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Aaron Neville: Stepping into the 'candy store' of doo-wop

Aaron Neville

With 'My True Story,' a New Orleans legend pays tribute to classics from his youth

By Melinda Newman
Special to MSN Music

Growing up in the Calliope housing project in New Orleans, Aaron Neville surrounded himself with music. The voices of Clyde McPhatter, Pookie Hudson & the Spaniels, and Sonny Til & the Orioles accompanied him in his head as he started his own musical journey cutting his first record in 1960.

Though he turns 72 this week, Neville admits he felt "like a kid in the candy store" as he recorded "My True Story," a collection of doo-wop-era songs co-produced by Don Was and the Rolling Stones' Keith Richards on Blue Note Records. On the 11-track set, the multiple Grammy winner revisits "Be My Baby," "This Magic Moment" and "Tears on My Pillow," among others, bringing his own inimitable vibrato to such classics.

In March, PBS will air "Aaron Neville: Doo Wop: My True Story," a concert special also featuring Paul Simon, Joan Osborne, Jive Five's Eugene Pitt, (who co-wrote the album's title track) and the Del-Vikings' Dickie Harmon. Neville's tour starts April 13 and includes a closing-night slot at the New Orleans Jazz Festival as a solo act, since he left his sibling act, the Neville Brothers, last year.

Neville, who now lives in New York with his second wife, Sarah, talked to MSN about the wild licks of Richards, whom he listens to when times are tough, and his furry friend, Turks.

MSN Music: You dabbled with doo-wop on "Orchid in the Storm" 25 years ago. Why wait so long to make a full album?

Aaron Neville: The planets have to be aligned right and I had to have somebody interested in it. Blue Note, Don Was is the president, and he was interested in doing this and I'm happy for it. Everything I've done has had some kind of doo-wop influence in it. From day one.

Don Was realized that you and Keith both loved the song "My True Story" and brought him in to co-produce. The same song was reaching all of you across the globe as you were growing up in New Orleans, Keith in Kent, England, and Don in Detroit.

No doubt. Also, when I talk to Paul Simon, it's the same thing. It's like we all grew up on the same block.

MSN Music: Stream Aaron Neville's "My True Story"

How do you figure out how to bring something new to a classic like "Under the Boardwalk?"

I don't figure out anything. It just comes from my heart and soul. It's how I feel. This is how I want the audience to hear it from me. I don't want to take away from the song, I just want to add my inflections or whatever. I want to add my soul to this song that I love so much that I'm not going too far off the path with it. I'm going to respect it ... [For the original artists] that aren't here anymore, [I want to] let them know I loved their voice and loved what they did with the song and I hope they like what I did with it.

Keith Richards does a wicked little solo on "Ruby Ruby."

Let me tell you about that: He went into the studio with his guitar to get ready to do his solo and he started playing. When he finished, he was ready to do the solo and [Don] said, "You've done it already." Don was rolling tape while he [rehearsed].

How important was it to you to record so much of this album live with the musicians?

I wouldn't have had it any other way. Back in the day, the doo-wop groups would be all around one microphone, so whatever happened happened. It wasn't supposed to be perfect; it was supposed to be human. So this was a human session and we all enjoyed it. You can hear the musicians smiling on the record.

You turn 72 on Jan. 24 ...

I'm really turning 27 [laughs]. I feel like I'm the same boy that used to run through the Calliope projects back in the day.

What do you attribute that to?

Well, right now, I attribute it to being with Sarah and being in love and having a great outlook on life and exercise. We do the Zumba tapes in our apartment. We walk a lot in the city and I'm smiling all the time.

MSN Music review: Aaron Neville's "My True Story"

You lost your home in Hurricane Katrina, and then your first wife, Joel, died in 2007. Yet you seem to have this quiet calm. Does that come from your faith?

There's no doubt. Life comes with no instructions, no promises, but God said that he would not give you no more than you can bear. You got to go through sadness, you've got to have joy. When I describe my singing, I say it's my innocence when I was a kid, it's the love of my mom and dad, it's all the good and the bad, the laughter and my frowns in my life and all the things I saw other people go through. Those years were hard, but Sarah came in at a time and helped me to get through a lot of it. She and I talked about Joel because that was the worst thing that ever happened to me in my life because I'd been with Joel since I was 16 years old. When she died, it was going on 48 years [of marriage].

Your PBS special includes Paul Simon, who also loves doo-wop. What are your conversations like?

Me and Paul sat down in the dressing room in Lincoln Center one night (for a separate event). He and I just started talking about doo-wop. We were coming up with songs and he'd sing a little bit and I'd sing a little bit. The same thing happened on a plane from New Orleans to L.A. with Frankie Valli. We sang backwards and forwards to each other for four hours: "Oh, you remember this one?"

One of your four Grammys came from your duet with Linda Ronstadt on "Don't Know Much." Do you think you two will record together again?

I don't know, but that would definitely be a dream of mine. Linda always used to say our voices are married and we sang together in another life. It was a joy to sing with her. Her voice goes through me like it's in my veins.

A while ago you tweeted a picture of a calico cat giving you nose kisses. That's hardly the image most folks have of you.

This little cat loves me so much, it's ridiculous. I have two cats, two sisters, Turks and Caicos. This specific little cat, she loves to lie on my chest and kiss me and lick my fingers. She looks at me like she's human. She calms me down, try to bring my pressures down, and she's just cool.

Melinda Newman is the former West Coast bureau chief for Billboard magazine. She has covered music and entertainment for the Los Angeles Times, The Washington Post, The Associated Press, MSN, AOL Music,, Variety, People Country and other outlets. Recent interviews include Taylor Swift, Susan Sarandon, Pink, Jeff Bridges, Brad Paisley, Foo Fighters, Katy Perry and Carly Simon.

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Jan 25, 2013 12:40PM
There's one-hit wonders and there's one-hit wonders and Aaron Neville is the first kind. "Tell It Like It Is" is pushing 50, but Neville, along with his brothers and as a solo act, is still one of the most recognizable voices out there. He can sell some songs all over again, like I'm sure he'll do here.  I'm convinced that Skylark's "Wildflower" got popular again because it was in the Neville Brothers' act.
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