Looking back at the New Orleans icon’s epic 1991
New Orleans Jazz Fest was where I first saw Roy Orbison, Fats Domino, Bo Diddley and Bobby “Blue” Bland.
And sets by Jimmie Dale Gilmore and Richard Thompson, where I decided that I could just watch them sing any song that popped into their heads and I’d be happy. I caught The Dixie Chicks there, before Natalie joined the band and they took over the world, and I watched a teenaged Harry Connick Jr. play James Booker–inspired piano (and not sing a note) in the Jazz Tent.
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I spent hours in the Gospel Tent, and when I wasn’t at the actual fairgrounds, I’d catch Los Lobos in the late-night hours at Tipitina’s, Aaron Neville singing doo-wop at Snug Harbor, or Al Green at the Saenger Theater. I’d meet friends for drinks at Coop’s Place on Decatur Street, book dinners at Brigtsen’s or stand on line at K-Paul’s or Mother’s.
VIDEO: The Neville Brothers perform “Yellow Moon” at Tipitina’s 1991
It was the first and only place I’ve eaten alligator. I fell in love a few times, drank a lot, learned to like grits, and fish that was blackened. And every year, there was at least one set by The Neville Brothers that was as purely joyful as any music I could imagine being in the room with. They were the house band of of my New Orleans experience. In May 2015, The Neville Brothers played their final live date, at the Saenger, joined by artists such as Allen Toussaint, Irma Thomas, Trombone Shorty and Terence Blanchard, taking their final bow close to the intersection of Basin Street and Canal Street, which was poetically perfect.
Charles Neville passed away in 2018, and Art in 2019. Recently, Aaron announced that he wasn’t going to tour anymore. “Life is short,” he said, “and I’d like to spend my remaining time on this earth being less hurried.” You don’t think of Aaron Neville being hurried under any circumstances (he can turn one musical phrase into an aria), but you can understand why life on the road doesn’t hold much appeal to him anymore. When I worked briefly with the Nevilles back in 1999, they were already the grand old men of New Orleans funk, having been at it in different incarnations since the ’50s. Art had cut some solo sides for Specialty, and was a member of the four-piece machine called The Meters, along with Leo Nocentelli, George Porter Jr., and Zigaboo Modeliste.
And Aaron, way before his middle-period emergence as Linda Ronstadt’s singing partner, and successful solo artist, recorded classic songs—“Over You,” “Tell It Like It Is,” “Hercules” “Where Is My Baby”—for a series of labels. “Tell It Like It Is” was a big hit, but nothing else in his extensive solo discography—singles on Minit, Bell, Mercury; a rapturous EP of R&B group-harmony oldies on Passport (Orchids in the Storm)—made an impact, and he didn’t have a hit album on his own until his breakthrough with Linda gave him the chance to cut Warm Your Heart for A&M, an album that celebrates its 30th anniversary this June. Produced by Ronstadt with George Massenburg, Warm Your Heart is as compact a survey as you can imagine from a singer who never could be typecast, who could (and did) sing pretty much anything. A Sunday at Jazz Fest might start with him sitting in and singing gospel with the Zion Harmonizers, and end with his voice cascading over a rippling tide of ecstatic funk as he and his brothers closed out the 10 days of great food and greater music.
VIDEO: Aaron Neville “Everybody Plays The Fool”
Is any singer more open-hearted, more unapologetically sentimental, less afraid of being corny? (Here is someone who, at the behest of Hal Willner, sang Kurt Weill’s “Oh Heavenly Salvation” and “The Mickey Mouse March.”) Like Raul Malo of the Mavericks, and a few others, Aaron leans into the floridness, lets the emotion take over. He learned from the early R&B singers (Pookie Hudson of the Spaniels, Clyde McPhatter of the Drifters) most of all, but there’s also a touch of the cowboy crooners like Gene Autry and country balladeers like Jim Reeves. So Warm Your Heart roams everywhere. There are a couple of Allen Toussaint songs, and “Ave Maria,” and Randy Newman’s prescient “Louisiana 1927,” and the title track originally done by McPhatter.
He and Ronstadt duet on the Five Keys’ swoony ballad “Close Your Eyes,” also done by Peaches and Herb and by Steve and Eydie, but not with this much sensuality. The follow-up album, The Grand Tour, was even more eclectic, if that’s possible, skipping around from Chuck Berry to George Jones to “These Foolish Things” to The Lord’s Prayer, with a stop at an exquisite take on “The Bells,” cut first at Motown by the Originals and then covered by Laura Nyro.
Our professional paths crossed a few times. I heard him sing Leiber & Stoller’s “Young and Beautiful” one night at Snug Harbor outside the French Quarter, and suggested we use it on a compilation of songs from Elvis Presley movies. I also threw his name into the mix when a song I found, “Even If My Heart Would Break,” was being considered for (and wound up on) The Bodyguard soundtrack. And I was the Nevilles’ A&R guy for one album, the (he said, immodestly) Grammy-nominated Valence Street. It was a challenging project, getting the four brothers in sync, but it was an album I needed to make. I sent them Richard Thompson’s “Dimming of the Day,” which I thought would be perfect for Aaron, but Cyril ended up singing it. Aaron wanted to do “If I Had a Hammer,” and I thought, hmmm … really?, but of course he was right. And there was a song by the Cate Brothers, “Give Me a Reason,” that he came in the door with and, again, he nailed it, because that’s what Aaron Neville does.
There were all those Sunday mornings with the Zion Harmonizers, the concerts on the riverboat, all those dimming-of-the-day sets when the Nevilles would ride the rhythm through song after song, until you thought it could keep going forever. It had to end. It’s been a long time since I spent those weekends at Jazz Fest, and I wasn’t surprised to hear that Aaron Neville had tired of the grind.
Maybe he’ll do the occasional gig closer to his home, and I’ll just have to pay New Orleans another visit. I’m ready.