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Aaron Neville Has 'Been Changed'

Aaron Neville revisits the house where he spent his teen years in uptown New Orleans. (NPR)

Aaron Neville is an icon in his hometown of New Orleans. With his linebacker shoulders and signature dagger tattoo on his cheek, there's no going incognito in his hotel lobby.

Neville hasn't lived in New Orleans since Hurricane Katrina flooded his home in 2005. Now, he splits his time between New York and Covington, La. But the first track on his new album of gospel favorites, I Know I've Been Changed, conjures images of what his native city has been through.

The album is arranged as if you were in a church service. "Stand by Me" is the opening prayer.

"I started listening to gospel when I was a little boy and my grandmother used to rock me on her lap," Neville says. "And she listened to Doctor Daddy. He was the disc jockey for the gospel station here in New Orleans. He would be playing stuff by the Blind Boys [of Alabama] and Sister Rosetta Tharpe, and Mahalia [Jackson], and Dixie Hummingbirds and all them guys, you know. So I was initiated into it at an early age."

Growing Up In New Orleans

He reminisces as we drive along the bumpy back streets of uptown New Orleans. These are his old stomping grounds, he says.

At the house where he grew up, someone has wrapped the door with sparkly green Christmas paper. It's one side of a duplex — two narrow clapboard houses that share a front porch.

When he and his brothers were growing up, Neville says, people here had a rhythm to the way they walked that came from the music they listened to. For him, it was doo-wop and locals Louis Armstrong, Fats Domino and Professor Longhair.

"My dad and my mom were big Nat King Cole fans, so they had everything he did," Neville says. "And I used to sing my way into the movies singing one of his songs. [They'd] say, 'Hey, little Neville, sing me a song and I'll let you in.' "

He'd get in to see Westerns with Roy Rogers and Gene Autry. In fact, there's even a bit of country twang underlying the gospel music on the new album.

"[I'd] yodel along with them, and I'd come back in the project and I had a mop stick named Kemo Sabe I'd ride for my horse," Neville says. "It was cool. I had the fastest mop stick in the project."

A Changed Life

Neville turns 70 in January, and has lived the changed life about which he sings. A gold charm of St. Jude — whom he says is the "saint of hopeless cases" — dangles from his left earlobe. It was a gift from his mom when he was struggling with drugs and crime early in his career.

Neville made his first record in 1960.

"I had just got out of jail, and I wrote that song in jail," Neville says. "It was called 'Every Day': 'Every day along about 1 / I'm dreaming of you and my little son / Every day along about 2 / I'm so lonesome and so blue / Every day about 3 / I'm dreaming that I'll be free."

Fifty years later, he is again singing about freedom.

"I always feel I'm blessed, you know," Neville says. "I thank God for letting me use his voice. That's how I see it."

Neville's Place Of Solace

On the way back to the hotel, we stop at the St. Jude Shrine at Our Lady of Guadalupe church in New Orleans. This, Neville says, is his place of solace.

"I feel like a little kid," Neville says. "And I just feel safe."

He's needed the haven. His wife of 48 years, Joel, died after a long battle with cancer four years ago. And Neville says it's still hard to see what Katrina has done to his hometown.

"I get sad sometimes," he says. " 'Cause it's been all that time and so much hasn't been done, you know. Passing all those neighborhoods, and still some people coming back, but a lot of places — some of them not never coming back. But one thing about New Orleans, you can't break their spirit."

Neville remarried this past November and is touring with his new album. There's always hope, he says, as he looks out at the Christmas lights strung along the wrought-iron balconies of the French Quarter.

"Ain't no place like New Orleans," Neville says. "It's one of kind."

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Transcript

JENNIFER LUDDEN, host:

Aaron Neville has been making records for 50 years. His newest recording, called "I Know I've Been Changed," is a selection of gospel favorites from his childhood.

NPR's Debbie Elliott talked with the singer on her recent visit to his hometown, New Orleans.

DEBBIE ELLIOTT: Aaron Neville is an icon here, and with his linebacker shoulders and signature dagger tattoo on his cheek, there's no going incognito in his hotel lobby.

Unidentified Woman: Hello. How are you?

Mr. AARON NEVILLE (Musician): How are you...

Unidentified Woman: I'm good. I love your voice.

Mr. NEVILLE: Well, thank you. Thank you for the love...

Unidentified Woman: Thank you.

ELLIOTT: Neville hasn't lived in New Orleans since Hurricane Katrina flooded his home in 2005. Now, he splits his time between New York and Covington, Louisiana.�But the first track on his new CD certainly conjures images of what his native city has been through.

(Soundbite of song, "Stand By Me")

Mr. NEVILLE: (Singing) When the storm of life is raging, Lord stand by me.

ELLIOTT: The CD is arranged as if you were in a church service. And this song, "Stand By Me," is the opening prayer.

(Soundbite of song, "Stand By Me")

Mr. NEVILLE: (Singing) Stand by me. Oh Lord, stand by me. As I walk. Oh Lord, stand by me. Stand by me. Oh Lord, stand by me. Help me bear. Oh Lord, stand by me.

(Speaking) I started listening to gospel when I was a little boy, and my grandmother used to rock me on her lap. And she listened to Doctor Daddy-o. He was the disc jockey for the gospel station here in New Orleans.�And he would be playing stuff by the Blind Boys and Sister Rosetta Tharpe and Mahalia, Dixie Hummingbirds and all them guys, you know.�So I was initiated into it at an early age.

ELLIOTT: He's reminiscing as we drive along the bumpy back streets of uptown New Orleans.�These are his old stomping grounds, he says.

Mr. NEVILLE: This house over on the right is where we grew up, when I moved over here from 13 - right there, with the green on the door.

ELLIOTT: Someone has wrapped the door with sparkly green Christmas paper.�It's one side of a duplex - two narrow clapboard houses that share a front porch.

Mr. NEVILLE: They call them shotguns and camelbacks.

ELLIOTT: When he and his brothers were growing up, Neville says, people here had a rhythm to the way they walked that came from the music they listened to.�For him, it was doo-wop and locals Louis Armstrong, Fats Domino and Professor Longhair.

Mr. NEVILLE: My dad and my mom were big Nat King Cole fans, so they had everything he did. And I used to sing my way into the movies singing one of his songs.�They'd say, Neville, sing me a song and I'll let you in -you know.

(Soundbite of laughter)

ELLIOTT: What song?

Mr. NEVILLE: (Singing) Mona Lisa. Mona Lisa, men have named you.

(Speaking) Something like that.

(Singing) Pretend you're happy when you're blue. It isn't very hard to do.

ELLIOTT: He'd get in to see westerns with Roy Rogers and Gene Autry.

Mr. NEVILLE: Yodel along with them. And I'd come back in the project, and I had a mop stick, named Kemo Sabe, I'd ride for my horse, you know. It was cool.�I had the fastest mop stick in the project.

(Soundbite of laughter)

ELLIOTT: There's a bit of country twang underlying the gospel on the new CD.

(Soundbite of song, "I Know I've Been Changed")

Mr. NEVILLE: (Singing) I know I've been changed, oh I, I know I've been changed, oh I, I know I've been changed. The angels in heaven gonna sign my name. The angels in heaven gonna sign my name. I know I got religion...

ELLIOTT: Neville turns 70 this month, and has lived the changed life he sings about.�A gold charm of St. Jude dangles from his left earlobe.

Mr. NEVILLE: Saint of hopeless cases.

(Soundbite of laughter)

ELLIOTT: It was a gift from his mom when he was struggling with drugs and crime, early in his career.

Neville made his first record in 1960.

Mr. NEVILLE: I had just got out of jail, and I wrote that song in jail. It was: Every day along about 1, I'm dreaming of you and my little son. And every day along about 2, I'm so lonesome and so blue. Every day along about 3, I'm dreaming of the day that I'll be free.

ELLIOTT: Fifty years later, he is again singing about freedom.

(Soundbite of song, "Oh, Freedom")

Mr. NEVILLE: (Singing) Oh, freedom. Oh, freedom. Oh, freedom over me. And before I'll be a slave, I'll be buried in my grave and go home to my Lord and I'll be free.

(Speaking) I don't know. I always feel I'm blessed, you know.�I thank God for letting me use his voice.�That's how I see it.

(Soundbite of song, "Oh, Freedom")

Mr. NEVILLE: (Singing) No more weeping, no more weeping, no more weeping over me.

ELLIOTT: On the way back to the hotel, we stop at the St. Jude Shrine at Our Lady of Guadalupe Church in New Orleans. This is Neville's place of solace.

Mr. NEVILLE: I feel like a little kid, you know. I just feel safe.

ELLIOTT: He's needed the haven.�His wife of 48 years, Joelle, died after a long battle with cancer four years ago. And he says it's still hard to see what Katrina has done to his hometown.

Mr. NEVILLE: I get sad sometimes, 'cause it's been all that time and so much hasn't been done, you know. You're passing all those neighborhoods, and there's still some people coming back, you know, but a lot of places - some of them are never coming back.�But one thing about New Orleans, you can't break their spirit.

ELLIOTT: Neville remarried last month and is touring with the new CD.�There's always hope, he says, looking out at the Christmas lights strung along the wrought-iron balconies of the French Quarter.

Mr. NEVILLE: There ain't no place like New Orleans. It's one of a kind.

(Soundbite of music)

ELLIOTT: Debbie Elliott, NPR News.

(Soundbite of song, "Why Can't You Live So God Can Use You")

Mr. NEVILLE: (Singing) You ought to live so God can use you anywhere, Lord, anytime.

LUDDEN: You can hear songs from Aaron Neville's new album, "I Know I've Been Changed," at nprmusic.org.

This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. Scott Simon returns next week. I'm Jennifer Ludden.

(Soundbite of song, "Why Can't You Live So God Can Use You")

Mr. NEVILLE: (Singing) You ought to sing so God can use you, anywhere, Lord, anytime. You ought to sing so God can use you, anywhere... Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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