Singing the Blues … and ‘Ave Maria’ Too

Aaron Neville has become a legend in American music history.

With a distinctive falsetto every wannabe American Idol would love to copy, the 65-year-old, four-time Grammy Award winner continues to produce.

Neville, a lifelong resident of New Orleans, lost his most precious material possessions in Hurricane Katrina and has relocated to Nashville, Tenn., with his famous family that comprises The Neville Brothers. A few months later, he was chosen to sing the National Anthem at the 2006 Super Bowl. A devout Catholic, he was given the James Cardinal Gibbons Medal in 2002, joining Cardinal Avery Dulles, Archbishop Fulton Sheen, Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia, and President John F. Kennedy.

Neville, who’s working to keep public attention on the ongoing devastation of the Gulf Coast, spoke in March with Register Correspondent Wayne Laugesen.

Tell me a little about yourself, your life growing up.

I was born in 1941. I grew up in a Catholic family in New Orleans, and St. Monica’s in New Orleans in first through eighth grade. Then I went to a public high school. My mom was Catholic, and my dad’s people were Methodist.

I had three brothers and two sisters.

Did the Catholic school have much to do with forming the Aaron Neville we all know and love today?

Yes, it certainly did. I’m still in touch with my fourth-grade teacher, Sister Damon. She teaches in New Mexico at one of the Catholic Indian churches there. St. Monica’s and the sisters gave me a foundation. I recorded “Ave Maria” later in life because at school I heard the choir in church practicing it when I was a kid. I didn’t know the words back then, but it would soothe me later in life. Sometimes in my life I could sing that song and it would kind of get me through whatever was going on.

What do you talk about with Sister Damon, all these years later?

It doesn’t seem like such a long time, because she remembers everyone. One thing I’ve learned by staying in touch with her is that she and the other sisters were threatened a lot by Klansmen back then. The sisters were very young but they stood up to the Ku Klux Klan. The Klan didn’t want these white Catholic nuns teaching black kids. They would threaten them harm if they didn’t stop, but they kept on teaching. They taught without concern for their personal safety and never let us know about it while we were kids. My brothers and I found out about this over the years, because we would visit the sisters who taught us in school whenever we were on the road and ended up in their neighborhoods.

When did you develop an interest in music?

I think I was born with it. I would sing along with mom and dad the whole time I was growing up. They were big Nat King Cole fans. My grandmother would listen to the gospel stations, and I listened to cowboy music at the movie theaters. My older brother, Art, was a doo-wopper so I’d listen to a lot of those groups as well.

I think everyone knows your first hit, “Tell It Like It Is.” How old were you when that song hit No. 1 on the charts?

That was 1966, and I was 25 years old.

By society’s standards, you were a poor black man in New Orleans with barely two coins to spare. Yet here’s your song on the radio 10 times a day. What was that like?

Well, we were very poor, but we didn’t know it at the time. We didn’t have money, but we had a place to stay and clothes and food, so I never looked at it like that. And we had the Church. Today I understand that we were poor, but it sure didn’t feel like it.

It was amazing, and I never expected it until it happened. It was overwhelming in a sense, because all of a sudden I was in demand to be seen around the country. Suddenly I’m touring with all these people I’d been hearing on the radio my whole life. It was strange.

Did you make a lot of fast money right away?

A lot of money came to somebody, but I didn’t see much of it. I got paid on my touring gigs, but the record company kind of beat me out of a lot of money back then.

Later you had some of the problems a lot of artists do, with substance abuse and hard living. Tell me about that.

It wasn’t much more than anyone else around me. The drug abuse, everyone was doing it. We used it as an escape from what was going on.

My favorite prayer is Footprints in the Sand. I know that God carried me through adversity and all that I’ve been through. Now I can have compassion for people I’m hearing about in the world — all the people who are going through adversity.

It came out in a song I wrote called “It Took Who I Was and Where I Came From to Make Me Who I Am.” It’s a testimony to my life and my faith.

As a big star, did you ever fall from the Catholic faith?

I never did. God was always in my life. I talked to him in any condition that I was in.

What’s your home parish?

I’m in the process of getting established in Tennessee. In New Orleans, I went to Our Lady of Guadalupe Church, home of the St. Jude Shrine.

I notice you have a lot of tattoos. What are they?

Jesus is on my right bicep, and on my left side is the Sacred Heart and a rose. I also have a couple of crude tattoos that were done with a sewing needle tied to a matchstick, back when I was going through something. But I’m not getting any more tattoos, that’s enough. I got one tattoo on my face when I was 16.

Why Jesus on your arm?

He’s covering another tattoo that was done with pencil shavings a long time ago. I put Jesus there to cover it because I need him in my life, and I wanted him as close as possible. He’s in my mind and my soul no matter what. I pray all day. He knows what I want, so I pray for the world and I say “thy will be done, Jesus.” I don’t pray for what I want, I pray for what I need. I pray for people around me and for people abroad who are in need.

So you have no issues with God, regarding things you may have wanted in life but have not received?

No. If I don’t have it, I believe I’m not supposed to get it. If I played the lottery and won, I’d help people with it. But I’m not supposed to win the lottery. God has another way for me to make money, and that’s to sing and to continue to do what I’m doing.

You’ve won four Grammy Awards, and you’ve had legendary hits like “Don’t Know Much,” and “Everybody Plays the Fool.” Where do you go from here, at age 65?

I’m getting ready to do another album. I’ve done two gospel albums in recent years, one titled “Believe” and the other called “Devotion.” I want to do some more of that and keep doing what I’m doing until my time is up.

Tell me about the current album.

It will be a bit like the thing Barry Manilow did recently. It’s a collection of old songs for people my age. A lot of the stuff out today is disrespectful to women and to God. I want to sing songs where you can sit down with your mother and grandmother and nobody is going to be offended.

You lost your home, your family’s home and your cars in the New Orleans flood. How did this devastation, this loss of your entire hometown, affect your relationship with God?

I’m not upset with God, and I don’t blame him. We find all sorts of evil and violence in the world, and it shows up in a lot of different ways. But God heals. God repairs things. God gives life, and life continues on even after some horrible disaster. You can’t get mad at God because things don’t go as you plan.

Wayne Laugesen is based in

Boulder, Colorado.