Aaron Neville shares his doo-wop story
NORTH ADAMS -- Listen to "My True Story," the title track on R&B and soul legend Aaron Neville's new doo-wop album, and you can hear what makes his voice unique.
From the start, Neville hits the first note on the 1961 song by The Jive Five in a high falsetto, smoothly reaching higher without a break. It's a seamless sound, and its singular quality has become his trademark throughout his five-decade-spanning career.
"Love will make you ha-ppy/And love will make you cry/Love will make the tears fall/When your lover says goodbye," Neville sings, managing to capture the inherent melancholy of the lyrics without making the song heavily sad. His voice carries its own built-in sense of optimism.
Coming to Mass MoCA on Saturday as part of his current national tour, Neville said the title of his new CD is personal -- he approaches each concert eager to share something of his own story through the love of music that defined his childhood.
"This music is where I come from," Neville said in a phone interview with The Eagle. "Doo-wop was like the medicine they gave me growing up."
It was ever-present medicine for a young man growing up in New Orleans. Born in 1941, Neville said doo-wop was part of the eclectic mix that supplied the soundtrack to his formative years. He loved everything from Nat King Cole to Hank Will-iams, digesting a wide spectrum of influences that would come to shape his work.
Starting out locally, Neville had his first crossover success with 1967's "Tell It Like It Is," which remained the number one hit on the R&B charts for five weeks. Since then, he has branched out to tackle various genres and collaborate with notable hit makers. His 1989 Grammy-winning collaboration with Linda Ronstadt on the album "Cry Like a Rainstorm, Howl Like the Wind," produced hit duets "Don't Know Much" and "All My Life." He has had four top-20 hits in the United States, and has toured with his brothers, Art, Charles and Cyril, as The Neville Brothers.
Neville said that doo-wop's influence has been a constant throughout the years.
"I just love doing the harmonies and hitting those high notes and the bass notes. It's an era of music that has motivated me," Neville said. "Everything I've done has had some doo-wop essence."
First emerging in the 1940s and becoming popular in the 1950s and early 1960s, doo-wop developed among African-American communities in cities across the United States. From New York and Philadelphia to Chicago and Detroit, doo-wop gained popularity for its soulful group harmonies and simple beats. While often accompanied by a backing band, a lot of doo-wop music centers on a cappella harmonizing.
The idea to revisit this music had been in Neville's mind for decades. In 1985, Neville released "Orchid in the Storm," a five-track album of music from the 1950s and early 1960s that included some doo-wop songs. It inspired Neville to revisit the music of his youth on a bigger scale.
"I've asked recording companies for years to do this, but no one was interested," Neville said.
Along came Blue Note Records, which released the new album, and a poweful producing duo -- the label's president Don Was and Rolling Stones guitarist Keith Richards. Richards' guitar can be heard throughout the album.
"This is the same stuff Keith grew up with, so it was a no-brainer for him to get involved. I'm just so happy to get to do this," Neville said. "It has this innocence to it. You can sit down and listen to it with your grandmother and granddaughter -- it's for everybody."
This universal appeal, said Jodi Joseph, director of communications at Mass MoCA, made Neville a perfect fit for the museum.
"People are really excited to see this concert. It's something that is attracting locals who live 10 minutes away, and then people who live five hours away," Joseph said.
The unofficial start of the summer season, Memorial Day weekend has had big significance for the museum, Joseph said. Mass MoCA opened its doors during the holiday weekend in 1999, and the museum has had a major concert each year featuring headliners like Rosanne Cash and Patti Smith.
In an era of auto-tune, Neville said it is a joy to be able to introduce the songs of his youth to a new generation.
"I rather go old-school, but I still love all of the new stuff," Neville said. "But for me, I'd rather do it raw."
If you go ...
What: Aaron Neville in concert at Mass MoCA
Where: Hunter Center Mezzanine, Mass MoCA, 1040 Mass MoCA Way, North Adams
When: Saturday at 8 p.m.
Admission: $34 to $75
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