Until now, it’s been easy to separate Aaron Neville’s
career into two separate but equal strains: the funky stuff he’s favored when working with his esteemed band of brothers, and the angelic balladry you associate with him when he’s punching his own time card as a solo artist. Casual fans might admit they don’t know much — to borrow a phrase — about Neville’s musical center, but they’ve perceived a certain split in his career.
“We have Native American blood in us,” Neville explains. “My great-grandmother came from the island of Martinique, and they settled down in Convent, Louisiana, and they hooked up with some of the Native Americans back there — so we are African, Native American, and whatever else. Sometimes I say that with all the different colors we have going, we’re Heinz 57 — you know, the 57 varieties,” he laughs. “I have a picture of my grandmother right next to a picture of Geronimo, and they look like they could be sister and brother. When I was in school days, if they were doing a Thanksgiving play, they would always pick me to be the Native American in the play, because of my high cheekbones and all. When I was in my late teens, in the summer I’d be out front and my skin color would turn red, and I used to wear my hair straight down with a headband around it. So my uncle started calling me Apache Red, and then I just shortened it to Apache.”
If there’s anywhere that Neville has embraced being a crossbreed, as it were, it’s in his musical impulses. That comes out of his childhood, where he became immersed in all the New Orleans and R&B culture you’d expect —including Sam Cooke, possibly his foremost vocal role model — and a few things you wouldn’t.
In the late ‘70s, the Neville brothers — Cyril, Charles, Art, and Aaron — came together as a backing unit for their uncle’s Wild Tchoupitoulas and finally decided to strike out as a unit on their own. The sibling group found success primarily on the touring circuit but also garnering attention for albums like their 1989 debut for A&M Records, Yellow Moon, one of the most critically acclaimed albums of that era, for reasons not the least of which was the spooky richness of the Aaron-penned title track. And when it rained, in 1989, it poured. That was also a very good year for Aaron’s solo career, as he had his first real hit in 23 years with “Don’t Know Much,” a No. 2 pop smash that was one of several duets with Neville that Linda Ronstadt included on her album Cry Like a Rainstorm, Howl Like the Wind.
For the quarter-century that followed, Neville deftly balanced the needs of dual group and solo careers. But eventually the demands of the road got to him. In 2012, the Neville Brothers played a farewell show at the Hollywood Bowl, then, feeling that their hometown deserved their real adieu, reunited in May 2015 for a “Nevilles Forever” all-star jam and goodbye blast in New Orleans during Jazz Fest.