Aaron Neville’s voice is distinctive: soft, but strong. Heartfelt as well as full of passion. The streets that brought him to music also held trouble for Aaron which is reflected in the songs he sings. Growing up, Aaron found himself caught up in a world of petty crime, jail and hard drug abuse, a monkey that he couldn’t wholly shake of his back until 1981.
Early on, Neville could be seen harmonizing on street corners or on the basketball court. He recalls using singing to get into movie theaters for free. Singing was a way of life for Neville. So when his older brother Art began doing it professionally, Aaron was determined to do the same.
But it would be a long road ahead. While still in junior high, Neville began smoking marijuana. Now part of a doo-wop group, the Avalons, he was exposed to a gritty musical world where drug use was all too common.
Eventually he would join his brother Art’s group, the Hawkettes. It was during this time that he met a girl named Joel (pronounced JOE-EL). She would regularly come to hear him sing. And though he was falling in love with her, drugs and a bad crowd were pulling him in another direction. “I went to jail. Me and my partners had been stealing cars for a while,” Neville said in a recent biography, The Brothers (Little, Brown & Company, 2000). “We’d carry knives—small cleavers I’d take from Mommee’s kitchen that I’d sharpen at the grocery store. We’d cut someone every once in a while.”
As a result, Neville became a repeat visitor in the local jail. When he finally got out, he would marry Joel. Since he was only 17 years old at the time, his mother had to sign the marriage certificate for him.
Even though Joel was Devoted to Aaron, his career was starting off like he’d like. So he returned to drugs and alcohol. At one particularly low point in 1972, Joel took their four children and moved in with her mother, forcing Neville onto the first steps of a path to recovery. That moment eventually led to his freedom from addiction. After they reunited and were inseparable.
Once clean and with a renewed energy, Neville flourished as both a member of the Neville Brothers and a solo artist, but health problems began to catch up with him as well as Joel in 2004. After the Nevilles’ Jazz Fest performance that year Aaron was hospitalized with acute asthma, a condition he has never completely recovered from. Then Joel was diagnosed with inoperable lung cancer. Miraculously, her cancer went into remission.
But then the tragedy hit their most beloved city: the floods, tradgedy and horror of hurricane Katrina, hit Aaron hard. His house and all his family possessions were lost. He relocated in Nashville with Joel, but the stress hit her hard in her weakened condition and the cancer returned. In January 2007 Aaron returned to New Orleans for the first time since the storm only to bury his wife on their 48th wedding anniversary.
“I get sad sometimes,” he says. ” ‘Cause it’s been all that time and so much hasn’t been done…