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Aaron Neville

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DOB 01/24/41 Aaron Joseph Neville

The third born of the Neville brothers, Aaron has one of the most striking and unique voices in music today. He has finally achieved the mainstream recognition that always seemed so far out of reach. Although his current solo material may not be the first choice of long-term fans of the Neville Brothers, he has earned the right to record what he prefers. No matter what the source of his songs may be, he makes them all sound superb. Quiet and soft spoken, Aaron keeps a book of his own poetry (that we all hope he will put to music some day). A nonsmoker and nondrinker, he has remained married to his high-school sweetheart, Joel, for over 35 years.

His early influences were gospel and do-wop music, singers Pookie Hudson and Sam Cooke, and cowboy yodelers like Gene Autry and Roy Rogers. He liked to hang out on the street corners singing with his friends. Aaron's voice must have been remarkable even at that point, because he could get in basketball games free just by singing for the guy at the door. In 1955, a teacher at school encouraged Aaron to join the Avalons, a local vocal group.

Aaron's days of innocent youth didn't last long. He started hanging around with the wrong crowd. When Aaron came home with a pirate's cutlass tattooed on his left cheek, his dad was furious and tried to scrub it off with steel wool. In 1958, older brother Art joined the Navy, and Aaron took his place as the lead singer for the New Orleans group the Hawketts. By the time Aaron turned 18 he was married and serving time in the parish prison for auto theft. In jail, there wasn't much to do except sing and fight. Aaron spent part of his six-month sentence writing songs - both Over You and Jailhouse were written then. His fellow inmates encouraged him to record the songs upon release.

Once back on the street, disc jockey Larry McKinley arranged for Aaron to audition for Allen Toussaint, who was looking for singers to record for the Minit record label. Between 1960 and 1961 Aaron recorded more than a dozen songs, almost all of them written by himself or Toussaint (using his "Namoi Neville" pen name). The combination of Aaron and Toussaint had terrific results. The Minit material like Wrong Number, Over You, Every Day, and I'm Waiting at the Station, firmly established Aaron as a serious vocalist. Although popular in New Orleans, the records made little impact on the national music scene. Aaron had to resort to menial jobs like dock worker and truck-driver to support his family.

In 1965, New Orleans musicians George Davis and Alvin "Red" Tyler, along with school teacher Warren Parker, started a record company called Parlo. They bought the rights to a song written by Lee Diamond, the former band leader for Little Richard. The song, Tell It Like It Is, took Diamond about 15 minutes to write. Parlo's owners, familiar with Aaron's vocal talent, asked him to record it. The song, which peaked at #2 on the national charts, was more than the local company could handle. Disputes developed between the owners, the song writer and Aaron. Lee Diamond as writer, received several thousand dollars, while Aaron received less. Parlo finally declared bankruptcy. Brother Art put together a backup band, and he and Aaron toured the country for almost a year on the strength of Tell It Like It Is. When they returned home, they added brother Cyril to the group and called themselves Art Neville and the Neville Sounds. They finally landed a six-night-a-week job in a Bourbon Street club. Because the stage was so small, Art had to reduce the size of the group. Regretfully, he had to layoff Aaron and Cyril.

In 1968, New Orleans, producers Allen Toussaint and Marshall Sehorn started a recording company called Sansu Enterprises, and asked Aaron to record for them. As with the Minit releases in the early 60's, the combination of Aaron's voice and the song writing/production talents of Toussaint worked magic. They re-recorded brother Art's 50's recording All These Things, and Aaron's previous hit Tell It Like It Is. The material included Struttin' On Sunday, Where Is My Baby, Cry Me a River and Mojo Hanna (which would later become a staple of the Neville Brothers' live shows). There are some who feel that Aaron was at his peak with songs such as the semi-autobiographical Hercules, that tells the story of a person needing the strength of the mythical hero, to avoid the urban hazards of crime and drugs. Unfortunately, Aaron couldn't resist the temptation and became addicted to heroin. Because Sansu leased the singles to other record companies for final release (Mercury, Bell, Island), the entire project had little impact on the national record charts or Aaron's wallet.

Deciding to try their luck elsewhere, Aaron and Cyril, formed the group Soul Machine and headed off to Nashville and New York. Teaming-up with brother Charles in New York, they started practicing some Mardi Gras Indian songs and chants they had learned from their uncle, Big Chief Jolly, chief of a Mardi Gras Indian tribe from their old Uptown neighborhood. They even started calling themselves the Wild Tchoupitoulas.

Back at home, brother Art had achieved some success with his group the Meters. They were asked by the Rolling Stones to open their 1974 tour of the US. Art felt he needed a front man for the group, called Cyril in New York, and invited him to join the Meters. Cyril and Aaron returned to New Orleans. Aaron played occasional dates at several area clubs, but had to go back to construction jobs to support his family.

In 1976, the Wild Tchoupitoulas project started, that led to the formation of the Neville Brothers as a group.

Since the Neville Brothers as a group began, Aaron has been the most active in solo endeavors. Since 1985, Aaron has released five solo albums, contributed songs to various compilation projects, provided backup on many recordings by others, and had all of his earlier work re-released (see the the Neville Brothers discography). He has sung the National Anthem at the Super Bowl, performed in front of the Nation's Capitol during Fourth of July celebrations, performed for President Clinton, has had roles in movies and television (including his favorite show, All My Children), and received many awards including two Grammy awards. Remarkably, he still finds time to donate his services to an array of charitable projects. In Aaron's typically understated manner, he is glad that success came now instead of when he was younger and less able to handle it. A deeply religious person, he always gives thanks to Saint Jude, the patron saint of lost causes, who he feels rescued him when he was at his lowest point. It is a gold medallion of Saint Jude that he wears in his left ear.


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Last updated November, 1995
Copyright © 1995, 1996 George C. Gerhold