It’s been 50 years since iconic R&B singer Aaron Neville first broke onto the Billboard charts with the plaintive “Tell It Like It Is,” which reached No. 2 on the Hot 100. Now, the New Orleans legend, who has recorded extensively with Allen Toussaint, Linda Ronstadt and the Neville Brothers, is returning to his roots with his latest album, Apache, out July 15 on Tell It Records.
Crafted with Soulive guitarist Eric Krasno and Rustic Overtones frontman Dave Gutter, Apache is Neville’s first-ever album of all original material, and is a showcase of New Orleans’ many distinct musical stylings. Neville, 75, opens up to Billboard about the influence of the late Toussaint, the state of R&B and the turmoil he sees in the world today.
This is your first album of original music in years. Why now?
Because I’m here, I got all these poems. I always want to do music, as long as I’m on the planet. I’ve written a lot of stuff before; I’ve written for the Neville Brothers, like “Voodoo” and “Yellow Moon,” “My Brother’s Keeper” and “Brother Jake.” But this is the first time that all of my music is on the album. I’m just experimenting. It was a thrill to be able to do it. I have about 100 more poems in my phone that I want to do some more music for. I never want to stop singing, I never want to stop writing and I never want to stop recording.
There’s a lot of soul and New Orleans styles on this album. Did you want to present a broad palette of musicality?
Oh, yeah. I mean, take “Stompin’ Ground” — at one point I thought about making that the title of the album, but we went with Apache. “Stompin’ Ground” is like my testimony about New Orleans being my nurturer. New Orleans raised me and molded me. I grew up on all that music; my brother Art turned me on to doo-wop, my brother Charles turned me on to be-bop, and Cyril turned me onto the hip-hop. [Laughs] So I’ve had that in my blood all these years.
How do you feel about the state of New Orleans music these days?
I hear a lot of good things in New Orleans music; I think it’s gonna go on forever. I mean, every time I look around they’ve got another younger band coming up and carrying the torch, playing the Dixieland and the jazz. Definitely [I love] Trombone Shorty — I call him Trombone Slim now, ’cause he’s not short anymore. [Laughs] And a lot of the brass bands I like; I can’t think of all their names, but all of them are great.
You had a long musical history with Allen Toussaint. Was he on your mind when you were making this album?
He and I were working on some stuff also. He put some of my poetry to music with his voice on it. I’ve been talking to his son Reggie about it, and about maybe putting it out with his voice because he did a great job with it. He gave me my first break when I was 19 years old to record, in 1960. I’ve got an album called Make Me Strong that I love; I play it over and over again because I love the stuff he did.
On “Fragile World” you sing about violence and politics. What compelled you to address such heavy topics?
Why did Marvin Gaye make What’s Going On? I don’t sit down and plan to write, I have to be inspired. I look at the TV with all the stuff going on and it inspired me to write this. It’s kind of crazy right now, watching [the political climate]. We’re in turmoil everywhere. I’ve got no thoughts on [the election], but I’ll vote.
Speaking of Marvin Gaye, how has R&B evolved since you got your start?
R&B, I don’t even know what that is anymore. Back in the 1960s, they had a radio station coming out of Nashville, WLAC. It was Hossman Allen and John R., and if it was good music, they played it, it didn’t have to be in the same format as the last song. They played everybody. That was R&B to me. Today, I don’t know what it is, really.
How do you feel like you’ve evolved musically over the years?
I try to listen to stuff that I’m doing to make sure I know all the words when I go on my gigs, and listen to the artists that I like, like Marvin Gaye and Bob Marley and Stevie Wonder and Curtis Mayfield, James Brown and Ray Charles. That’s the stuff that’s in my heart. A lot of the doo-wop back in the days, when five guys would go into the studio and everybody was around the mic at the same time and whatever happened, that’s how it came. There was no cutting this and cutting that, splicing it; what was there was what came out.
Do you feel like the evolution of technology has taken a lot of that out of music these days?
Probably so. You listen to some things and you don’t know if it’s a group or if it’s one guy in a basement hitting a keyboard making all the music, or what. Back then, you could picture somebody playing drums, playing bass and all that. You can’t really picture that on a lot of stuff today. But it had to evolve, you know? Just like the rap music: those guys, I think they’re really artistic with how they can put the words together and rhyme them over those beats. Some of it could be more positive, but I give them props for what they do.
It’s been 50 years since you had your breakthrough hit in 1966 with “Tell It Like It Is.” How did that change things for you?
The first week it sold 50,000 copies, and then it started going up the charts. I was working on the docks and running in the streets back then, and all of a sudden I had a hit record. Something happened where I didn’t get paid for the record, but I had no regrets about that. Back then, if I had gotten paid, I might not be here today.
It was a nice journey, that’s what I think about it. It was a journey. Over time, I went down a lot of roads, some bumpy, some smooth. No regrets. It took who I was and where I come from to make me who I am.
A version of this article originally appeared in the July 23 issue of Billboard.