Playlist: Aaron Neville Goes 'High Natural'

Singing legend talks about New Orleans, doo-wop, James Brown and fate.

June 04, 2009, 6:14 PM

June 5, 2009— -- Legendary soul and R&B singer Aaron Neville first grew to love music as a small boy living in New Orleans.

Sitting down with "Nightline" recently at Manhattan's Hill Country restaurant, Neville cited his brother Art as one of his earliest musical influences. "He worked at a record shop and he would bring back all of these doo-wop records," he said. "That fascinated me, you know, and I knew I wanted to sing."

Years before they banded together to record music as the Neville Brothers, Aaron Neville and his brothers listened to and learned from every doo-wop record they could -- and there were plenty to choose from. The Nevilles sang along with all of them, from Clyde McPhatter and The Drifters to Pookie Hudson and the Spaniels.

"They just had so many doo-wop groups back in the days," he said, laughing, "So we went to the, you know, to the college of "Doo-Wopology."

Neville said The Big Easy played a huge role in the music he listened to, and the musician he became. He said there's something in the music made by New Orleans natives, like Fats Domino or Professor Longhair, that can't be found anywhere else.

"It's a rhythm that everybody walks to," Neville said. "It comes from the second-line funerals, you know, with the brass bands, with what they call a drop beat, the bass drum, you're walking and all of a sudden you feel like you miss a beat. Anybody can't do that. It's gotta be from New Orleans. You gotta drink that Mississippi River water."

One of Neville's most well-known songs is the 1966 hit "Tell It Like It Is," which reached No. 2 on the Billboard charts.

"I was working on a dock somewhere, unloading cargo ships," Neville said. "The record came out and it just went up climbing the charts. I had never had a hit record before so it was exciting and scary at the same time."

Unfortunately, his record company at the time, Par-Lo, went bankrupt and Neville said he was never paid any royalties from his recording.

Neville's Hauntingly Beautiful Falsetto

"I'm still waiting to get paid for that," he said, laughing. "But, then again, I think the Lord works in mysterious ways. So maybe if I were to get paid back in those days I might not be here today, you know, so I'm not bitter about nothing. It was just part of life."

The Beatles released "Rubber Soul" around the same time and the track "Michelle" became one of Neville's favorite songs. He said he would listen to the Beatles during an uncertain time, when he didn't know what the future held.

"I was going through some changes, I guess," he said. "You know trying to find out who I was, what was my destiny? Was I gonna go down in history or was I going to be a mystery?"

One way Aaron Neville has gone down in history is for his hauntingly beautiful falsetto. He says one of the reasons he loves James Brown so much is for the "high natural" voice he could hit in many of his songs, like "Bewildered" from 1960.

"People say about James that he would scream but James had a 'high natural' and he could go high up in the sky with his natural voice," Neville said. "Everybody wanted to do the high notes. But everybody couldn't. That was one of my favorite things to do, the high note."

Aaron Neville's career had a major comeback when he recorded songs on the album "Cry Like A Rainstorm, Howl Like The Wind" with Linda Ronstadt in 1989. The duet "Don't Know Much" made it to No. 2 on the pop charts and won a Grammy. Neville had met Ronstadt five years earlier at a Neville Brothers performance in New Orleans.

"Someone said she was in the audience, so we dedicated a song to her and called her up on the stage to sing," Neville remembered. "She gave me an autograph, she said, 'To Aaron, I'll sing with you anytime any place anywhere in any key.' And I told her, 'Meet you at the Grammy's.' And we did meet at the Grammy's."

Neville never could have imagined what would happen in New Orleans more than 15 years later, when Hurricane Katrina hit in 2005. The storm ravaged the city, and destroyed Neville's home. He didn't return until 2007 to bury his wife, who died of lung cancer in the interim.

He said it is often music that gets him through daunting and testing times, calling it "a kind of medicine for me."

Neville Exercises to 'Oh Happy Day'

"I put it on and it calms me down," Neville said.

He said he connects to music recorded by people who have struggled and been tried in life, but who use those challenging times to strengthen their art form.

"What's Going On" by Marvin Gaye is one of Neville's all-time favorite songs. "Marvin Gaye was before his time," he said. "Because the stuff that he recorded back in the days could be just released. I used to call him the man with the tear in his voice, you know you could tell he was troubled, you know you could feel his hurt."

Neville's newest endeavor is singing a cut off the album "Oh Happy Day," which is a compilation of world-renowned musicians teaming up with gospel artists to sing traditional and beloved gospel songs. Other artists on the album include Al Green, Jon Bon Jovi, Queen Latifah and Joss Stone. Neville likes to listen to the album when he's exercising.

"The whole CD is great," he said. "And I can walk on the treadmill and don't get tired of looking at the numbers. I'm like, 'I been here an hour? Wow!'"

Despite the ups and downs Aaron Neville has faced in his life, he sees it all as a learning experience and continues to grow with every challenge.

"Your whole life you're learning," he said. "It don't come with a manual, you know."

ABC News Live

ABC News Live

24/7 coverage of breaking news and live events