To Aaron Neville, all singing is sacred. “There’s a saying I saw on the bar at Tipitina’s in New Orleans, back in the mid-’70s, and it stuck with me,” he said. “It read, ‘He who sings, prays twice.’ I deeply believe that.”
In fact, he believes it so deeply that it has informed a key part of what makes his singing unique. Early in his life, Neville developed a style in which he elegantly flutters between notes, translating into sound a quickening of the heart and an excitement of the spirit. That style — a highly personal approach to the melisma of gospel — captures a sense of rapture, elevated even higher by a falsetto that seems to ascend without end. “When I sing,” Neville said, “I’m trying to reach heaven.”
In the process, he has made millions of listeners feel like he can bring them along. The words people most often use to describe his creamy tenor include “heavenly” and “divine.” But the hard experience in his voice means his singing doesn’t idealize or whitewash emotion. Pain and need fuel his glorious cries, grounding his transcendent tones in the complications of real life. It helps that, over the years, he has applied his sacred vocal technique to an uncommonly wide range of secular genres, from standards and country music to doo-wop and soul.
Neville’s gifts as a collaborator have yielded some of his most important music, especially that of the group he formed alongside his siblings in the late 1970s, the Neville Brothers. Renowned for decades as essential musical ambassadors for New Orleans, the Brothers performed an official farewell concert in 2015. (Charles passed in 2018 and Art in 2019, leaving Aaron and his fellow founding brother Cyril.) Another key association is with Linda Ronstadt. Their in-studio partnership in the late 1980s and early ’90s brought Neville to his commercial peak.
Recently, the singer talked about the more than 60-year arc of his career by phone from his home about 90 minutes north of New York City, where he has lived for the last decade. He moved there to be with his second wife, Sarah A. Friedman, a photographer he wed in 2010, but he still refers to the Crescent City as his hometown. (His first wife, Joel, whom he married in the late ’50s, died in 2007.)
Neville, who turns 80 on Jan. 24, was in a reflective mood when he spoke, looking back appreciatively over all that has led him here.
I wanted to talk about your trademark vocal flutter. How did you develop it?
When I was a kid, my older brother Arthur, who was my first inspiration, had a doo-wop group. He showed me how to do the harmonies and arrange all the voices, and the way they sang together made an impression on my style. At the same time, I used to go see the singing cowboys in the movies, like Gene Autry and Roy Rogers. They yodeled, and it just came naturally for me to put that into my vocals.
You performed a lot of doo-wop early in your career in the ’60s. Which groups informed your style?
What appealed to you about doo-wop?
It was the harmonies. And the songs they sang were innocent. They were songs you could sit and listen to with your grandmother and your granddaughter and nobody would be offended. Nowadays it’s hard to find things like that. Now they play stuff that would shock the devil.
What singers outside of doo-wop influenced you?
Sam Cooke, Nat King Cole and Clyde McPhatter were my greatest teachers. When I listen to music on my iPod today I listen to music from the ’50s and ’60s: Curtis Mayfield, Sam Cooke, Lou Rawls, Marvin Gaye. That’s still my music.
The pitch of your voice is high, and then you enhance it with your falsetto. What attracts you to the falsetto style?
I’ve been doing it since I was 12 years old in the projects of New Orleans. One guy would sing the bass, then they had three guys in the middle, but the guy with the high notes always fascinated me. It does something good for the heart to be able to do that. It’s like the child in me coming out. There’s an innocence to it.
People often describe your voice as angelic and curative. When you sing, do you feel a sense of elevation?
I do feel God when I’m singing. I believe when you sing, you give respect. I’ve had people in England, social workers, tell me that they use my music to help guys and girls. One lady told me there was this 6-year-old boy, he was autistic and they couldn’t do anything with him. The only thing that would soothe him was to put headphones on his ears and he would hear my voice. When I heard that, I thought, “Well, it must be the God in me touching the God in him.”
There’s this incredible disparity between your graceful voice and your imposing physique. Does it ever surprise people who come to see you for the first time to hear this lithe voice emanating from this big guy?
[laughs] Well, I wasn’t always this big. When I was in my teens I was slender. But I get that. All I tell them is “This is the whole package!”
Your career has had a very unusual structure. When you were in your 20s in the ’60s, you had this national Top 10 hit with “Tell It Like It Is.” Then you only really returned to the spotlight with the Neville Brothers in the late ’70s. What were you doing in between?
With the Nevilles you play harder, funkier music. On your solo albums, you greatly favor ballads. Why?
Because they’re tender. I like the funk stuff and the hard stuff, but the ballads are more me. I can express my heart with it.
Can you describe your dynamic when working with the Nevilles?
The Brothers, when we work together, it’s not like we have to tell each other, “Well, you take this note and you take that one.” We all know what note to take. I had the high notes. It’s like someone answering your question before you even ask it.
In your solo career, you have often dedicated given albums to specific genres. You’ve released sets of gospel, soul classics, standards — it seems like you want to cover it all.
Back in school, the teachers thought I had ADD because I always had a different song in my head. It’s like my brother Art said, “I don’t want to be pigeonholed.” They’ll say, “Oh, he’s an R&B singer.” Well, what’s an R&B singer? I’m a singer! I can sing “Ave Maria.” Is that R&B?
Linda Ronstadt was crucial to the success of your solo career. You released your first solo disk in nearly 20 years in 1985 with Orchid in the Storm, but it didn’t do well. Things turned around in 1989, when you paired with Linda for four tracks on her Cry Like a Rainstorm, Howl Like the Wind album, which contained the international hits “Don’t Know Much” and “All My Life.” Then she produced your 1991 album, Warm Your Heart, which went Platinum. How did you hook up with her?
[The Neville Brothers] were playing at the World’s Fair in New Orleans in 1984. She was there with Nelson Riddle at the amphitheater. She came to see us and I asked her to come onstage and sing some doo-wop with us. And she said she never does anything impromptu like that, but since it was me she said she couldn’t say no. After that, she was signing an autograph for me and it said, “To Aaron with love, I’ll sing with you anytime, anywhere, in any key.” So the next year, me and Allen Toussaint came up with a program for Artists Against Hunger and Homelessness in New Orleans, and we asked her to come down and do the benefit and she came. That was 1985, but it took until 1989 for us to get into the studio and do something together. After we recorded “Don’t Know Much,” I said, “Meet you at the Grammys.” I was joking but not joking because it was such a great song.
Then you won the next year too with “All My Life”!
You have such rapport with Linda as a singer. Can you talk about the connection between you as vocalists?
She said that our voices are married and we probably sang together in another life. We respected each other’s voice. She can belt out a song. But when she sang with me, she came down to my sweet sound and it was like twins singing.
When you broke through to having a sustained career as a solo artist you were turning 50. That’s incredibly late to become a pop star. Do you think there are some advantages to having that kind of success later in life?
If it happened when I was younger, I don’t think I would be here. I sincerely mean that. There’s the 27 Club, with Jimi Hendrix and Janis Joplin. That could have been me.
Instead, you’re here to celebrate a very big birthday. How do you feel about turning 80?
I’m still a teenager! I’ll never get any older than that — in my mind, anyway. But, you know, I’m just glad I’m around to get to this age. If, as a teenager, somebody told me I would live that long, I would tell them they’re lying. But here I am.