When Aaron Neville met Curtis Mayfield in the late 1990’s, Mayfield, wheezing and paralyzed, could not rise from bed. So Neville took a seat beside him and sang Mayfield’s own songs back to him.
“I was talking about his music,” Neville recalled over the phone from a tour-stop in Atlantic City, “and a couple of his songs were so special to me, I would tell him about it and I would sing it a little to him, to let him know I was one of his pupils. And he smiled, you know, it was cool.”
Mayfield died a year later.
Neville will be performing at the Birchmere on Oct. 18. He will be singing some of the same songs he sang to Mayfield that day, as well as others by the legends who electrified him as a young man.
Solo and with his three brothers, Neville has been recording since the sixties, finding success with soul ballads, funky-Cajun stomps, gospel and Grammy-winning pop duets. But in the last year Neville has turned to the music that seeped into his blood and steeps his memories. With the same instinct that led him to give Mayfield the gift of his own music, Neville now sings for the city of his birth, New Orleans, and for his wife Joel, who is sick with cancer.
On his newest album, “Bring It on Home… The Soul Classics,” dedicated to “the families of victims, survivors, emergency workers and volunteers in the Gulf Coast Region whose lives were forever changed by the devastation of Hurricane Katrina,” Neville strips the skin from familiar songs by Mayfield, Bill Withers, Sam Cooke, Otis Redding and other masters and transforms them with his voice into precisely acknowledged hymns to pain, a message to the hurting that they are not alone.
Did your associations with these songs change as you recorded them?
It puts you in a place. When I was recording, especially right after the hurricane, I was feeling then that my New Orleans was gone. Each song would bring me to a certain place when I was growing up... [like] "Stand by Me." I was a teenager when that came out and that was just mesmerizing. That was one of my favorite songs.
[Now] I had these pictures of these people in this water in my head. My wife is dying of cancer. It took on a different meaning. Instead of a song it’s a prayer.
In the liner notes you begin by thanking "God, Saint Jude, the blessed Mother, my mother and father…” Why start there?
What I’m doing is a gift from God. His voice is loaned to me; it’s not mine. I’m thankful for that. And my mother, when I had some trying times back in my younger days, she turned me on to Saint Jude, the patron saint of miracles, and I’ve seen some miracles...
Nowadays you need all the blessings you can get, you know.
You never know what one day gonna bring. You never know what to expect. I do a lot of traveling. I do a lot of flying, and by the grace of God, it’s alright … Life is fragile; it can be. You’ve got to live each day like its something precious to you. They say today is the present and it’s a present from God, that he woke me up this morning.
Talk about singing to Curtis Mayfield.
I was sitting there talking to him and letting him know he was one of my heroes. I started singing his songs and he would be like, "Oh, I forgot about that!" That was one of the finest hours of my life: singing to Curtis Mayfield, being able to make him smile by singing his songs.
On the album, you sing Mayfield’s song, “It’s All Right.” That message “it’s all right,” has made its way into songs by Bob Marley, Bruce Springsteen, Lou Reed, Bob Dylan, why is it so compelling?
I guess in some kind of way everybody wanted to be all right. And today things ain’t all right really, but you want it to be. It’s like the song "Change is Gonna Come" that Sam Cooke was singing back in the 60’s. We’re still waiting for change to come.”
What is it like to perform these songs live?
It’s a whole different ballgame, you’re singing to a bunch of people and you’re trying to get them to feel what you’re feeling. Its more excitement, it’s live, you know.
We mix it up all kinda ways. I might do the Ave Maria; I might do Mickey Mouse; I might do cowboy stuff, so many different genres to pick from.
What is it that people don’t know or don’t appreciate about Katrina?
A lot of people did appreciate. A lot of people helped, you know. It was a stall from the government and the city officials and the state officials letting those people stay all that time. Like I’m saying I’m looking at these people, some of them I know. By the grace of God it could have been me … In New Orleans we been living in that threat a long time, sitting in a bowl surrounded by water.
New Orleans, they call it “the city that care forgot,” but also they call it the Big Easy, like everything cool, especially with the musicians. We’d run into musicians [from New Orleans] all around the country, all around the world. Nobody wanted to cry, they’re tough you know. But you could see the tears coming out of their eyes.
All the songs are special to me in this sense. My wife, she’s fighting cancer. You know, "Stand By Me," I want to stand by her. "Ain’t No Sunshine When She’s Gone," I don’t want to think about, you know.
Things go in a circle anyway. It’s time for them to come back. Everybody’s doing the old songs now.”