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Aaron Neville is the pride of New Orleans. His velvety tenor has an ethereal quality to it that comes to the fore whenever he sings Gospel music, which he calls his “medicine,” as it helped him through some of the worst experiences life has to offer: addiction, incarceration, and the loss of hope. You may know his, in which his voice delicately caresses each note as though it might break if sung too hard.
With 18 albums, four Grammy awards, and 13 nominations to his name, Aaron Neville has had a quite a successful musical career over the last 50 years. However, as he revealed in a 2011 interview with Crisis Magazine’s Raymond Arroyo, his start in the business was plagued by fall-ins with bad crowds, a string of criminal acts, and chronic drug abuse. Through all this it was his faith, instilled in him during his youth by his grandmother and Catholic school nuns, that offered him a way back.
Aaron was first introduced to music by his grandmothers, who would play records of Mahalia Jackson, Brother Joe Mays, Sister Rosetta Tharp, and Nat King Cole. His father, a Methodist, would occasionally bring Aaron and his brothers to sing in the choir, but his mother, Amelia, was a Catholic and so the children were raised to her faith. It was Amelia who insisted that the boys attend St. Monica’s Catholic School, a place which Neville remembers fondly. “St. Monica’s was always a safe place for me. Between that and my mom, I was taught morals—something the world is lacking today a lot.”
St. Monica’s introduced him to the “Ave Maria,” a song that resonated in Aaron’s mind for the rest of his life.
“I didn’t know the words. I didn’t know what they were talking about, but it just used to do something to my heart. And later on in life, it became a light at the end of the tunnel for whatever I was going through. I would get a cleansing feeling. That sound of praising the Blessed Lady was like a saving grace for me, especially when I was at the bottom of a pit.”
Music was never far from Neville’s heart and his early years were spent singing harmonies with his friends on the street corners. It was when he reached junior high that he began to get into trouble, particularly when he got together with a do-wop group called the Avalons, in which drug use was all too common. Neville fell in with a bad crowd and eventually went to jail for stealing cars.
When he got out he was signed to a record label, but a weak contract deprived him of royalties. So, he took a chance and left his wife and children in New Orleans to try his luck in Los Angeles, where a shiftless manager dashed his hopes once again. Frustrated, his pride wounded, Neville turned to heroin, with which he began a life-long battle. To this day he says, “It’s definitely the devil.”
To fund his habit, Aaron took part in a string of heists, one of which fell apart and left Neville in handcuffs. The singer’s wife, stricken with worry, prayed novenas at the shrine of St. Jude, the patron saint of hopeless causes and last resorts. From the way Neville tells it, it sounds like St. Jude intervened directly to save him from a long jail sentence.
“I went in front of the judge, and I had my St. Jude prayer book in my pocket and my St. Jude medal. And I’m standing there and that judge said I was found guilty, so he sentenced me to what the law prescribed: one to 14 years. My legs turned to butter. And then he said, ‘But I suspend that sentence.’ I looked over at my lawyer, and he just shook his head. My lawyer was holding me up. So, hey, St. Jude was my man.”
Neville’s sentence was reduced to one year of public service, fighting fires at a forestry work camp. He returned to New Orleans and recorded his first solo LP, Tell It Like It Is, which due to another horrible contract, did not make him very much money, even as the title track sat comfortably at the number 2 spot.
The song’s popularity gave him another opportunity to go on tour, which led him to a relapse in his drug use. It was not for another 10 years that Neville would have a moment of clarity and spiritual grace, which came in the form of a song. One night while remembering a poem he had learned from the nuns, “Lovely Lady Dressed in Blue,” he began to sing it as if the melody was already formed. The lyrics stirred something deep inside of him and he immediately checked himself into rehab.
It was soon after that he was discovered by Linda Ronstadt, who sang with Aaron on the duet, “Don’t Know Much,” which helped him skyrocket to fame. The rest, as they say, is history.
Back in 2011, Neville could be heard late at night, singing at the House of Blues on Mardi Gras, his voice transcendent and ethereal and his music choice divine. The sounds of “Amazing Grace” pouring over the debauched revelers who in turn weep as their night of partying is ended with a prayer. At 77, he is still singing. As we head into Fat Tuesday, and New Orleans’ big carnival, the city’s favorite son is still happy to talk about his faith.