In junior high, rhythm and blues singer Aaron Neville chose an unusual location from which to launch a career — the boys’ lavatory. But that’s where he and his first teenage doo-wop group hid to practice their intricate harmonies.
“We loved the bathroom because it had good acoustics, and you’d get a sound like the Flamingos or Pookie Hudson and the Spaniels,” says the 71-year-old. “Sometimes a teacher would run us out, but he’d always stand back and listen awhile before he let us know he was there. Then he’d bark ‘All right, you kids! Get back to class!’ But he didn’t realize that I was in class at the time.”
Indeed. Neville, either with his familial outfit the Neville Brothers, or solo, as on the breakthrough 1967 hit “Tell it Like it is” — went on to become one of soul’s most definitive stylists. His crystalline quaver is recognizable in a single note.
Fans can savor that voice tonight in a Christmas-themed San Francisco concert, and also marvel over it in January upon the release of his debut disc for Blue Note, “My True Story.” The recording of all doo-wop covers was co-produced by Don Was and Keith Richards, who plays guitar on every track.
The Richards-Neville match is made in retro-rock heaven. They tear it up on “Money Honey,” “Be My Baby,” “Under the Boardwalk” and “Work With Me Annie,” with backing vocals from Richards-recruited doo-wop kingpins Bobby Jay (The Teenagers), Dickie Harmon (The Del-Vikings) and the Jive Five’s Eugene Pitt, who originally co-wrote the title track.
Was, recalling that Richards was a huge Jive Five fan, suggested him for the sessions. “We did 23 songs in five days, and everyone was just having a ball. You can actually hear the musicians smiling on this record,” says Neville.
Neville has always been fascinated with this genre: “My brother Art had a doo-wop group, and they would sit out on the park bench at night and sing harmonies, where they taught me those harmonies, as well,” he says. “And me and my sister used to sing along with the radio while we were washing dishes. We’d harmonize on everything with anybody. She sings with the Dixie Cups today.”
The team may continue the series, even recruit Dion and Paul Simon for duets. Neville is glad for the early washroom training, during which he was never once bullied. “Back in those days, I was a singer, but I was a fighter, too,” he says. “So if anything, I would’ve been doing the beating up!”
IF YOU GO
Where: Palace of Fine Arts Theatre, 3301 Lyon St., S.F.
When: 8 p.m. today
Tickets: $55 to $75
Contact: (415) 567-6642, www.ticketmaster.com