"These songs helped to mold me into who I am," says Aaron Neville. "They're all dear to my heart, and they rode with me, in my bones, through all these years."
With MY TRUE STORY, one of the world's finest singers is revisiting the music he grew up with, and adding a few new spins along the way. Neville's first release for Blue Note Records is a collection of twelve classic doo-wop numbers, performed in his utterly inimitable vocal style, and co-produced by Blue Note President Don Was and Keith Richards.
The selections on the album include classics by such vocal-group giants as Little Anthony and the Imperials ("Tears on My Pillow"), Hank Ballard and the Midnighters ("Work With Me, Annie"), and the Drifters ("Money Honey," "Under the Boardwalk," "This Magic Moment"). To Neville, though, these songs weren't just the soundtrack to his youth; they became the underpinning for all of the remarkable music he has created across five decades.
"I attended the university of doo-wop-ology," he says. "Anything I do has got some doo-wop in it. It’s just part of me—it’s the texture that I’m singing in, it’s the endings, it's the harmonies. At 3 o’clock in the morning, I wake up with a doo-wop song going in my head and I can’t go back to sleep because I’m singing it over and over."
Yet the recordings on MY TRUE STORY aren't simply imitations of the original sessions. For one thing, some of the songs included—like the Ronettes' "Be My Baby" or "Gypsy Woman" by the Impressions—come from a slightly later time period than the classic doo-wop era, and aren't usually classified as part of the genre. But Neville explains that for him, it's not the calendar that matters, it's the vocal approach.
"Doo-wop started with five guys, like the Clovers—or five girls, like the Chantels or the Shirelles —singing harmony together on a bench or a stoop,” he says. “My own favorite place was the boys’ bathroom at school, because it had such great acoustics. So I always thought 'Be My Baby' was a doo-wop song, because it’s a lead singer with harmony singers.
“I came up in the doo-wop era, and if I heard something and thought it was doo-wop, then it was. So if it didn’t fall in that category before, then it does now!"
The other twist given to this material is that while doo-wop tended to keep the emphasis squarely on the vocalists, MY TRUE STORY sees Neville backed by a top-flight rock & roll band, led by the distinctive, propulsive guitar work of Richards himself. The other musicians include Greg Leisz on guitar (Beck, Sheryl Crow), Benmont Tench on organ (founding member of Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers), George G. Receli on drums (Bob Dylan), and Tony Scherr on bass (Bill Frisell, Norah Jones).
"Doo-wop songs centered around the vocals,” says Neville. “But with these great musicians, we could highlight the musical side of it too-this record is a combination of all of it, to bring it up to date."
Richards—who Was approached when he remembered that the guitarist kept the Jive Five song "My True Story" playing on a loop in his room during the making of the Rolling Stones' Voodoo Lounge album—describes work on the album as "the perfect session." Twenty-three songs were cut in five days, all of them live and many in the first take.”
"Opportunities like this don't come 'round very often," says Richards. "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."
Neville explains that having internalized this music so deeply, he was able to show the musicians the genuine old-school feel that these songs require. "On songs like 'Ting a Ling' and 'Work with Me, Annie,' I had to kind of dance the groove I wanted," he says with a broad smile. "I had to move around and bob and weave and show them that strut like when you’re walking in New Orleans. But this band was ready for anything, they were jumping on it, and everything came out so easy."
As if all of these ingredients weren't enough, several singers from the glory days of doo-wop joined the sessions to provide backing vocals on a number of the songs, including Eugene Pitt of the Jive Five (who co-wrote the album's title song), Bobby Jay of the Teenagers, and Dickie Harmon from the Del-Vikings. Neville’s touring bass player, David Johnson, drummer, Earl Smith, Jr. and Joel Katz also lend their voices to some of the arrangements.
MY TRUE STORY represents a culmination of Aaron Neville’s incredible career, which has seen him move seamlessly back and forth between solo work and his role in the first family of New Orleans music, the Neville Brothers. His first hit single was the landmark "Tell It Like It Is," which held the Number One spot on the R&B charts for five weeks in 1967. He went on to win Grammy Awards for his triple-platinum 1989 collaboration with Linda Ronstadt Cry Like a Rainstorm, Howl Like the Wind, and reached the Country charts with the title track of 1993’s The Grand Tour. A member of the Louisiana Music Hall of Fame, his most recent project was the gospel album I Know I’ve Been Changed in 2010.
Don Was says that it was an easy decision to bring the legendary Neville to Blue Note. "Nobody sings like him," he says. "He's a great artist, a guy with integrity and excellence and authenticity—and that’s what the label is really about."
When Was and Neville discussed possible projects, the singer indicated that recording an album of doo-wop songs had long been a dream of his. He adds, though, that his recent relocation to New York City after losing his home to Hurricane Katrina, and his recent marriage, gives MY TRUE STORY additional significance.
"It’s definitely extra-meaningful," he says. "I have a new life, I’m singing to my wife Sarah. I think God knew I wanted to do it and he waited for the right moment. He made the stars align, and he said, 'Aaron, it’s time for you to do some doo-wop.'"