Aaron Neville is best known for his featherlight falsetto, his catalog of pop hits and his work with his brothers, as part of New Orleans' "first family of funk," but don't try to pin him down creatively.
"I don't want to be pigeonholed in one form of music," Neville says.
"I mean, if you name it, I've done it — everything except rap. I've done pop, rock, R&B, doo-wop, gospel, country. I even sang Mickey Mouse. I did a doo-wop version of the 'Mickey Mouse March' with Dr. John playing keyboards. I also sang with Ernie on 'Sesame Street,'" Neville says with a chuckle.
Tonight, Neville will be showcasing his sophisticated side, performing a concert backed by the University of Memphis Symphony Orchestra. The show will serve as the kickoff to the UofM's yearlong centennial celebration.
These days, Neville resides in New York, though he maintains a house in his native Louisiana. "Mostly, I stay on tour, really," he says, "I just come home to wash clothes and stuff."
Neville says the music of the Crescent City remains the foundation of his eclectic approach. "New Orleans is famous for gumbo — just a mix of different ingredients. I've picked up things from the Mardi Gras Indian beats, from the second-line brass bands. The way people walk in New Orleans, you walk with a dip, like a second-line dip. The way people talk: 'Where ya at?' They got their own language," says Neville.
"Plus, it's a place where you have, like, Fats Domino, Dr. John, James Booker, Professor Longhair, Satchmo, Louis Prima, Al Hirt — all them dudes, it's such a rich musical environment. I was blessed to be born in New Orleans and grew up around all those people, listening to them and getting things from them."
Music was always Neville's calling, even though his career aspirations got put on hold early on. "I was 17 when I got married, so I had to take care of family and play music on the weekends," he says. "I wasn't playing for no money, I was playing just 'cause I loved it. I had to work on the docks, loading cargo ships, driving a truck or painting houses. I've done all kinds of things. But music has always been the salvation."
For Neville, in recent years, that salvation has come in the form of gospel. Since 2000, Neville has released a trio of spiritual albums (as well as two Christmas LPs), including last year's Joe Henry-produced effort, I Know I've Been Changed.
"Since when I first started, I always included gospel stuff in some form. I'd sing 'Down by the Riverside,' or I'd close all the shows with 'Amazing Grace,' " says Neville. "To me, gospel comes from the soul. And everything catapulted from gospel, whether it's R&B or country music."
For his next project, slated for release in 2012, Neville plans on going a different direction, realizing a lifelong ambition of recording a doo-wop album.
"That was one of my first loves as a kid. My older brother, Art, had a doo-wop group when I was about 9. They'd sit out on the park bench in the Calio (Calliope) projects and sing harmonies at night, and then they'd go around and win talent shows. They used to run me away until they figured out I could hold a note. Then they let me sing with them," Neville says with a laugh.
"To me, when I was a kid, music was like medicine. As long as I could sing along with the Orioles and Clyde McPhatter, nothing else in the world mattered to me."
However, It's another kind of music that Neville credits with creating his signature octave jumping vocal style.
"When I was a kid, I used to go to movies and see the cowboys: Roy Rogers and Gene Autry and the Sons of the Pioneers. So I'd come out of the movie and I was that cowboy, whoever I'd just seen. I'd be yodeling along with them," he says.
"The yodeling always fascinated me. That stuck in my vocal range, going from one octave to another. So, for me, it was the cowboys and the doo-wop all mixed up together, as well as the gospel, even the blues, which my parents loved."
Reflecting for a moment, the creatively restless Neville notes that a blues record might be in his future as well.
"You know I started out at 16, signing blues in the French Quarter with an all-blind band. So, yeah, I'd like to do a blues album, too. Like I say, I don't ever want to be pigeonholed. I'm just glad to get a chance to do all these things."
Aaron Neville with the University of Memphis Symphony Orchestra
8 tonight at the Cannon Center for the Performing Arts, 255 N. Main. Tickets: $20 and $28. Available at all Ticketmaster outlets, ticketmaster.com or (800) 745-3000, as well as the Cannon Center box office..
Centennial cultural series
Tonight's Aaron Neville concert at the Cannon Center for the Performing Arts marks the first of what will be a yearlong series of musical and artistic events celebrating the University of Memphis' 100th anniversary.
In addition to Neville, the concert will feature performances by the University of Memphis Symphony Orchestra, the Wind Ensemble, Southern Comfort Jazz Orchestra, Sound Fuzion, the University Singers and the U of M Opera.
The show will include the first airing of two new original anniversary-inspired pieces, "Centennial Fanfare" and "Presidential Portraits." Both compositions were written by U of M music professor James Richens.
Other upcoming events include:
Oct. 4: Song of the Silk Concert: An evening of performance provided by an all-star cast from China sponsored by the Confucius Institute and Asian Studies at the University of Memphis Rose Theatre.
Oct. 5: Photo exhibit and reception marking the release of "Dreamers. Thinkers. Doers. A Centennial History of the University of Memphis" at Mynders Hall with co-author Janann Sherman.
Nov. 1: David Dorfman Dance: "Prophets of Funk": This influential American contemporary dance company performs to the "popular-and populist-funk sounds of Sly and the Family Stone" at the Rose Theatre.
Nov. 20: Sousa Spectacular: U of M band department presents a "rousing tribute to John Philip Sousa" at 3 p.m. at Harris Concert Hall.
Dec. 1-4: CCFA fall performance event "New Voices" showcases works by University of Memphis student choreographers and dancers at the Theatre and Fine Arts building, room 124.
For more information, including a full list of Centennial events, go to memphis.edu/centennial.