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The 'True Story' Inside Aaron Neville's Doo-Wop World
Originally published on Thu January 24, 2013 1:19 pm
At 72, the prince of R&B has reverted to childhood. Aaron Neville has a new album called My True Story, and it's a collection of the songs he sang growing up in the projects of New Orleans in the 1950s and '60s, back when doo-wop was king.
"I've been into every doo-wop there is," Neville says. "I think I went to the university of doo-wop-ology."
Neville got his education from groups like The Drifters, The Clovers and The Flamingos. They'd had such an influence on him that their sound has kept popping up throughout his more than 50 years in music — from his family group, The Neville Brothers, to his long solo career.
Here, Neville speaks with NPR's Renee Montagne about the ups and downs of his youth — which include an arrest for car theft and a marriage at 17 — and staying faithful to the songs that inspired him during that time.
On growing up in the projects
"The project was great. If we were poor, we didn't know it, 'cause I guess you don't miss what you never had. So, you know, we made do with whatever. We used to make our own toys, and we used to play with spinning tops and marbles. A pocket full of marbles and you were rich — you didn't worry about no money."
On singing with his brother
"My brother Art was a doo-wopper. He had a group that sat out on a park bench in New Orleans and sang harmonies at night, and they'd go around and win all the talent shows and get all the girls, you know. So I would run up and try to sing, and he'd run me away — 'Get away from me, kid' — until they figured I could hold a note, and they let me sing with them."
On bartering with his voice
"I used to always sing my way into the movies and the basketball games or whatever. I'd sing for whoever's on the door and they'd let me in. I used to think I was Nat King Cole back in the day, you know. So I'd sing something like, 'Mona Lisa, Mona Lisa, men have named you,' and they'd let me in."
RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:
Today is Aaron Neville's birthday, and at 72 you could say he's reverted back to his childhood. He's recorded a new album called "My True Story," and it's a collection of songs he used to sing growing up in the projects of New Orleans, back in the 1950s and '60s, when doo-wop was king.
AARON NEVILLE: I've been into every doo-wop there is. And I think I went to the University of Doo-Wopology.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG)
MONTAGNE: Aaron Neville got his education from groups like the Drifters, the Clovers and the Flamingos. They had such an influence on him that their sound has kept popping up throughout his more than 50 years in music, from his family group, the Neville Brothers, to his long solo career.
NEVILLE: Everything I've done, if you're listening, you hear some kind of doo-wop in it. I'm doing one of those things on the end of it, you know.
MONTAGNE: What do you mean? One of those things on the end of it?
NEVILLE: (Humming) You know.
MONTAGNE: That's doo-wop.
MONTAGNE: For a long time, of course, you would have been listening to this music as a kid.
NEVILLE: My brother Art was a doo-wopper; he had of a group that sat out on a park bench in New Orleans and sang harmonies at night. And they'd go around and win all the talent shows and get all the girls, you know. So I would run up and try to sing and they'd run me away - get away from me, kid, you know. Until they figured I could hold a note and they let me sing with them.
MONTAGNE: So for a kid, a nine, 10-year-old, you would have had to have a voice at that age.
NEVILLE: They wouldn't have let me sing if they didn't think I had a voice. I used to always sing my way into the movies and the basketball games or whatever. I'd sing for whoever was on the door and they'd let me in.
MONTAGNE: The people at the door would say - they knew you at that point?
NEVILLE: Yeah. I used to think I was Nat King Cole back in the days. You know, so I'd sing something like - (Singing) Mona Lisa, Mona Lisa, men have named you - (Speaking) and they'd let me in.
MONTAGNE: In this album, you can hit the high notes in this way that was really supreme in the world of doo-wop.
NEVILLE: Yeah. That was the thing. The doo-wop was like - had a bass singer, had the guy doing the harmonies, the lead, and somebody doing the high notes.
MONTAGNE: Let's play an example of those notes.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG)
MONTAGNE: Your brother used to work in a record store there in New Orleans.
NEVILLE: Right. It's called Tickles Record Shop.
MONTAGNE: And so he had access probably more than most young people to everything.
NEVILLE: He would bring stuff home by Clyde McFadden, Domino's and Senator and the Orioles, and the Clovers, and just all kind of groups. And it was like, oh wow, I couldn't wait to get that and put it on a turntable and start playing it, you know?
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
MONTAGNE: Let's make a comparison here. Let's hear a Little Anthony's original of the song "Tears on My Pillow" and make a comparison to what you're doing...
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "TEARS ON MY PILLOW")
LITTLE ANTHONY: (Singing) You don't remember me but I remember you, 'twas not so long ago, you broke my heart in two. Tears on my pillow, pain in my heart, caused by you...
MONTAGNE: And now we'll hear what - we'll hear your version.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "TEARS ON MY PILLOW")
NEVILLE: (Singing) You don't remember me, but I remember you, not so long ago, you broke my heart in two. Tears on my pillow, pain in my heart caused by you, you...
MONTAGNE: You're faithful, very faithful to the song. Did you listen a lot to the originals again in order to do this album?
NEVILLE: They were already in my head. They've been in my head since I can remember. So I didn't really, you know, record and I didn't really need the words.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "THIS MAGIC MOMENT")
NEVILLE: (Singing) This magic moment, so different and so new. It's like any other, until I kissed you...
MONTAGNE: You say you grew up in the projects, but it was homey there in New Orleans when you were a kid.
NEVILLE: The project was great. If we were poor, we didn't know it. 'Cause I guess you don't miss what you never had, so you know, we made do with whatever - we used to make our own toys and we used to play with spinning tops and marbles. A pocket full of marbles, you were rich. You didn't worry about no money.
MONTAGNE: Well, you did get into some trouble though as a slightly older teenager.
NEVILLE: Yes, I did.
MONTAGNE: Caught and went to prison for car theft.
NEVILLE: Right. Joy riding.
MONTAGNE: Joy riding.
MONTAGNE: That's what they called it.
NEVILLE: That's what they called it.
MONTAGNE: And it sort of was that though, right?
NEVILLE: Yeah, it was, until you got caught. Then the joy was over.
MONTAGNE: You had ups and downs after that.
NEVILLE: Yep. I got married at an early age. I was 17 when I got married.
MONTAGNE: And Joelle was her name?
NEVILLE: Joelle, yeah. And she raised me, really. You know, like, we stayed together 48 years.
MONTAGNE: She just passed on a few years...
NEVILLE: In '07, right. But I think if I wouldn't have been married, I don't know where I would be.
MONTAGNE: If there was a tune on here that would speak to that moment in your life - young, married, still potentially could be in a little bit in trouble, but you have your gift, your voice - what one would that be here?
NEVILLE: Maybe "Goodnight My Love."
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "GOODNIGHT MY LOVE")
NEVILLE: (Singing) Goodnight, my love, pleasant dreams and sleep tight, my love, may tomorrow be sunny and bright, and bring you closer to me.
MONTAGNE: Aaron Neville, thank you very much for joining us.
NEVILLE: It's been a pleasure. Brought me down memory lane.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
MONTAGNE: Aaron Neville has a new album of the songs he grew up with, and it's produced by two other musicians who grew up on doo-wop - Keith Richards and Don Was. You can hear that CD, "My True Story," at NPR.org.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "UNDER THE BOARDWALK")
NEVILLE: (Singing) Under the boardwalk, down by the sea, on a blanket with my baby is where I'll be. Under the boardwalk, out of the sun, under the boardwalk, we'll be having some fun, under the boardwalk, boardwalk.
MONTAGNE: This is NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.