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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…
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