There's something wildly contradictory about the idea of Aaron Neville's delicate, falsetto vocals emanating from a man who looks like he could crush your spine into powder.
With his scowling countenance and a huge, muscled frame sporting a bevy of jailhouse-ugly tattoos, this is a man who would seem at home playing the part of a heel in a professional wrestling match. Neville has a tattoo of a dagger adorning his face, for God's sake!
So when he opens his mouth and That Voice comes forth like a butterfly fluttering on a rose, the typical reaction is to scratch your head in bemused wonder.
Neville will almost certainly be the most discernible figure on the stage, both physically and sonically, when he performs Friday through Sunday at the Cerritos Center for the Performing Arts for a sold-out series of "The Colors of Christmas" concerts featuring Peabo Bryson, Roberta Flack and Melissa Manchester.
In a career spanning four decades, Neville has slowly but steadily risen to the top of his profession, although his humility for performing alongside this company was very much apparent in a recent phone interview.
"Peabo's like the greatest singer in the world; I always tell him that," said Neville, 56. "He's got so much control. I just love his voice. Roberta, she's so distinct with her voice; you can't mistake it for nobody else. And Melissa's great; she's into that theater thing, and she has a great voice too."
Through a solo career that began in 1960, through his work with his siblings in the New Orleans R&B; powerhouse the Neville Brothers and via his work on a seemingly endless number of television commercials, Neville's voice has become quite recognizable and yielded a number of hit singles and Grammy awards.
"I could always sing," remembered Neville. "When I was kid, 8, 9 years old, I would go to the movies or go to the swimming pool, and I could sing my way in. Didn't nothing else matter but singing. Even at school, I'd be in the boy's bathroom singing with those good acoustics. That was class for me. I already knew what I wanted to do."
Neville's musical education coincided with earning a master's degree in juvenile delinquency, however. Growing up poor in Jim Crow-era New Orleans in the 1940s and '50s, young Aaron was bitter and hardened.
"I was never in a gang because I was my own gang," Neville said.
By age 17, he was serving time for auto theft and was a heavy drug user. The patient love of his mother, Emelia, and his discovery of Catholicism eventually turned him around, he said, for which he is thankful to this day.
"My mom was the greatest inspiration to me. She was the greatest mom," he said. He has two primitive tattoos on his left arm dedicated to Emelia.
In 1958, Neville took over the reins of keyboardist-vocalist brother Art's group, the Hawkettes, who had had a hit four years earlier with "Mardi Gras Mambo," and whose lineup sometimes included saxophonist-vocalist brother Charles.
In 1960, Aaron scored his first solo R&B; hit with "Over You." In 1966 came the crossover smash "Tell It Like It Is," which rose to No. 2 on the pop charts. But Neville asserted that he's never seen a dime from any of his early work, nor did any of the other artists who constituted the hit factory of New Orleans in the late 1950s and early to mid-60s.
"Ernie K-Doe with 'Mother-in-Law,' Lee Dorsey with 'Ya Ya,' Jessie Hill, Barbara Jordan with 'I Know,' Benny Spellman, Irma Thomas--it could have been a Motown-like thing," Neville said.
Within a short time of cutting the biggest single of his life, Neville was working as a longshoreman to make ends meet. Unscrupulous record companies to this day regularly re-release those seminal sides without ever paying Neville any royalties, he said.
Neville continued to record for a variety of small labels but met with little success for the remainder of the 1960s and early '70s. In 1975, the Neville brothers--now joined by youngest brother Cyril on vocals and percussion--united to back their uncle, George "Big Chief Jolly" Landry, as the Wild Tchoupitoulas. The group released a self-titled album on Island Records in 1976, which is today considered a classic staple of New Orleans musical history.
Gigs with Landry gave birth to separate performances as the Neville Brothers, which led to the group's debut proper with another eponymous album released on Capitol in 1978. The Nevilles released acclaimed but tepid-selling albums and toured incessantly throughout the 1970s and '80s, while becoming favorites among music critics and musical peers. Such talent as Keith Richards, Jerry Garcia and Carlos Santana appeared as guests on their albums.
In 1989, Aaron rekindled his solo career with "Don't Know Much," a Grammy-winning duet with Linda Ronstadt, which climbed to No. 2 on the pop charts.
His career has been on fire ever since.
In 1991, Neville and Ronstadt won another Grammy for the duet "All My Life." Ronstadt co-produced Neville's successful 1991 comeback solo album, "Warm Your Heart," which featured another hit single in "Everybody Plays the Fool." A Grammy followed for another duet performance, this time for a 1993 performance of "I Fall to Pieces" with Trisha Yearwood.
Neville's most recent solo album, "The Tattooed Heart," failed to do as well commercially, but these days Neville's status as a bona-fide superstar remains a certainty. He also continues to perform intermittently with his brothers.
But according to Neville, none of all this late-stage vindication has meant nearly as much to him as the simple gift of joy his voice brings to himself and to others.
"At my lowest points, when I didn't care if I lived or died, I always had my voice," he said. "That was God telling me not to give up, and I could always see the light at the end of the tunnel. My voice has always been my revelation. When I sing, I can feel him. I've gotten letters from people telling me my voice has stopped them from committing suicide. So I always put something spiritual on my albums, and I always give thanks to God."
* "The Colors of Christmas," featuring Aaron Neville, Roberta Flack, Peabo Bryson and Melissa Manchester, runs Friday through Sunday at Cerritos Center for the Performing Arts, 12700 Center Court Drive. All shows sold out. (800) 300-4345.