With the possible exception of Sam Cooke and James Brown, I can’t think of anyone in the history of soul and R&B whose voice is as instantly recognizable as the sweet, heartache-laden tenor of Aaron Neville.
The minute this cherished son of New Orleans opens up there’s no question who you’re listening to.
I’ve been listening to that voice now since 1967 when Neville found himself at the No. 1 spot on the Billboard charts with Tell It Like it Is.
He has covered a lot of ground since then, from the funk and R&B he sang with siblings Arthur, Charles and Cyril in the Neville Brothers and the pop duets he sang with Linda Ronstadt to his collaboration with Trisha Yearwood for Rhythm Country And Blues.
He has recorded a least two albums of contemporary gospel music since then and a full album of jazz standards.
What I had never heard him do was doo-wop — until now.
There was a doo-wop EP in 1985, Orchid In the Storm, but I never heard it.
That observation aside, Neville has just released My True Story, a collection of classic doo-wop songs he grew up with and had always wanted to record.
The idea had apparently been brewing in the back of his mind for some time.
“These songs helped to mold me into who I am,” says Neville. “They’re all dear to my heart, and they rode with me, in my bones, through all these years.”
When he signed on to Blue Note Records he pitched the idea to label president Don Was and Was gave him the green light.
Not only did he give the record his blessings, he co-produced it with somebody else who was a big fan of that music, the Stones’ Keith Richards.
Neville chose the material for this record well.
Included in the mix are gems like Little Anthony & The Imperials’ Tears on My Pillow, The Drifters’ Under the Boardwalk, Work With Me Annie from Hank Ballard and the Midnighters, The Jive Fives’ My True Story and Paul Anka’s Goodnight My Love.
No surprises there.
But he also chose some material that purists would not call doo-wop, like the Ronettes’ Be My Baby.
Neville’s response when asked about that was simply that for him, it wasn’t the calendar but the vocal approach that mattered.
“Doo-wop started with five guys, like the Clovers — or five girls, like the Chantels or the Shirelles — singing harmony together on a bench or a stoop,” Neville says in the album’s release materials.
“My own favourite place was the boys’ bathroom at school, because it had such great acoustics. So I always thought Be My Baby was a doo-wop song because it’s a lead singer with harmony singers.”
Neville’s vocals on this material are golden.
But then I expected nothing less from him. It’s hard to believe he’s now 72.
Neville and his producers brought in some serious talent to help make this record a reality.
Included in that number were people who’d made some of the original doo-wop recordings: Eugene Pitt of the Jive Five, co-writer of My True Story; Dickie Harmon of the Del-Vikings and Bobby Jay of the Teenagers.
He also had one hell of a band.
Richards played guitar on the record, as did Greg Leisz (Beck, Sheryl Crow). Benmont Tench (Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers) played keyboards. Nora Jones’ bass player Tony Scherr was utilized. Featured on drums is George Receli, who has pounded the skins for Dylan.
Who said good help was hard to find?
With the classic doo-wop songs of yesterday, the vocals were always the heart and soul of the music. But Neville said the players they brought in also helped them highlight the music.
“... this record is a combination of all of it, to bring it up to date.”
Whether you were a fan of doo-wop during its heyday of just appreciate those kinds of close harmonies you’ll find something here that will make you feel good inside.
The title track alone is worth the price of admission.
This is one sweet record.
Rating: 3 1/2 out of 5 stars.
Doug Gallant, a reporter with The Guardian, writes his music review column for The Guardian every week. He welcomes comments from readers at email@example.com or 629-6000, ext. 6057.