For the third year running, New Orleans singing star Aaron Neville is bringing his annual Christmas Celebration tour to Baton Rouge. This year, by popular demand, the Manship Theatre added a second show featuring Neville’s Christmas gumbo of seasonal and secular music.
“The shows are not totally Christmas,” Neville explained from his home in New York City. “I do the stuff that I’ve done over the years and I’ve got some new stuff to add to it. I mix it all up, sprinkle the Christmas things in. It’s always a fun show.”
Neville spoke to The Advocate in mid-November, a few days after his wedding anniversary. The singer and New York photographer Sarah A. Friedman married in 2010.
“We had a two-year anniversary this week,” he said. “We’re still celebrating.”
Friedman shot Neville’s publicity photos for his upcoming album, My True Story. She also created the project’s electronic press kit.
“It was easy for me to look good in the pictures because I was looking at her,” Neville said.
My True Story is the album that Neville wanted to do for decades. Featuring performances of mostly doo-wop songs that he’s loved since childhood, it will be released Jan. 22.
“Everything I’ve done, really, you can hear some doo-wop in it,” he said. “When I did ‘Mona Lisa,’ I ended it with a doo-wop thing. The song I did with Linda Ronstadt, ‘Don’t Know Much,’ I did a doo wop-ending on that.
“So it’s something that’s been in my heart for a long time. I’m happy that Don Was and Blue Note Records gave me a chance to do it.”
Was, a producer whose credits include Bonnie Raitt’s breakthrough album, Nick of Time, the Rolling Stones’ Voodoo Lounge, Bob Dylan’s Under the Red Sky and Willie Nelson’s Lost Highway, co-produced My True Story in New York with Keith Richards.
“It was a perfect atmosphere,” Neville said of the sessions. “We were in the Electric Lady Studios. You could feel Jimi Hendrix’s presence there. And being there with Keith Richards and Don all these great musicians, everybody was like a family. If you listen at the record, you can hear everybody smiling. Seriously. Everybody was happy to be there doing this particular album.”
Neville and Richards, the Rolling Stones guitarist and songwriter who’s celebrating his 50th anniversary with the British rock group this year, have been friends for years.
“The Neville Brothers opened for the Stones in ’81,” Neville said. “We did a few things with them. Every time I meet Keith, it’s like he’s the most down-to-earth guy in the world. And my son, Ivan, played with his group, the X-Pensive Winos.”
Was knew about Neville and Richards’ friendship. The producer also remembered that, during the production of Voodoo Lounge, Richards listened to the Jive Five’s 1961 hit, “My True Story,” over and over again in his hotel room.
“Don, he knew Keith would want to be involved in this doo-wop thing,” Neville said. “Keith said, ‘Man, sure enough. I’m glad you called me.’ So it was a labor of love for everybody.”
In the studio with Richards, Neville said, “Keith came up with ideas about how to do the songs, with me, because I was guiding everybody about how I wanted the songs to sound.”
Richards also played guitar for the album, including solos for “Money Honey” and “Ruby Ruby.”
“Opportunities like this don’t come ’round very often,” Richards said in a Blue Note Records release. “I grew up with these songs, like Aaron did. It’s such a pleasure to play with a voice like that, and the band all fell straight in together — I never saw such a bunch of hardened musicians act like a bunch of kids.”
Supporting players for the My True Story sessions included guitarist Greg Leisz (Beck, Sheryl Crow), organist Benmont Tench (Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers), drummer George G. Receli (Bob Dylan) and bassist Tony Scherr (Norah Jones).
Backing vocalists included original doo-wop-era singers Eugene Pitt from the Jive Five, Bobby Jay from the Teenagers and Dickie Harmon from the Del-Vikings. Two members of Neville’s road band — bass player David Johnson and drummer Earl Smith Jr. — also sing.
“We did 23 songs in five days, because the musicians were just so into it,” Neville said. “Yeah, we had 12 songs for the album, but I kept on coming up with different things. ‘Oh, I wanna to do this. And what about this?’ And everybody was into it.”
In addition to his upcoming album and Christmas tour, Neville has a PBS special, Aaron Neville: My True Story, debuting in March. The program will feature singers and musicians who appear on the album plus members of Neville’s band, including his saxophonist brother, Charles.
“I’m saturating my brain with the music,” the 71-year-old singer said as he prepared to film the in-concert special.
“I’m glad I’m not a boxer or a football player or this or that,” he added. “I’m glad I’m a singer. I can practice just by listening to the music. I mean, every once in a while I might get a little ache and pain, but I feel like I’m still the same little boy who was running through the Calliope Project in New Orleans back in the ’40s and ’50s.”
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