At 72, the prince of R&B has reverted to childhood. Aaron Neville has a new album called My True Story, and it’s a collection of the songs he sang growing up in the projects of New Orleans in the 1950s and ‘60s, back when doo-wop was king.
“I’ve been into every doo-wop there is,” Neville says. “I think I went to the university of doo-wop-ology.”
Neville got his education from groups like The Drifters, The Clovers and The Flamingos. They’d had such an influence on him that their sound has kept popping up throughout his more than 50 years in music — from his family group, The Neville Brothers, to his long solo career.
Here, Neville speaks with NPR’s Renee Montagne about the ups and downs of his youth — which include an arrest for car theft and a marriage at 17 — and staying faithful to the songs that inspired him during that time.
On growing up in the projects
“The project was great. If we were poor, we didn’t know it, ‘cause I guess you don’t miss what you never had. So, you know, we made do with whatever. We used to make our own toys, and we used to play with spinning tops and marbles. A pocket full of marbles and you were rich — you didn’t worry about no money.”
On singing with his brother
“My brother Art was a doo-wopper. He had a group that sat out on a park bench in New Orleans and sang harmonies at night, and they’d go around and win all the talent shows and get all the girls, you know. So I would run up and try to sing, and he’d run me away — ‘Get away from me, kid’ — until they figured I could hold a note, and they let me sing with them.”
On bartering with his voice
“I used to always sing my way into the movies and the basketball games or whatever. I’d sing for whoever’s on the door and they’d let me in. I used to think I was Nat King Coleback in the day, you know. So I’d sing something like, ‘Mona Lisa, Mona Lisa, men have named you,’ and they’d let me in.”