Do The Doo-wop Baby
The lights were out; the headphones were jammed tightly across my skull; and my eyes were shut. I had just pressed the play button on My True Story, Aaron Neville’s latest album, and instantly got a sense of déjà vu. In the early 1970s when I was still at school, I’d gone to visit a distant cousin, a guy much older than me and one that most people in the family described as “bohemian”. On the ground floor of a sprawling old colonial house in Calcutta, my cousin had a den where he met me and a couple of others. He was wearing a paint splattered pair of canvas trousers, his hair was tousled, and on his turntable was spinning Elvis Presley’s eponymous first album in mono. Blue Suede Shoes, I Got A Woman, Just Because… I still remember those songs. There was another thing. A strange, sweet smell that seemed to come from the cigarette my cousin was smoking. We were too young and naïve and had no clue then as to what he was smoking (it was, indeed, a long time back!). But we were in awe and that first exposure to Presley is still indelibly etched in my mind.
Aaron Neville’s first name, in case you didn’t know, is the same as Elvis’s middle name but as far as I know there is no connection. The reason why, while listening to his new album, I got transported to my first experience of Elvis’s music is because of Neville’s style, which harks back to the R&B and soul music of the ‘50s and ‘60s. Most of the songs, delivered by Neville in his almost angelic tenor (he’s built like an American football player, though), are covers, including Money Honey, a song (not written but made famous by Elvis). Neville is 72 and a native of New Orleans and the new album is like a flashback to the era of doo-wop, a term that describes a characteristic style marked by vocal harmonies that African-American singers adopted and that many people have tried to contemporise with limited success. Fortunately, Neville has not. My True Story is like a trip back to the golden years of doo-wop and R&B and soul. And the songs—besides Money Honey, there’s Curtis Mayfield’s Gypsy Woman and the famous Be My Baby, and several more instantly recognisable tunes—are sung the way they ought to be, in their pristine doo-wop R&B style with no attempt to make them ‘modern’. I like that.
Perhaps it has something to do with the fact that My True Story is produced by two people who are also legends in their own right—Don Was and Keith Richards (yes!). Was made a name as a journeyman musician before turning to production and has recorded with the likes of The Rolling Stones, Iggy Pop, B.B. King, Elton John, Stevie Nicks, The Black Crowes and a host of others. Richards, of course, is you know who. He plays guitar on the album too, so that’s another big plus for My True Story.
Like Neville, Bonerama (yes the first two syllables of their name are a bit unfortunate but do remember that ‘bone is what blues and jazz musicians call the trombone) are also from New Orleans but they are a brass band that plays funk rock. Like Neville, they also do some covers of other people’s songs besides their own originals. I got hold of Bonerama Live from New York and was pleasantly surprised to hear three interesting covers—of Allman Brothers Band’s Whipping Post, Jimi Hendrix’s Crosstown Traffic and Black Sabbath’s War Pigs. Covered by what is basically a brass band with not one but five trombone players, the versions are brilliant. That’s not to say that Bonerama’s originals at the gig (venue: Tribeca Rock Club in NYC in 2004) are any poorer. Funky New Orleans sounds permeate through their set and tunes such as Baronne, Chilcock and Blackout in NYC are as infectious as the best funk music tends to be. It helps that another New Orleans’ band, Galactic’s drummer Stanton Moore, sits in with Bonerama but the best thing about their music is the way the five ‘bones interact with each other on the tunes.
Speaking of New Orleans funk, there’s an album that showcases that sound. New Orleans Funk, released in 2000, features every major funk band from that city. You have The Meters, Neville, of course, Professor Longhair, Ernie K-Doe and Dr. John. It’s a set of 24 tracks that is guaranteed to have you tapping your feet and swinging your body.