When Neville performs Sunday at the Hamilton, he’ll be performing songs off his latest album, “My True Story,” a celebration of the doo-wop songs of his youth. A DVD accompanies the album and features a re-creation of an event from his adolescence: He and his backup singers are standing around a blazing fire in a trash can, singing an a cappella version of the Drifters’ “Ruby Baby.”
“My brother Art is three years older than me, and he had a group that sang on the street corners,” Neville says by phone from his home in New York’s Greenwich Village. “When I was 12 and tried to sing with them, he’d run me off. But one day when they were singing a Clyde McPhatter song, he said, ‘Kevin’ — he called me Kevin — ‘Kevin, can you hit this note?’ I hit it, no doubt, and after that they let me sing with them. The grocer near the school would have the fire going in a trash can; we’d gather around and sing, snapping our fingers.”
The past decade has a been rough one for Neville, 72. He lost his New Orleans home to Hurricane Katrina in 2005. He lost Joel, his wife of 48 years, to cancer in 2007. The optimistic, innocent songs from his youth, he says, have provided a welcome refuge from the turbulence of adulthood.
“A lot of those songs came from New York,” Neville says, “but when I was 15, I didn’t know where they came from, and I didn’t care. I only care that they touched my heart and touched my soul. We’d sing those songs everywhere: in the park, on the street corner and in the boys’ room at school.”
“My True Story” was co-produced by the Rolling Stones’ Keith Richards and features musicians drawn from the bands of Tom Petty, Bob Dylan, Bill Frisell and Dave Alvin. These veteran performers, many of them close to Neville’s age, imbue these songs of adolescent innocence and desire with the aura of experience. Instead of a youthful desire for perfect love, there’s a yearning to again believe that love can be perfect.
“We did them our way,” Neville says. “We didn’t want to do them the same way the original artists did them. The music has been living in me all these years. You hear a little doo-wop on everything I do, whether it’s Linda Ronstadt, the Neville Brothers or my solo records. You can hear in the stuff I do with my voice: that tenderness, that little yodel. And everything I’ve done affects how I sing doo-wop now.”
The “My True Story” DVD includes footage from a concert at Brooklyn Bowl, a giant New York bowling alley. Halfway through, Neville invites Paul Simon onstage. Accompanied only by Tony Scherr’s upright bass and Charles Neville’s tenor saxophone, the two singers blend gorgeously on the ballad harmonies of Robert & Johnny’s 1958 hit, “We Belong Together.” It sounds like a hymn.
“It was like we grew up on the same block, listening to the same songs,” Neville says. “Paul said ‘We Belong Together’ was one of the first songs he and Art Garfunkel worked up back in the day, and I said that was one of the first songs I did with my brother Art.”
As teenagers they lived 1,300 miles apart, but they each had their own Art.
Himes is a freelance writer.