Aaron Neville is 70 years old. He is, in so many ways, a giant of American music. He will tour New Zealand in April as part of a gospel show featuring The Blind Boys of Alabama and Mavis Staples. (You can click here to read my recent interview with Mavis Staples.)
Aaron Neville is the owner of a distinctive voice, one that soars, almost implausibly - at least in the sense that it does not seem as though it comes from its owner. It's a voice that has been put to stunning use on a range of material as Neville has managed parallel careers as a solo artist and with the family band, The Neville Brothers.
He owns a voice that is as capable and confident singing Ave Maria as it is Everybody Plays the Fool. There are so many songs that he has made his own - from soul classics like Sam Cooke's A Change Is Gonna Come to folk songs from the pen of Bob Dylan (With God on Our Side); taking on weighty words from Leonard Cohen and soul/funk classics by The Temptations.
But Neville will be here for a gospel concert in April. He is quite sure of that.
"It'll be all gospel. That's what we'll be doing," he tells me in a quiet, calm voice, down the line from New York, which is where he makes his home now. "I'll be singing with The Blind Boys of Alabama, which is a great joy to me. I've done some work with them before and they truly are amazing. I think you all will enjoy what we have to bring you; a very spiritual evening of gospel tunes, a very soulful concert." Neville says that he is hoping to offer a duet or two with Mavis Staples and will perform solo as part of the concert. But we won't be going back to the sound of his breakthrough solo hit, Tell It Like It Is.
He reiterates, "This is a gospel show - so I'll leave all that other stuff for another time. But you know it all comes from the gospel sound, everything I do, everything I have done comes from there."
And there's a chance we will see him again - The Neville Brothers last performed here half a dozen years ago. Aaron reminds me that "some of the brothers are back there around the same time with The Funky Meters so you can't really keep us away from that place. We'll be back."
Touring is still important to Aaron Neville and he manages a range of guest spots, solo shows, band shows and cameos. His schedule keeps him busy and he explains it away as "management sorts it out; they deal with the bookings. I turn up and sing." It's apparently that simple. No special preparation is required for Aaron; there is no switching of hats. To him it is all singing. But that makes sense.
The Nevilles grew up in New Orleans and their sound, as well as so much of the work of The Meters and Aaron's solo career, is connected with the sound of New Orleans; has come to typify that version of New Orleans soul.
Neville agrees with me that just as you might order a gumbo from the menu of any New Orleans restaurant, the music of the area is a gumbo too - a selection of soul, gospel, blues, jazz and funk morsels, stirred and left to simmer.
"Oh, you are so right with that," he tells me; his voice growing ever so slightly louder, still calm, but there's more excitement in his tone. "You are so right because that is what it is - it is indeed a mixture of all these things. And doo-wop too - for me that was the main thing. The gospel music and doo-wop is what has informed me personally."
And you can hear heartache in that sound.
It hasn't been a walk to the top for Aaron. He was - as he can say with a chuckle now - "naughty". His singing dream was derailed when, at 17, he was arrested for joyriding. Alcohol and drugs were issues too. Neville says he got through it because of the one thing that has stayed with him - that has continued to guide him. "I'm here, now, because of my faith. That's what got me singing and what has kept me singing. That is what I have; what has kept me doing right and has provided me with the chances and the attitude and the skills to do this. Singing is my entire life. I nearly lost that. I am so blessed to be able to do this. It's the only thing I've ever wanted to do."
Even when he was being "naughty"?
And there's a warm chuckle here before the very serious, "yes indeed, yes sir. I always had music in my heart, in my head and I always wanted to sing. And to play. We were lucky that we had these gifts."
Aaron Neville is tall. He is big too - burly. In the 1970s and 80s particularly, even through to the mid-2000s, when he last toured here, his arms popped out from his shirt. The distinctive mole above his eye is as much a trademark as that quivering vibrato that was parodied with the Aaron Neville megaphone in a Family Guy episode.
He does not look like he sounds. He does not sound as he looks. And many who know of him only from the last 20 years, the duets with Linda Ronstadt, the more subdued solo and Neville Bros material, would perhaps be surprised to hear about tales of drug and alcohol issues; or in fact to hear of the muscular funk material, such as solo tune, Hercules or The Neville Brothers' Fiyo on the Bayou album.
My introduction to Neville's sound and indeed The Nevilles' sound was Yellow Moon.
"Ah yes, that was a good one," Aaron offers. "That's a favourite - a fan favourite and a favourite of the band; we still play a lot of material from that when we get together. We still rock out those numbers."
But in recent years Neville has gone back to his gospel roots, has released an album of soul covers. He's interested, he tells me, in the "power of the song". There's a "spirituality" that he finds contentment with - and in - from listening to and recording the songs from the 1950s and 1960s; from working with The Blind Boys ("they really are wonderful") and from "promoting music with a positivity".
He lives in New York now - his hometown was of course devastated by Hurricane Katrina.
"Well it's sad of course, still, but New Orleans is doing okay; it's doing, ah, as good as it can. They're rebuilding the town there bit by bit but, ah, it will never be the same. A lot was lost - can never be replaced, a lot of the soul of the city is gone but the spirit is strong for the rebuilding. So we have to just know that it will take time."
I mention Christchurch's earthquake, Neville is aware of this; not least of all because the Christchurch date for his tour has been cancelled.
"Well I know all about that, and I want to say that I hope people are doing okay, or doing as good as they can be. Of course I know that not everyone is, I have been watching the news and reading about it and it's just terrible. Christchurch will be like N'Orleans in that sense; they will have to rebuild it and it will take a lot of years and a lot of it will be gone forever or just won't be the same. So it's sad, yes."
That positivity that Neville says he seeks out - and often brings out - in a song is all through his words. The calmness, the genuine feeling he puts into a conversation. Some answers are short because that is all that is needed; other times you can get him chuckling away and zeroing in on loquacity.
And it's another near-anomaly, just as his physical presence does not quite match up with the ethereal quality of his voice. It catches you off guard in much the same way.
In a routine question about the range of his material, Neville seems uninterested at my mention of him singing Ave Maria and Amazing Grace. And then I mention that he sang the national anthem at SummerSlam 1993, he seems to at first brush it off with "yes, and I sang it at the Super Bowl also".
But then he goes on to tell me that he's not such a football fan; not compared to pro-wrestling.
Could this be another strange quirk of Aaron Neville? He tells me that he's "kept up" with wrestling. Not only that, he points out "I'm very good friends with Bret "The Hit Man" Hart". We share a chuckle and I'm able to return by telling him that I interviewed Bret "The Hitman" Hart; spent 90 minutes on the phone with him in fact.
"Well, you must have enjoyed that - he's a very nice man; a very smart man and a good friend."
We jump quickly to his musical friendship with Ronstadt. She once described their voices as being married. Neville confirms, "yes, that's the way to put it. Linda was right with that - there's no other way to say it. We will work together again. Something magical happens when we work together. Neither of us can explain it - so I like what she says there about the marriage of voices. That's how we explain it. It's just something that works."
And with that our interview is over. Aaron Neville, Linda Ronstadt duet-partner, pro-wrestling fan, ex-con, ex-addict, man of faith, man with a one-in-a-million-voice, tells me again that his hopes and prayers are with Christchurch and its people. And that New Zealand should look forward to some special shows with him, The Blind Boys of Alabama and Mavis Staples.
Postscript: you can click here to read my full interview with Bret "The Hit Man" Hart.
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