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Aaron Neville
and His Songs of Faith



[ Feature 1 Photo]
Photo by Frank J. Methe,
courtesy of Clarion Herald, New Orleans

 


This Grammy Award-winning singer, who believes his talent is a gift from God, has recorded a contemporary reflection on the Way of the Cross with Father Jeffery Bayhi to raise funds to help youth.

By Mary Jo Dangel

 

 Concern for Youth

 
Once a Deceiver, Now a Believer

AARON NEVILLE IS SO CONCERNED about the welfare of young people that he has donated his talent to record an inspirational album to raise funds for youth in southern Louisiana. Profits from Doing It Their Own Way: A Contemporary Meditation on the Way of the Cross will be used to construct an interdenominational retreat center for youth on about 80 acres located between New Orleans and Baton Rouge.

Neville, who grew up in the Calliope Housing Project in New Orleans, sings excerpts from "Were You There?" after each of 14 reflections read by Father Jeffery Bayhi, who wrote the text. Bayhi (BUY-ee) is director of vocations for the Diocese of Baton Rouge and works with substance abusers. "This meditation is born out of the years in which so many people under the weight of their own personal crosses trusted me with their journey," writes Bayhi on the inside cover of the recording.

Neville and Bayhi performed excerpts from the album last June at the Catholic Press Association Convention in New Orleans, where Mardi Gras celebrations are now in full swing. Father Bayhi explains why he wanted Aaron Neville to collaborate on this album: His songs go "from the very secular to the really sublime to the most sacred."

The recording session was unusually short, explains Bayhi. "If anyone is familiar with taping and recording, you don't do a 43-minute piece of work in an hour and 15 minutes." The original release sold out in less than a year.

"We made this recording so the next generation will have a chance to know how important faith is in this journey we call life," says Bayhi. "Blending an old spiritual hymn with modern thoughts and language makes each station more meaningful."

During an interview following their performance, Bayhi says, "Aaron and I both share a vision that our kids need more than what they're getting" at home and at school. He envisions a facility that is affordable and available "for anyone who works with kids." It could be used for recreation, retreats and other activities.

Concern for Youth

Aaron Neville's hits include the 1966 solo "Tell It Like It Is" and the 1990 Grammy Award-winning duet "Don't Know Much," which he sings with Linda Ronstadt. He also performs and records with his three brothers. The Neville Brothers' Web site (www.nevilles.com) notes that the acclaimed crooners were inducted into the New Orleans Music Walk of Fame.

Aaron Neville is known as much for his distinctive falsetto singing voice as for his numerous tattoos. He corrects a misconception about the tattoo that adorns his left cheek: "It's not a cross," he explains in a voice that's just above a whisper. "It's just a sword." He got it when he was about 16. Why did he choose a sword? "No special reason." He recalls his father's reaction: "My dad made me scrub it with a Brillo pad.

"My folks had a very strong faith," says Neville, a grandfather in his late 50's. Following the example set by his parents, he tries to instill his own offspring with a sense of morals, something he believes many young people lack. "I don't envy kids growing up today," he says, noting the availability of drugs and other temptations.

It's easy to picture the admittedly shy singer who now quietly follows Father Bayhi's lead being swayed as a youth by peer pressure. In an interview in Catholic Digest, he admits to using drugs and spending time in prison for car theft during a low period in his life. He went from having a hit record in the 1960's to unloading freight on the docks in the 1970's in order to support his wife and kids. It was a time when his marriage was falling apart. (He and his wife have since reunited.)

He credits his survival to God and his Catholic faith. "One day, I remembered my mother telling me about St. Jude, and I started going wherever I heard they were having a St. Jude novena," recalls Neville. He now dedicates each of his albums to the saint of hopeless causes, and one of the earrings he wears is a St. Jude medal.

Once a Deceiver, Now a Believer

When Aaron Neville walked onto the stage at the Catholic Press Association Convention, the approximately 400 people packed into the room had already been sitting a few hours through lunch, followed by a rousing presentation by Helen Prejean, C.S.J., the popular nun who wrote Dead Man Walking.

Would the Grammy Award-winning singer be able to hold the crowd that had just given the best-selling author a standing ovation? The pop singer had many fans among the conventioneers, and a number of hotel employees took a break from their duties to grab the opportunity to catch Neville's performance. But others had never heard of the solemn-faced man who walked onstage displaying tattoos and an abundance of gold jewelry.

When Aaron Neville sings, he knows all the lyrics by heart—he doesn't rely on a TelePrompTer. He clenches his eyes tightly closed, as if he's blocking out all distractions and going into a prayerful trance. This is clearly not a deceptive act. If it's true that when you sing you pray twice, this entertainer does a lot of praying onstage.

He performs "Don't Take Away My Heaven," one of his soft-rock hits, then asks people to hold hands as he passionately sings "The Lord's Prayer," another selection from his Grand Tour album. The pop singer includes at least one hymn in all of his albums.

Before singing the autobiographical "To Make Me Who I Am," he talks about his life and admits, "Sometimes we make good choices, sometimes we make bad." Then he croons, "Once I was a deceiver, but now I am a believer."

When Aaron Neville attended St. Monica's Elementary School, he developed a fondness for Marian songs. As he begins one of his favorites, "Ave Maria," some technical problems arise. Unlike some entertainers who publicly shame their crew, this celebrity calmly explains to the audience that it isn't anyone's fault and starts over.

His singing voice is not the result of formal lessons, he explains: "The Lord gave it to me."

He feels obligated to use this gift to help others. "There have been times in my life when all I had was my voice and I felt rich. If I didn't have my voice, I don't know what my existence would be."

He enriches other people's existence, too. He tells the audience about an autistic boy who was described as unmanageable except when listening to one of Aaron Neville's recordings. It's obvious from the tone of his voice that this story has deeply touched him.

Father Bayhi joins Neville onstage for excerpts from Doing It Their Own Way. The still crowded room responds with a standing ovation, followed by a lengthy autograph session where copies of the recording are selling like beignets.

Doing It Their Own Way can be ordered from Metanoia, Inc., 749 East Blvd., Baton Rouge, LA 70802. Telephone: 225-336-8778, fax: 225-336-8710 ($10 for cassette or $15 for CD, plus $2.50 each shipping and handling).


Mary Jo Dangel is an assistant editor of this publication who enjoyed the sights, sounds and flavors of New Orleans.

 

 

 

 

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