The first time Aaron Neville opened his mouth to sing with people present must have been quite a memorable experience for all involved. In any man, that unearthly falsetto would be remarkable; from this towering gentle giant, it's well and truly surreal.
Last week's news about the triumphant return of Neville and his brothers Art, Charles and Cyril to the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival for the first time since their homes were destroyed in Hurricane Katrina in 2005 reminded me that I wanted to write about his 1966 hit recording Tell It Like It Is.
Up to that point just kicking around the New Orleans clubs, working construction jobs to earn his living, Aaron's big break came when he learned that some local acquaintances were starting an R&B label called Par-Lo. George Davis and Lee Diamond had written Tell It Like It Is and, aware of Aaron's vocal talents, wanted him to cut the record.
Although a ballad, its message had certain anthemic qualities that resonated with the times, and it was a huge smash, kept at bay from the #1 spot only by the Monkees' I'm A Believer, of all things. As Art Neville says in the oral history The Brothers, "I heard Tell It Like It Is and I told Aaron, I said, 'Bro, this is the shit right here. This is the serious shit."
Unfortunately, the label wasn't solvent (the backstory on that is here), and Aaron never saw any return on that success. Though he continued to perform solo and with his brothers, it wasn't until 20+ years later when he began a collaboration with Linda Ronstadt, on which she acted as producer in some instances as well his duet partner, that he returned to the national spotlight.
Though the duets aren't his best songs by any stretch of the imagination - for one I would put in that category, check out his rendering of Ave Maria and prepare for your heart to burst - Ronstadt's care and feeding of Neville helped bring his gifts to the masses, where they deserve to be.