Soul Serenade: Aaron Neville, “Tell It Like It Is”

In April, we lost Charles Neville to pancreatic cancer. Charles was an integral part of one of the finest family bands that this country ever produced. But ten years before there was a Neville Brothers Band, there was Aaron Neville who had a smash hit on his own in 1966.

Neville, like his brothers, was born in New Orleans of mixed heritage including African-American, Caucasian, and Native American bloodlines. He originally recorded for the Minut record label and had a little bit of success with the single “Over You.” in 1960. It took six years and a move to the New Orleans-based Par-Lo label for Neville to have his biggest hit.

“Tell It Like It Is” was released in November 1966 and it raced up the charts until it reached the #2 spot on the Billboard Hot 100. The only thing that kept Neville’s single out of the top spot was the Monkees hit cover fo the Neil Diamond song “I’m a Believer.” There was no such obstacle on the R&B chart and “Tell It Like It Is” attained the top spot and stayed there for five weeks. The song was written by George Davis who also arranged it and played baritone sax on the recording, and Lee Diamond. The session band also included trumpeter Emory Thomas, guitarist Deacon John, tenor sax player Alvin “Red” Tyler, pianist Willie Tee, and drummer June Gardner.

Aaron Neville

Aaron Neville went on to have a sterling career on his own and with his brothers. The Neville Brothers Band formed in 1976. In addition to Aaron and Charles, who played saxophone, the band included keyboard player Art Neville and percussionist Cyril Neville. The band entertained audiences worldwide for nearly three decades while releasing several successful albums in that time. Art Neville’s health issues slowed them down in the ’90s but they came back with a new album, Walkin’ in the Shadow of Life, in 2004.

When Hurricane Katrina ravaged New Orleans the following year, both Aaron and Cyril left the city. It seemed that the Neville Brothers Band would be no more but the brothers reunited to play the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival in 2008. The formal end of the band was announced in 2012 but even then there was a farewell concert in New Orleans three years later.

Meanwhile, Aaron Neville was forging an impressive career on his own. Among the highlights were his Grammy-winning duets “All My Life” and “Don’t Know Much” with Linda Ronstadt that appeared on her 1989 album Cry Like a Rainstorm, Howl Like the Wind. Neville’s own hit singles included “Hercules” in 1973, his cover of the Main Ingredient’s “Everybody Plays the Fool” in 1991, and “Don’t Take Away My Heaven” in 1993. He has also had four platinum albums. His most recent album, My True Story, a tribute to the doo-wop songs of his youth, was released in 2013.

The song “Tell It Like It Is” had more success via a hit cover version by Heart in 1980, and another by Billie Joe Royal in 1988.

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