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Aaron Neville first burst into the national consciousness when his fluttering falsetto and flawless phrasing propelled the shimmering slice of mid-'60s zeitgeist, "Tell It Like It Is," to the No. 2 spot on the 1966 Billboard Pop charts.
A decade later, Aaron — the third eldest of the Neville brothers — would join forces with siblings saxophonist-vocalist Charles, keyboardist-vocalist Art, and percussionist-vocalist Cyril on the indescribably groovealious, self-titled 1976 album by Mardi Gras "Indian" tribe, the Wild Tchoupitoulas, which led to a fistful of discs under the Neville Brothers name. Together with Art and Cyril's previous membership in the legendary Meters, the group cemented the Nevilles' status as New Orleans's first family of funk.
Meanwhile, Aaron maintained a parallel career that returned him to the Top 10 via a pair of Grammy-winning duets with Linda Ronstadt (1989's "Don't Know Much" and 1990's "All My Life") as well as a gossamer, wings-of-a-dove 1991 cover of the Main Ingredient's "Everybody Plays the Fool." He'd won a third Grammy, dueting with Trisha Yearwood on the Patsy Cline classic "I Fall To Pieces," in 1994.
Backed by a quintet that includes brother Charles, Aaron is one of the biggest attractions making an appearance at this year's Concert of Colors festivities — a perfect choice given that the man's artistry crosses so many different genres of music.
Metro Times: Last time Detroit saw you perform locally was when you and Aretha Franklin sang the national anthem at the 2006 Super Bowl, right? What was that like?
Aaron Neville: Oh, she's the best. She's the Queen. I love her stuff. I've been listening to her since she was singin' spirituals. Matter of fact, I recorded her "Ain't No Way" on one of my gospel albums.
MT: Well, you've made solo albums that have spanned everything from gospel to standards to country to soul. What do you look for in a song?
Neville: Something that can convey to the audience my feelings when I sing it. When I can actually feel it, I can live it, and it's easier for me to put it across.
MT: Do you see the similarities in all those styles of music or do you see the differences?
Neville: It's just all the stuff that I grew up listening to in my lifetime, so it's easy for me to go from one to the other 'cause I'm not just a one-genre kind of guy. I like music. When I was a kid, I was listening to Nat "King" Cole and all the doo-woppers like Pookie Hudson with the Spaniels and Clyde McPhatter with the Dominos and the Drifters — people talk about Jackie Wilson and this 'n' that, but Clyde's one of the unsung heroes, one of the real pioneers — and Gene Autry and Roy Rogers, all the cowboys. I was a big Hank Williams fan too. I remember when I was in second grade, being on the bus and singin' "Wheel of Fortune" by Kay Starr. And I used to like "Rhapsody in Blue" — that kind of music. Brother Charles turned me on to all that bebop stuff and brother Art was also one of my inspirations 'cause he was a singer, so I had a little bit of all that comin' at me.
MT: Who's the best singer you ever saw live?
Neville: I would probably say Sam Cooke. I saw him in New Orleans when he was with the Soul Stirrers and he just blew me away. I used to listen to gospel on my grandmother's radio and most of the gospel singers would sing hard, screamin' and all. And Sam Cooke came along singing smooth — and I would sing along with him. First time I heard him was when I was 12 years old, so '53. First time I saw him was a couple years later. He did a spiritual, a hymn called "Any Day," that was so great; I recorded it on my gospel album.
MT: What are you currently working on?
Neville: I've started doing an album with Dr. John. It's just the two of us. He's playin' piano and I'm singin.' We came up in the same era, used to run the street together back in the day, so it's cool, comin' up with songs together. You hip to Gene Allison?
MT: Yeah, he did the original version of "You Can Make It If You Try," which the Rolling Stones later covered.
Neville: Right. He's another one of my favorite singers. I've got all his stuff on my iPod and me and Dr. John recorded a song of his called "Have Faith" on that album we're doin' together. Plus, I'm doin' a lot of writin' on my Blackberry memo pad. A thought comes into my head, I put it down.
MT: Most people think of you as an interpreter, not a songwriter.
Neville: Maybe, but I wrote "Yellow Moon," "Brother's Keeper," "Voodoo," "Steer Me Right" and a few other things. And I'm also workin' on a record with Allen Toussaint that's supposed to be out in 2010. He produced my first record ["Over You"] in 1960, so 2010 will be our 50-year anniversary together. I don't know how that happened 'cause I'm just 45, you know. [Laughs]
MT: So what can Detroit look forward to hearing you play this time?
Neville: Oh, I'll do "Tell It Like It Is," "Everybody Plays The Fool," and the stuff I did with Linda Ronstadt. But I'm gonna do a new song called "Ronio." And 'cause my fiancee's name is Sara, I put [Hall & Oates'] "Sara Smile" into the set. And 'cause I'm a big fan of Marvin Gaye — I used to call him "the man with the tear in his voice" 'cause I could hear his hurt and the trouble in his heart — I think I'll put "What's Going On" in the setlist that night.
Concert of Colors occurs Saturday-Sunday, July 18-19, at the Max M. Fisher Music Center, 3711 Woodward Ave., Detroit. Aaron Neville plays the Meijer Main Stage at 6 p.m. on Sunday. For a full festival schedule, see concertofcolors.com.
Don Waller writes about music for Metro Times. He authored The Motown Story, the first-ever Motown Records history. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.