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Early sides show different side to Neville

The Classic Aaron Neville: My Greatest Gift
The Classic Aaron Neville: My Greatest Gift
By Aaron Neville

Rounder Records: 1990

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This review first appeared in the November/December 1990 issue of Living Blues magazine.

For years, Aaron Neville was a major cult figure among blues and R&B fans. It is only recently, after teaming up with pop chameleon Linda Ronstadt, that he has achieved mainstream fame. But his duets with Ronstadt hardly represent his best work.

This reissue collection from Rounder (the latest entry in their Modern New Orleans Masters series) presents a collection of material produced by fellow Crescent City musician Allen Toussaint in the late '60s through mid-'70s.

And a fine collection of performances and songs it is, showing off not only Neville's forays into the upper register, but his earthier side as well.

Before jumping into the great music contained on this release, though, a complaint. The liner notes by Robert Palmer are more poetic tribute than historical chronicle. All we are told is that the recordings were first laid down "by Sansu Enterprises between late 1968 and mid-'70s." Is Sansu the label? We aren't told. When were the individual songs recorded? We aren't told. Who are the musicians backing Neville? Is that Toussaint himself on piano? Again, we aren't told.

But once you start listening, you won't stay disappointed long.

The rendition of "Tell It Like It Is" found here is not the hit version, but a starker, stripped-down model. This is hardly a letdown, though, for if the sweeping falsetto is not present, a much more emotional performance is, and one with a bit of an edge to it.

On Toussaint's "Hercules," Neville gets heavily into the funk sound that was reverberating throughout the soul/R&B charts during that period. The funk gets even thicker on "Mojo Hannah," a regional hit for Neville. IN fact, on this tune, he sounds more like his brothers' band The Meters than he does the Neville Brothers.

For those who prefer the sweet side of Neville, "Struttin' On Sunday," "Cry Me a River," "Love Letters" and "My Greatest Gift" will fit the bill.

Throughout, the musicianship, arrangements and production are superb. "My Greatest Gift" is a strong introduction to some of his earlier work, and a fine album in its own right.