrust him to the top of the charts in 1967: Tell It Like It Is. Again, a bad record deal cheated him out of royalties. While the song was No. 2 on the national charts, Neville was working as a longshoreman to feed his family.
The popularity of the song did take him on tour, but the traveling became only another occasion to abuse heroin. Again, he was hooked, dropping to the bottom of the “devil’s pit.” Neville told me of his many attempts to shake the addiction. With clinical directness, he describes how he would quit cold turkey, boarding cross-country buses and suffering the severe withdrawals alone, a sweating, quivering mess in the back of a Greyhound. But when the bus reached its final destination, the heroin was somehow always waiting for him. “Never did work,” he says mournfully. “Sometimes I’d cry.”
Unsure of his career path and hopelessly addicted to drugs in the mid-1970s, a glassy-eyed Aaron Neville wandered the streets of New Orleans looking for a fix. To keep his sanity, he would repeatedly sing the Ave Maria to himself. It was a lifeline of grace in a sea of misery.
For musical and moral support, he turned to family. In 1977, all the Neville brothers took to the stages of New Orleans as the Wild Tchoupitoulas (pronounced CHOP-A-TOOL-IS). The funky tribe of ersatz Indians (complete with headdresses) became a staple in the city and epitomized the gritty second-line sound of Mardi Gras. In between sets, the Indians were smoking more than the peace pipe. Joel Neville could take no more. She threw Aaron out of the house.
The Lovely Lady Returns
But grace was just around the corner. In 1978 the Wild Tchoupitoulas took off their Indian regalia and became simply the Neville Brothers. Singer Bette Midler heard the Nevilles at a local club and persuaded A&M Records to offer them a contract. While in New York recording Fiyo on the Bayou with his brothers, Aaron Neville experienced an epiphany of sorts, courtesy of a lovely lady.
“It’s four o’clock in the morning in New York, and I’m staying at a friend’s house, and I’m sitting there by myself with a tape recorder. And I’m singing Sam Cooke and the Soul Stirrers: Were You There When They Crucified My Lord?, One of These Mornings I’m Going Home. And I learned a poem called Lovely Lady Dressed in Blue at St. Monica’s. And I just put music to it. And it came out as if somebody had already written it. It says: ‘Lovely lady dressed in blue, teach me how to pray. God was just your little boy, and you know the way.’ And I wanted to learn how to pray. I knew how to pray the Our Father, the Hail Mary, but I wanted something deeper.”
It was at that moment that Neville realized the depth of his addiction. On the spot, he decided to chase after grace and cut all ties to the “devil” that had held him hostage for so long. He checked himself into rehab, relying heavily on the mother of God and the apostle Jude. From that day on, Neville says he has not touched a drug. He would later reconcile with Joel. This year, they celebrated 41 years of marriage.
At the 1984 World’s Fair, Neville’s life took another turn. Singer Linda Ronstadt came to see the Nevilles’ show. So taken was she by Aaron’s ethereal sound that she joined him on stage for several duets. They would later record the duet Don’t Know Much, which would go on to win a Grammy. It was the first of many for Neville.
Ronstadt would later produce Aaron’s first solo recording, Warm Your Heart. The last track on the album is the Ave Maria complete with a full chorus and lush orchestration. Neville and the song he did not understand had come full circle.
Evangelizing in Tattoos
Since that time, Neville has included a spiritual track at the conclusion of all his records. Lovely Lady Dressed in Blue, Song of Bernadette, and The Lord’s Prayer shine like rare jewels on his A&M recordings. “It’s my connection with God. It’s something I’m giving to Him,” Neville says. “I always tell people I want to see the world through His eyes, and I want people to see Him in me.”
Neville’s recent CD, Devotion, gives his audience a chance to do just that. Entirely composed of spirituals, the CD features the official song of World Youth Day 2000, There Is Still a Dream, and several Neville originals. He also produced and owns the work. “It’s a thanksgiving to God. It’s something I have wanted to do for a long time, but the record company wasn’t ready for it. So I did it myself,” he says.
The faith-filled side of Neville is obvious on this CD, but if the truth be known, even his secular works possess a supernatural sense of good and evil. More than the material, it is Neville’s voice that carries this mysterious depth. At the close of our interview, when I ask him to explain why so many are touched by his voice, he seems somewhat uncomfortable. “All I can think of is,” he says scratching his head, “it’s the God in me touching the God in them. ‘Cause it ain’t me. It’s been medicine to me.”
Early Mardi Gras morning, Neville is still singing at the House of Blues: He is the new evangelization in denim and tattoos. Through the microphone, he spills his medicine on the assembled. A stoned-looking kid in the pit grabs a cocktail napkin and dabs his eyes. An Asian woman next to me solemnly lays her face in her hands as if she’s just received the Blessed Sacrament. A young girl in a fisherman’s hat lifts an open palm to the air, slowly shaking her head from side to side. Joel Neville leans over the balcony scanning the audience, checking its reactions. When Neville sings, the House of Blues is a church. The large black man, with the mole atop his right eye, the Jesus tattoo on his right arm, the Sacred Heart emblazoned on his left, and several rope chaplets like broken shackles hanging from his wrist, sweetly warbles: “I once was lost, but now I’m found. Was blind but now I see.” Suddenly, the Savior is in the room—the God in Neville, touching the God in them.
Jesus is a Friend of Mine
By Aaron Neville
I used to ride the outlaw trail.
I even spent some time in jail.
I walked up and down those mean, evil streets
through the bowels of hell with Satan at my feet.
But Jesus held my hand and walked close by my side.
He was always there to protect me.
He acted as my guide.
I owe it all to Jesus.
He pulled me through.