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For most bands, playing songs by other songwriters is a mark of shame, a sign that they don't have enough original material. But for the Neville Brothers, the opposite is true. Despite excellent original material, they want to sing other writers' songs. It gives them a chance to hone their stylistic chops. The Nevilles want to be the quintessential American band, a group that can perform every kind of music, from Ride on Jesus" to Johnny B. Goode."
From the beginning, when the pre-Neville Brothers band, the Meters, was teaching Sly Stone about funk, the Neville brothers have challenged themselves with covers. When someone said the Meters couldn't do a cover of Oh, Calcutta!" they gave it a try. A year later, the song ended up on an album.
In recent years, the band's choice of covers has gotten ever more adventurous. On its 1989 breakthrough album, Yellow Moon, a record with five covers out of 12 tunes, the Nevilles turned Bob Dylan's With God on Our Side" into an echoey gospel hymn and converted guitarist Link Wray's schizo-rockabilly Fire and Brimstone" into a high-harmony funk fest. On Yellow Moon's 1990 follow-up, Brother's Keeper, the Nevilles transformed another Wray number, Fallin' Rain," into a soft ballad.
The Wray tunes-Wray is most famous for penning the Batman television theme-seem to be the strangest cover choices so far. But, according to Aaron Neville, covering Wray was small potatoes.
A couple of years ago, we sang on a Walt Disney tribute record called Stay Awake," he says. We did a doo-wop version of the theme to the Mickey Mouse Club. Dr. John played piano on it. If you want to hear us doing a strange cover, check that one out."
Now that the new Neville Brothers album is being readied for a spring release, one of the big questions is. ...
Yeah, there's one cover," Aaron Neville says with a chuckle, talking by telephone from his new home out in the 'burbs of New Orleans. Are you ready? Would you believe `Fly Like an Eagle'?"
Steve Miller's Fly Like an Eagle"?
Can the Nevilles-Art, Charles, Aaron and Cyril (in descending order of age)-hope to salvage a single whose most memorable lines are Tick, tock-doo doo doo doo doo"?
We've been doin' it since 1977," Aaron says in a voice that is surprisingly small for his linebacker physique. Before that, the Meters did it. You'll see. Don't think Steve Miller. Cyril sings, and he's kicking it."
Never think any piece of music is out of the Neville Brothers' reach. Next thing you know, four percussionists will be banging away, saxmen will be wailing, the four brothers will be harmonizing, and what was once a played-to-death pop tune will become an irresistible mass of rhythm. From the music of the Carter Family to Bob Dylan to Steve Miller, there aren't many tunes that can't benefit from being Neville-ized."
That this group can and will do it all-reggae, country, folk, funk, rock 'n' roll-was made abundantly clear when an inspired version of A.P. Carter's classic bluegrass lament Will the Circle Be Unbroken" appeared on Yellow Moon. Along with White Christmas" and Amazing Grace," Circle" is one of the most tradition-laden tunes in American musical history. Transformed by the brothers' trademark four-part harmonies, shimmering, angelic keyboards and one of Aaron's soaring, falsetto leads, the Nevilles' ÔCircle" has a spirituality even ol' A.P. Carter would approve of.
We respect and enjoy all kinds of music," Aaron says in his quiet drawl. A lot of people were surprised when we did `Will the Circle Be Unbroken,' but not us. We're not saying our way is better, but when we're through, everyone will know it was the Nevilles."
Spirituality has always ranked alongside musicality as the Nevilles' greatest attribute. The brothers have always championed a reggaelike message of one heart, one love. Over the years, this peace-love-and-understanding spirituality has trodden traditional paths like Catholicism and less traditional routes like Rastafarianism. On their eight records, the Nevilles have paid tribute to everyone from Henri Rousseau to the spirits in Congo Square. And since the brothers are from New Orleans, there's even a dash of voodoo in their music.
Perhaps it was an evil mojo that kept bringing them to the brink of fame, then pulling them back. For example, while they were virtual unknowns:
One of their countless, one-shot record deals was engineered by Bette Midler, a fan.
In 1975, Paul McCartney recorded part of his Venus and Mars album with the Meters in New Orleans.
The Meters was the opening band on the Rolling Stones' American tour in 1975 and the Stones' European tour in 1976.
None of those things catapulted the brothers into a steady record deal, let alone the big time. It's ironic that, with all their talent, the Nevilles only became known after Aaron did a series of syrupy duets with Linda Ronstadt.
Operating on the assumption that their music would never squeeze its way into the hermetic formats of commercial radio, the brothers have spent a career making records that they liked. Along the way, they signed the wrong contracts, trusted the wrong people and opened for a lot of acts that couldn't carry their congas.