Tell It Like It Is

New Orleans Soul Man

Aaron Neville has long been considered one of New Orleans' (aka the world's) finest vocalists.  His lilting falsetto is sonically iconic and ranks right up there with alcohol as a seductive aid.  It has been a yearly ritual for him to end the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival with a stirring, a cappella rendition of "Amazing Grace," and if you don't get a little choked up when hearing this, then you probably need to pay a visit to the Wizard, Tin Man.  The man can wring every drop out of a note, leaving it light enough to float to heaven.  

 He is the odd case of being practically a household name despite that hit songs have been sporadic in his long career.  In 1966, Mr. Neville soared to the #2 spot on the US charts with the pleading, I-can-handle-the-truth hit "Tell It Like It Is," and then 25 years later claimed the eight spot with "Everybody Plays The Fool."  In 1989, he collaborated with Linda Ronstadt on Cry Like a Rainstorm, Howl Like the Wind, which scored a couple of Grammy-winning hits that reached the top of the charts: "Don't Know Much" and "All My Life."  Up until now, he has managed a balance between his solo work and singing/tambourine-banging duties for The Neville Brothers. 

 Even though his musical prowess was evident, he had to walk a hard road to actualize that talent.  There were mistakes along the way, such as the heroin addiction and prison sentences that forged the inner steel that has allowed him to appreciate the tedious grind of a touring musician's life.  Singing ballads is certainly an easier task than the soul-numbing manual labor of ditch digging and unloading freighters that claimed 20 years of his prime.  But the burly balladeer persevered, and at the age of 72, has just released a new solo album My True Story, a collection of 12 cover tunes spanning the same number of years--from 1952 to 1964.  

 Classics such as The Drifters' "Under The Boardwalk" and The Ronettes' wall-of-sound masterpiece "Be My Baby" share space with Curtis Mayfield's "Gypsy Woman" and The Clovers' "Ting-A-Ling."  There is an old school feel to the classics "Money Honey" and "Ruby Baby," possibly due to the presence of co-producer Keith Richards, who plays guitar and acts as band leader.  I am probably in the minority on this, but I have always preferred hearing his less affected singing style, so I like this new recording.  The trademark hesitations and melismatic flourishes do not overpower the straightforward arrangements, and we are left with a satisfying blend of doo-wop and early soul-flavored tunes that dial back the years.  He's hardly lost a step, or note, and for that, we should all be thankful.

 Happy Birthday, Aaron.  You are a real American treasure.  Your voice is like a dream way to a higher plane, and we need you now more than ever.   


Amazing Grace

New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival