Musician Aaron Neville is a study in contrasts. The quintessential music ambassador from New Orleans lost his home during Hurricane Katrina and now lives in New York. He is known for a funky R & B sound, but his version of the Patsy Cline hit, “I Fall to Pieces,” sung with Trisha Yearwood, won them a Grammy for Best Country Collaboration with Vocals. He remains one of the few African Americans ever to win a Grammy for country music. He is a well-known solo artist with hits like “Tell It Like it is,” and “Everybody Plays the Fool,” but he is also renowned for playing with his brothers, Art, Charles and Cyril as the Neville Brothers.
Neville takes pride in a heritage that comes from Africa, the Caribbean and Native Americans. In fact, his uncle nicknamed him Apache and he has it tattooed on his back. Even his Shih-Tzu Pomeranian, a little bad-ass himself, is named Apache. Neville’s music is also a mixture of influences and heritage embodied in the New Orleans R & B culture. Some of his influences are not what you’d expect.
“I wasn’t paying too much attention in class,” he has said. “I had a song going through my head, you know? I used to sing my way into the movies. Whoever was running the door, I’d sing ‘em a Nat King Cole Song and they’d let me in. I was into him and Charles Brown and Ray Charles and all the doo-wops. I was also a big fan of Hank Williams and the cowboys-Roy Rogers and Gene Autry and the Sons of the Pioneers”
You may not think these artists or their styles have much in common, but Neville can tell how each influenced him. He says that he got his diction from Cole, the yodeling from the cowboys and the falsetto from the doo-wop. It is a combination that obviously works, as Neville has had four platinum albums and four Top 10 hits, including three that went to # 1 in Billboard’s Adult contemporary Chart.
In a 2017 review of Neville’s album, Apache, NPR’s Rachel Horn spoke of the fear that as an artist ages, the voice may suffer. “Aaron Neville, though, has a voice made to age gracefully. He’s always sung vowels with a distinctive wobble, pure and resolute in its fragility. The man still sings like an angel who’s swallowed a wah-wah pedal. It’s that blend of unforced sweetness, honesty and melodic sensibility that still makes his music so believable after a career spanning more than five decades. (Apache) nicely captures the duality that hangs around him: He’s known for heartrending ballads, but in his work with Allen Toussaint and his brothers, for hard-driving funk. He’s a man whose formidable figure and rocky past might come as a surprise once you’ve heard that gold-filigree voice.”