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Aaron Neville – Hercules

aaron-neville_02_Seven45rpmaaron-neville_01_Seven45rpmMercury DJ-369, 73387 Mono, Promo US 1973

Track 1 Hercules Track 2 Going Home

Aaron Neville has a gentle voice that could bring the hardest man down to his knees. A distinctive voice that closes the eyes and opens the soul. Hercules is his lost gem that deserved to outshine so many popular soul hits of the time, but it was never even given the chance. However today this elusive humble masterpiece WILL stand up high above any rival counterpart with the strongest respect and heroic vengeance.

Aaron Neville was born January 24, 1941 in New Orleans, Louisiana, and is brother to Art, Charles, Cyril, and sister Athelgra. Before the children were around, Aaron’s mother and her brother were in what is said to be the best dance team in New Orleans. They were once offered to go on the road with Louis Prima, but their fearful mother didn’t allow it due to awful Jim Crow laws of the time (state and local laws enforcing racial segregation in the Southern United States). Aaron met his first wife Joel in 1957, and were married on January 10, 1959 when both were only 18 years old.

Aaron grew up in the centre of the Calliope Projects, a neighbourhood-housing estate built between 1939 and 1941, and which boasted 690 apartments in the original development. Although it was considered a means for working-class families to live comfortably while saving up the funds to purchase their own homes, the area gained nationwide fame/infamy for its extremely high violent crime rate. But for Aaron, who had lived there ‘til he was thirteen, his turf was a modern structure of family hope and happiness, a place that actually sheltered the surrounding evils away from his innocent years.

AaronNeville_001DAs a boy, Aaron liked to wander on over to the glorious Gem Theatre, where he would use his voice to bride innocent box office ladies into free admission to film screenings. While it must have been evident for Aaron, that segregation was an awful and ugly monster lurking behind every corner of his hometown, his love of musical artists had no colour prejudices. Those westerns that the wide eyed young boy was privileged to see, were pivotal to his voice development. Aaron credits the likes of heroes Roy Rodgers and Gene Auntry for shaping his yodeling technique and vocal range he was so proud to share among friends at that young age. Aaron singing took him to a safe place, and away from the horrible race discrimination and other negative ghosts that were breeding in his hometown, be it for just a short time. Aaron was open for inspiration by from all styles of music of the time, from R&B to country (he was a huge Hank Williams and Nat King Cole fan as a kid) but at the age of 13, Aaron first heard Sam Cooke’s song called Any Day Now, a moving and gentle song that must have had a real impact oh him. Aaron recalls that at that time, fellow gospel singers were more commonly singing strong, loud up-praising songs. Aaron was so moved by this song, and knew from that moment on, that he was placed on the earth to be a singer.

When Aaron moved out from “Kal-ee-ope” he was exposed to a harsh side of reality and in turn “traveled some crooked roads”. Stealing cars was an easy thing to do back then, especially in the company of mutually wild encouraging mates. He was caught one day when he was returning a car to a nearby location (as they did back then once the criminal task had served it’s course) and as a consequence the eighteen year old was thrown into the New Orleans Parish Prison where he served a 6 month sentence. But maybe the demon that lead him on this wayward path was an angel in disguise, for it was in this dark isolated institution where Aaron would find a light, and write his first song Every Day.

Every Day is harrowing and delicate at the same time, as he takes us through one day, yet everyday, of prison life, and how every hour reminds him of his past freedom and that now lost companionship with his lover.  The song was released in 1960 on the Minit label, which was only formed the year before in ‘59 in New Orleans, Louisiana, by Joe Banashak and Larry McKinley. The man responsible for most of the hits on Minit was Allen Toussaint, who wrote, played piano, arranged, and produced. The first Minit hit was with Toussaint’s production of Jessie Hill’s  Ooh Poo Pah Doo, which reached No. 28 in the summer of 1960. Toussaint had a part in Aaron’s debut flip recording, the rhythm and blues mover Over You, but this wouldn’t be the last time the two collaborated. That same year Aaron released another single that included Out Of My Life, another Toussaint creation, but this time credited with the pseudonym Naomi Neville, which was commonly used by Toussaint, mostly for songwriting credits at the time (this was his mother’s maiden name…she’s not related to the famous Neville brothers though).

AaronNeville_003BAaron would continue to release a handful of 7’s on Minit in the next year or two with moderate success. A standout is the ‘62 release How Could I Help But Love You, flipped with Wrong Number (I’m Sorry, Goodbye), again writing credits for both songs to “Naomi Neville”. It’s a truly sincere love song with a melody to match, that really should have been a smash for Aaron! When Allen Toussaint went into the Army in 1963, the hits stopped coming and the Minit Record Label was sold to Imperial.

But Aaron would have his breakthrough hit finally in 1966, this time released on a small New Orleans label  Par-Lo, co-owned by local musician/arranger and school friend George Davis, and band-leader Lee Diamond. That song was Tell It Like It Is, it topped Billboard’s R&B chart for five weeks and also reached #2 on the Billboard Hot 100, AND it sold over one million copies! Aaron who was working hard on the docks at the time, tells of his surprise and shock when he learned that the single had sold close to  40,000 copies in the first week in New Orleans alone. Contributors to this successful release included George Davis arranging and playing Baritone Sax, Emory Thomas on trumpet, Deacon John on guitar, Alvin Red Tyler on tenor sax, Willie Tee played piano and June Gardner on drums.

One would think that this must have been a life changing time for Aaron. Unfortunately his well earnt success was short lived, and soon after, Aaron would find himself arrested again, this time on drug charges. Fortunate to be let off with 3 months probation, Aaron saw the short sentence as a blessing, and promised himself to never walk that dark path again, and even reassured the prison guard on the way out, of his last final parting. Neville would continue to release singles from the mid sixties to the early seventies, jumping from label to label, including Bell, Safari and Mercury. He had two LP releases also, the 1966 Tell It Like It Is, and a year later the similarly title Like It Is, on Minit. It is on a 1973 Mercury label, where this featured lonesome giant sleeps.

Hercules – Nowadays, that opening bass line is famous and well recognised to most soul lovers, but as simple and gentle as it may be, it’s strength is insurmountable. With arranging and writing credits to Toussaint (as well as a shared producer credit to Marshall E. Sehorn), as far as I’m concerned, among so many of his great and now historic compositions, this has to be one of, if not his most finest moment! Sung with such genuine yet unlarboured compassion by Aaron, here is another song about the downs and out of society, and having the strength and will power to stand tall up against it all. Aaron is invincible. Again I find it quite unbelievable that songs of this calibre never achieved any major recognition. Perhaps similar to Dusty’s Haunted, or Cappani’s I Believe In Miracles, the world just wasn’t ready. Or maybe promoters just couldn’t comprehend the beauty and significance, blinded because they didn’t fall into those “popular radio” or “smash hit” pigeon holes.

There lies some mystery and myth behind Hercules, as it is believed that due to production problems at the plant with the pressing of the 7”, meant they were all deemed faulty. Therefore it is also believed the record never received an official release, and were likely all destroyed just after production. Well I can’t tell you how much truth is in that, but it is rare for either the promo or red label to turn up these days.

AaronNeville_007My promo copy is styrene, (these are produced with injection mold as opposed to the vinyl counterpart which are heat pressed) which sources say wears out a lot faster than a vinyl record. My copy plays beautifully, and only on special occasions, but I have never had the opportunity to play a red label and would love to know if these are actual “vinyl” pressings. A common reissue label, who dare to call the originals “nasty”, released their edited “unreleased full length version” recently, and to tell you the truth, I hear no improvement in this mix at all. I stand by the original, which has a nicer vocal harmony mix and those distant keyboards are slightly more prominent, making it even sweeter. Sadly the single never appeared on an Aaron Neville LP, so it’s future seemed destined to be a lonely one. It did however appear on a soul funk compilation LP Get Up And Get Down (Philips E– 9299 160), along with other “disco delights”, but haven’t been able to track a release date on that one yet. If you want to hear an amazing alternate version, well in 1974 Boz Scaggs released his version on his Slow Dancer LP. I often wonder about that Scaggs link, just a year later, and how he discovered the track, or how it was it offered to him?

There’s also something pretty wonderful on the flip of this 7”…a slow deep gospel song called Going Home. Here’s a song of death, but not of misery. As sad as it may make you feel to get through this meaningful song, it’s message is beautiful and uplifting. The song is not just about departing, but more importantly, it’s about belief and faith, and being reunited with those loved ones that left before you. Obviously a song with deep meaning for Aaron.

Aaron’s brother Art formed Art Neville and the Neville Sounds, in the early 1960s which included brothers Aaron and Cyril, as well as George Porter (bass) and Leo Nocentelli (lead guitarist). Shortly after, Aaron and Cyril left the group to form their own band Soul Machine. In the late 1960s Art changed the name of his band to The Meters, which at that time included Joseph “Ziggy” Modeliste on drums. Considered by many to be the founding fathers of funk, The Meters would release a series of albums that today are infamous classics that should be standard in all dj collections. In 1975, Cyril became the fifth Meter as a percussionist and vocalist for three of their albums for Reprise/Warner Brothers, but by the mid-Seventies, the four Neville brothers had not still recorded as a unit.

AaronNevillebrothers_001In 1976, the four brothers Art, Charles, Cyril and Aaron got together to take part in the recording session of The Wild Tchoupitoulas, a Mardi Gras Indian group led by their uncle, George Landry (“Big Chief Jolly”). The self titled result produced by Toussaint may not have been a financial success, but the effort was well received critically and the recording experience encouraged the four Neville brothers to perform together for the first time as a group. Paul Howrilla created Neville Productions, Inc., serving as president and CEO with all four Neville brothers as members of the board of directors. The newly formed business covered the entire Neville family, designed to protect them from the music business abuse they had previously endured in their individual careers. In 1978, The Neville Brothers self titled debut album was released from Capitol Records, and it was the beginning of solid recording run for the group for the next decade or so. Due to the health problems of Art Neville, the band kept low profile in the late 1990s onto the early 2000s. They made a comeback in 2004, however, with the album, Walkin’ In The Shadow Of Life, from Back Porch Records.

In 1989, Aaron would find that second big solo hit, well actually in the form of a duet with Linda Ronstadt, with the song Don’t Know Much. It reached #2 on the Hot 100, and was certified Gold for selling a million copies! This duet with Ronstadt would win Aaron his first of four Grammys! The album which was titled Cry Like a Rainstorm, Howl Like the Wind, was certified Triple Platinum for US sales of more than 3 million. And ever since Aaron has pretty much been a household name, and has shared more success from following albums.

AaronNeville_004Neville’s longtime partner Joel was diagnosed with lung cancer in late 2004 and died on January 5, 2007. She was 66, and needless to say, this must have been a sorrowful time for Aaron. In 2008, during a People magazine photo shoot, Neville met photographer Sarah A. Friedman, who had been hired to take a portrait of the Neville Brothers. From that first meeting Aaron sensed something deep in his heart towards Friedman, and they were married November 13, 2010 in New York City. In 2016, Neville announced a 75th birthday show at the Apollo Theater that also marked the 50th anniversary of the release of Tell It Like It Is.

Today Neville sister Athelgra is part of the current line up of The Dixie Cups (known for their hits Chapel of Love and Iko Iko) alongside original members, sisters Barbara Ann and Rosa Lee Hawkins.

References and recommendations…

eden ahbez – Tobago / The Old Boat

edenAhbez_Seven45rpm_01edenAhbez_Seven45rpm_02Del-Fi Records  4131  US  Year 1960

Track 1 – Tobago Track 2 – The Old Boat

Ever feeling like going away…far, far away? Sometimes the best trips are only as far as your record player. I have wanted share eden ahbez for some time on this blog, but the man was mysterious, you could even say mythical. Meaning there’s just not a lot out there to be found on this ahbez’s life.

Thankfully Brian Chidester’s elaborate Eden’s Island blog unveils a bit about the man, although after going through it all, you still want to know more. I’m so thankful that there are people out there spending the time documenting their knowledge and experiences with these disappearing artists. With some other news articles and such, here’s a brief summary of what I could put together, on eden ahbez and in particular, the story that leads to this 7″.

George Alexander Aberle was born, along with his twin sister Editha, on 15 April 1908, in Brooklyn, New York, to a Jewish father and a Scottish-English mother. Born in the depression, orphaned along with 12 other siblings, he spent his early years in the Brooklyn Hebrew Orphan Asylum of New York. He was then adopted, in 1917, by a family in Chanute, Kansas, and raised under the name George Mc Grew. During the 1930s, he lived in Kansas, where he performed as a pianist and dance band leader. But he didn’t stay long. He never stayed at any place for very long. He figured he didn’t fit into any prefabricated niches of society. He read books on Far Eastern cultures and philosophies and adopted the concept of a universal God. Then he was at home in the world. He hopped freight trains and waked across the country many times, and absorbed the echos of life around him. It’s probable he lived in New York City for some time, although little is known of that period of his life.

ahbez ventured to Hollywood, because he heard that’s where you go if you have a song…
Around 1940, Aberle arrived in Los Angeles and began washing dishes and playing live piano at the Eutropheon, a small health food store and raw food restaurant on Laurel Canyon Boulevard. The cafe was owned by John and Vera Richter, German immigrants who followed a Naturmensch and Lebensreform (1.) philosophy influenced by the Wandervogel (2.) movement in Germany. John Richter gave lectures throughout the Greater Los Angeles area during the 1940s, and some of the employees at the Eutropheon were young Americans who’d adopted his transcendentalist philosophy.

EdenAhbez-003These followers, known as “Nature Boys” and who included Robert “Gypsy Boots” Bootzin, wore long hair and beards and ate only raw fruits and vegetables, a lifestyle that would be influential on the hippie movement that was to come, in California. During this period, Aberle adopted the name eden ahbez, choosing to spell his name with lower-case letters, claiming that only the words God and Infinity were worthy of capitalization. He is also said to have desired the A and Z (alpha and omega), the beginning and the end, in his surname, but he was known to friends simply as ahbe. During this period, he wore long unkempt hair, a bronze beard and a flowing white toga with leather sandals. ahbez would soon met Anna Jacobson, who became his wife and the mother of his only child, Zoma.

Nature Boy – In 1947, ahbez approached Nat King Cole’s manager backstage at the Lincoln Theater in Los Angeles and handed him the music for a song he wrote (some say it was he’s valet that passed on the piece of sheet music to Nat). That song was Nature Boy, and Cole began playing the song for live audiences to much acclaim, but he needed to track down its author before releasing his recording of it. Legend has it, that he, along with his wife, were discovered living under the first L of the famous Hollywood sign. He would became the focus of a media frenzy when Cole’s version of ahbez’s composition shot to No. 1 on the Billboard charts and remained there for eight consecutive weeks during the summer of 1948. Just for the record, Capitol Records sat on the recording for about a year, then finally put out the track as a B-side to Lost April.

EdenAhbez-007ahbez was covered simultaneously in Life, Time, and Newsweek magazines. Frank Sinatra and Sarah Vaughan later released versions of the song. ahbez also faced legal action from Yiddish musical composer, Herman Yablokoff, who claimed that the melody to Nature Boy came from one of his songs, Shvayg mayn harts (Be Still My Heart). ahbez claimed to have “heard the tune in the mist of the California mountains.” There’s also reports that ahbez told the press that he’d heard the melody in the solitude of a cave, a notion he reiterated throughout his life. However, legal proceedings resulted in a payment to Yablokoff of $25,000 in an out-of-court settlement. (3.)

Soon after Nature Boy hit the top of the charts, R.K.O. Pictures optioned the rights to turn the song into a feature-length movie script, which likely melded into the late 1948 film, Boy with the Green Hair, a bizarre war time tale directed by Joseph Losey, starring Dean Stockwell. The picture featured Nature Boy throughout, and ahbez’s name was amongst the first in the opening credit roll.

EdenAhbez-002bahbez continued to supply Cole with songs, including Land of Love (Come My Love and Live with Me), which was also covered by Doris Day and The Ink Spots, but unfortunately, none of these versions brought in any real success. For a brief period, some of the biggest jazz and pop artists of the day took an interest in working with ahbez, and recorded his songs for major American record labels. In 1950, ahbez’s own Nature Boy Orchestra released End of Desire b/w California, the latter was also recorded by Hoagy Carmichael, re-titled Sacramento, about a vagabond traveling the California coast by freight train. End of Desire was recorded by April Stevens & also Jack Powers, backed by another ahbez original, Guitar Totin’ Cowboy. ahbez would also collaborate with Wayne Shanklin during the 1950s, and together they came up with Hey Jacque, released in 1954 by Eartha Kitt. B-side to Kitt’s holiday hit, This Year’s Santa Baby, thousands of homes unknowingly had another ahbez ballad on their hands if they’d only turned the record over. ahbez also worked closely with jazz musician Herb Jeffries, and in ’54, the pair collaborated on an album, The Singing Prophet, which included the only recording of ahbez’s four-part Nature Boy Suite.

Throughout the ’50s ahbez continued recording with prominent black artists, including Sam Cooke, whose 1958 Lonely Island would be the second and final ahbez composition to hit the Top 40. Gene Chandler also recorded an almost identical version of that very song, that same year. In 1958 ahbez produced a doo-wop version of Nature Boy by R&B vocal group the Shields, featuring Jesse Belvin. R&B singer George “Biggie” McFadden recorded ahbez’s The Lesson of Love for Jackpot Records in 1958 too. In an interview with the Associated Press from June ’58, ahbez called Lesson his true follow-up to Nature Boy, insisting that he was also writing a “rock ‘n’ roll spiritual.”

BobRomeo_AphrodisiaIn US mainstream, the strong tiki culture had introduced “exotica” music, a crossover between smooth jazz and Latin swing, with haunting melodies rooted in folklore sounds from different parts of the world. Often there were sound effects that would create an almost spooky jungle or dreamy island beach atmosphere, and even today it’s so easy to be completely taken away while listening to some of the Martin Denny and Arthur Lyman masterpieces of that time. ahbez’s first foray into the instrumental genre came in 1956, with three compositions he wrote for Bob Romeo & his Jungle Sextet’s Aphro-Desia LP. The tracks were Lisbon Street Dance, Zen and Sahara. The album jacket was graced by Anita Ekberg wearing a gypsy costume, and the cover also warned that the primitive rhythms therein could arouse uncommon emotions for the unaccustomed listener. Bob Romeo met ahbez’s Middle Eastern chord structures with proto-exotica percussion and abstract flute tones, with guidance from West Coast cool jazz giant Laurindo Almeida on guitar.

Eden’s Island – It was in 1960 when ahbez finally took an opportunity to record his full length solo album, Eden’s Island (Del-Fi Records). He had spoken of a “spiritual song cycle” as far back as 1958 in an interview with the Associated Press, and often performed bongo, flute and poetry gigs at L.A. beatnik coffee-houses such as the Insomniac Café (Hermosa Beach) and the Gas House (Venice Beach). ahbez approaches the field of exotica music from a different point of view, creating an epic concept album about an utopian society living in peace and harmony on an island far away from the modern western world as we know it. He would also utilize unusual combinations of instruments (flutes, bongos, vibes) and sound effects like creaking boats to conjure up the aural equivalent of a tropical breeze, but unlike Denny or Lyman, ahbez often added his own spoken poetry, speaking of coves, paradise, and other idyllic subjects. Eden’s Island seemed to be the grandiose summation of ahbez’s philosophic idealism.

EdenAhbez-006The 7″ released from this album actually has a twist with the A side, in that it is an instrumental version of the opening and title track of the LP. I personally find this version, title Tobago on the 45, more pleasing. It’s pure escapism with it’s wind through the trees and the faraway birds. It’s not too difficult to picture ahbez’s figure standing distant on an far island hill, but close enough to make out his robe and hair slowly blowing through the salty wind, as he plays his wooden flute…and this weaving and undulating melody. On the B side is The Boat Song, as it is laid down on the LP. Again here, the listener is transported, however this time, the journey is further away, deep into the far ocean, but it still carries with a lovely rhythmic sway. Perfect track to listen to after a long night out DJ’ing or dancing, when you’ve just come home and you’re feeling completely wrecked! Chances are you’ll be completely lost into a peaceful state of sleepful bliss by the time the track is done…and it’s likely 8 hours later you’ll wake up to the crackling needle wearing down on the turntable.

Very grateful to have a 7″ release from the unique Eden’s Island album, especially with these two tracks. And while the whole LP is a journey that probably should be taken continuously from beginning to end, Full Moon, Banana Boy, and the prophetic La Mar all a big thumbs up from me. But was the world ready to take a trip out to Eden’s Island in 1960? Well, according the record’s producer Bob Keane, the album sold less than 500 copies. Adding another reason why it’s now a quite sort after record for a lot of exotica collectors. After this album, ahbez’s appearance on vinyl became thin.

During the ’60s, he did releaseEdenAhbez-001 a handful of singles on various labels. Surfer John (flipped with John John), is an amusing and snappy shot of surf-exotica by Nature Boy & Friends (Bertram International Records) that tells a brief tale of a surfer who wasn’t afraid of taking on the largest of waves, well until until one fatal day that is. The kooky Yes, Master (b/w Jungle Bungalow), by Don Carson & the Casuals (Bertram International Records) is also witty and includes sound disciplinary clapping that sounds more like spanking to me. In 1960, there was also quite an illustrious operatic version of Nature Boy (b/w Lonely King of Rock and Roll) by Don Reed & “The Voice Of Love” Lorelei, that is truly wondrous (A&R Records). The novelty tune titled Mr. K by John Bean (Reprise Records) from 1963, with burps and all, makes you wonder can it get any more bizarre?

Anna Ahbez died in 1964, at the young age of 35, from cancer. Footage of her funeral shows family members and friends looking on as ahbez sits crossed-legged by Anna’s gravestone, playing a gong, and reciting some unknown words (the footage being silent). Zoma Ahbez died of a drug overdose in 1969, having been found seated in a lotus position. Some have claimed foul play was involved.

From 1970 onward, ahbez himself released very little. After Elvis Presley’s death in August 1977, ahbez’s old songwriting partner, P. Sterling Radcliffe (aka Don Sterling, aka Don Reed), re-recorded The Lonely King of Rock ‘n’ Roll, a tune the pair had written and released in 1960, as a new single on Via Records; Radcliffe left ahbez off the credits.

Anbez passed away on March 4, 1995 due to injuries incurred from an auto accident. At the time of his death, ahbez had been working on a book and album titled The Scriptures of the Golden Age. The overnight smash, Nature Boy, is best remembered for its universal benediction, “The greatest thing you’ll ever learn is just to love and be loved in return.” It has since been covered by literally thousands of artists, including Miles Davis, Grace Slick, and David Bowie. Congressman Bill Aswad recited the lyrics before the Vermont House of Representatives at the passing of his state’s same-sex marriage bill in ’09.

1. Lebensreform (“life reform”) was a social movement in late 19th-century and early 20th-century Germany and Switzerland that propagated a back-to-nature lifestyle, emphasizing among others healthy raw organic foods, nudism, sexual liberation, alternative medicine, and religious reform and at the same time abstention from alcohol, tobacco, drugs, and vaccines

2. Wandervogel is the name adopted by a popular movement of German youth groups from 1896 onward. The name can be translated as rambling, hiking, or wandering bird, and the ethos is to shake off the restrictions of society and get back to nature and freedom. Soon the groups split and there originated ever more organisations, which still all called themselves Wandervogel, but were organisationally independent.

3. To that end it is worth noting that the first two measures of the song’s melody also parallel the melody of the second movement in Antonín Dvořák’s Piano Quintet No. 2 in A, Op. 81 (1887). It is unknown if ahbez and/or Yablokoff were familiar with Dvořák’s piece, or if they arrived at the same melodic idea independently.

Again I have to mention how useful Brian Chidester’s elaborate Eden’s Island website was for this post. Please do visit it for a far more in-depth reading on abhez and the life around him. Also referencing…

LA Weekly

Shadow Box Studio