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Aaron and Joel Neville

In October of 2008, widower Aaron Neville became engaged to New York photographer Sarah Friedman after meeting her at a People magazine photo shoot in February, 2008.  "What the heck. Life is short.  It's been a helluva few years. I can't explain it, what my heart's been through.  It needs some healing and nurturing," said Aaron.

On Saturday, November 13, 2010, Aaron Neville married Sarah Friedman.  "I don't know much but I know I love her," said Aaron who sang Pledging My Love to Sarah at their wedding.  The couple honeymooned in Turks & Caicos.

Neville Brothers

The Neville Brothers
(Aaron, Art, Charles, Cyril)

The Neville Brothers performed at the 2008 New Orleans' Jazz & Heritage Festival for the first time since Hurricane Katrina.  "Katrina messed up life for everybody.  I couldn't go back, too many memories," said Aaron Neville.  The Neville Brothers were the closing act as they were for 21 years. 

The Mardi Gras dancing group, The Wild Tchoupitoulas, danced onstage with the Neville Brothers, Art, 70, Charles, 69, Aaron, 67, and Cyril, 60.   Other of the 500 performers over the two-weekend New Orleans' Jazz & Heritage Festival, 87% of whom were local musicians, were Santana, The Radiators, The Pfister Sisters, Snooks Eaglin, Irma Thomas, Marva Wright, Raychell Richard, Billy Joel, Stevie Wonder, Al Green, Cassandra Wilson, Diana Krall, The Roots, Steelpulse, Tim McGraw, and Sheryl Crowe.

The Times-Picayune music critic Keith Spera on May 5, 2008:

Charles' saxophone opened "Just a Closer Walk With Thee" on a mellow note before the entire band kicked it up several notches. Aaron danced and waved a white towel as if he were marching in a second-line.

"Stand By Me" was refitted with a fresh arrangement and the line, "just as long as Jesus stands by me."

All in the tent stood, enraptured, during the final "Louisiana 1927." Chills ran down my spine. "Louisiana, they're trying to wash us away," were the final words sung by Aaron Neville at his first full Jazzfest performance since his house, and much of his city, was in fact washed away.  Mine were not the only moist eyes in the tent.

Associated Press, Saturday, May 3, 2008

The crowd, which was so big it filled the aisles and stretched to the grounds outside the tent, stood cheering so long after Aaron Neville finished that he came back to sing "Amazing Grace." When they still wouldn't let him go, Neville defied the festival's notoriously strict timetable and returned to sing his hit, "Louisiana 1927."

The song by Randy Newman, recalling the devastating flood of 1927, seemed particularly suited in a city still struggling to rebuild from Katrina.

"Some people got lost in the flood, some people got away all right," sang Neville, who had 10 feet of water in his house.

By the time he reached the chorus "Louisiana, Louisiana, they're tryin' to wash us away. They're tryin' to wash us away," the crowd was standing again, arms raised above their heads, singing along.

Aaron Neville

Aaron Neville

After selling his home, site unseen, in the Eastover subdivision in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina and purchasing a home in Brentwood, Tennessee,  Aaron Neville is moving back to Louisiana, but not to New Orleans.  "I want to get closer to my kids.  For them to come up here, it's a 7 1/2 hour drive."  Mr. Neville has purchased a home an hour and 10 minutes outside New Orleans near Covington in Saint Tammany Parish.  "It's nice.  I can sit outside and watch the sun go down then drive into New Orleans.  It's like a hundred and something feet above sea level.  I don't want to run every time a hurricane comes."   Aaron Neville also didn't want to return to New Orleans because of the memories he shared with his wife Joel who died in January, 2007.  "Me and Joel spent our life there. It would be hard."

What was Aaron's day like in Tennessee?  "I don't go out.  I have a ritual. I work out in the daytime. I used to go to the Starbucks, but I stopped drinking the coffee.  So now I just go pick up a paper at Walgreens and get on back home. That's it."

Courtesy Aaron Neville
Aaron and Joel Neville

Joel and Aaron Neville

Catholic New Orleans singer Aaron Neville was performing in New York when Hurricane Katrina flooded his home in eight feet of water, ruining a career's collection of platinum and gold records and momentos.  His family was able to save his four grammys, although one Aaron Neville grammy was broken.  While watching Hurricane Katrina on television in New York, Aaron Neville said, "I kept asking, 'When is the cavalry going to come and rescue these people?'" 

Mr. Neville has permanently relocated to Nashville, Tennessee, where the weather is better for his asthma.  Although Aaron Neville has performed in dozens of concerts to aid Hurricane Katrina relief, including in France and Italy, when asked if he will ever move back to New Orleans, Mr. Neville responded, "I've got a memory, and I'll leave it at that.  It's a packet of memories.  But the New Orleans I know is not there anymore."

Courtesy Aaron Neville
Aaron and Joel NevilleAaron Neville's wife of 47 years, Joel Neville, was diagnosed with lung cancer in 2004 and was given three months to live. "She's strong.  She's even been going shopping," said Aaron Neville

Aaron Neville has appeared on EWTN performing Catholic hymns and original religious songs, and sang Midnight Mass at Saint Jude's in New Orleans for years.  His new CD Bring It On Home - the Soul Classics was recorded in Nashville and Los Angeles.  Aaron Neville said he holds back a tear when he sings the R & B classic, Ain't no sunshine - Ain't no sunshine when she's gone.  It's not warm when she's away, as he contemplates a future without Joel.

Joel Neville died January 5, 2007.

Sunday, January 28, 2007
By Keith Spera
Music writer for
The Times-Picayune

It was not the homecoming he, or anyone else, wanted.

Aaron Neville was on tour with the Neville Brothers when Hurricane Katrina devastated New Orleans and inundated his home. For 16 months, he stayed away, monitoring the news, absorbing the horror. As he saw it, he couldn't go back.

Following the 2004 New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival, an acute onset of asthma landed him in a hospital. An inhaler is now his constant companion. Despite assurances that the air in the city is no more hostile to asthmatics than it was pre-Katrina, Neville chose not to return.

And he certainly wouldn't bring Joel.

Before the storm, the former Joel Roux, his wife and mother of his four children, battled lung cancer into remission. But her health was still precarious; post-Katrina New Orleans, they decided, was no place for her.

They bought a hilltop house in leafy Brentwood, Tenn., just down the road from Dolly Parton.  Aaron and Joel settled in with her brother and elderly mother, who had lost their own home in Pontchartrain Park. The Nevilles of Nashville.

Aaron celebrated New Orleans across the country. On "The Tonight Show" in Los Angeles.  Onstage with Simon & Garfunkel at Madison Square Garden in New York. With Aretha Franklin at the 2006 Super Bowl in Detroit. On the road with the Neville Brothers.

Everywhere but New Orleans.

Throughout his exile, Aaron and his manager considered when, and how, the singer might return. The longer he waited, the more dramatic such a homecoming would be. They envisioned a public event to demonstrate how Aaron and the brothers still loved the city that made them who and what they are.

But in the end, it was Joel who finally brought Aaron home.

Brought him home to bury her.

Joel (pronounced Jo-EL) Roux grew up Uptown on Burdette Street, the daughter of a golf pro and a public housing administrator.

High achievement runs in the family. Her oldest brother, Dr. Vincent J. Roux, is a surgeon and associate dean of the Howard University College of Medicine in Washington D.C.

During her senior year at Xavier Prep, Joel met Aaron Neville, a 16-year-old boy with an inherent sweetness not completely masked by a menacing exterior.

He first spotted this "cute Creole girl" at a party in May 1957. A few days later, he and Leo Morris, the celebrated jazz drummer later known as Idris Muhammad, were "bippity-bopping" down Valence Street. They crossed paths with the girl from the party, en route to have her prom dress altered. Morris introduced her to his buddy.

Neville was smitten. He courted her. She sang with a group called the Debettes; he showed up to play piano with them at St. Joan of Arc Church and Lincoln Beach amusement park.

The Roux family was not pleased. They expected Joel go to college, not fall for a Walter L. Cohen High School dropout and aspiring singer.

"I don't think they liked that too much," Aaron recalled, chuckling. "They thought she was crazy. But I knew I loved her, and I knew she loved me, so it didn't matter."

The couple married on Jan. 10, 1959. Joel was 18. Aaron was two weeks shy of that mark; his mother signed the marriage license. Years later, the precise date of their wedding slipped from memory. So they celebrated on three consecutive days -- Jan. 10, 11 and 12 -- even after their marriage license resurfaced and confirmed the 10th as their anniversary.

Aaron's young bride enrolled at Xavier University but quit after the couple's first child, Ivan, arrived in August 1959.

Over the next four decades, their marriage endured more steep ups and downs than most.  Aaron possessed a remarkable talent, an angelic voice modeled on cowboy yodelers and soul singers.  But his gift could not overcome the lure of the streets. Juvenile crime and car thefts gave way to more serious offenses and heroin use.

In the early 1960s, Aaron moved to Los Angeles to pursue his singing career. Instead, he was busted during a break-in at a clothing store. He spent a year fighting fires with a jailhouse work gang, then returned to New Orleans.

Joel encouraged his career and that of his youngest brother, Cyril. Years later, Cyril would refer to Joel as "my second mother," a confidant for whom he would audition new songs.

Aaron finally notched a major national hit, "Tell It Like It Is," in 1967, but made no real money.  He worked on the Mississippi River docks, painted houses, dug ditches and drove trucks to
make ends meet.

Frustration mounted, trouble followed and he took solace in drugs. One day in 1972, soon after the arrival of his youngest son, Jason, Aaron returned to an empty house in the 1000 block of Valence Street. Joel had packed up the kids and moved in with her parents in Pontchartrain Park.

"That was about the lowest part of my life," he said. "Besides now." With his life in New Orleans at a dead end, Aaron joined brothers Cyril and Charles in New York. Even from afar, Joel "kept me safe, really," Neville said. "Where I'd normally have done something wrong, maybe I thought about them and I wouldn't do it. So it gave me a purpose."

Finally, after a couple years, he returned to New Orleans. Joel's parents had forbidden her to see him. But he hung out in the park near the Roux house. Ivan would sneak outside and remind his pop of what a beautiful family they used to be.

Aaron secretly contacted Joel, and promised to change.

"I told her I was going to be right, that I wasn't going to be doing the things I was doing, messing with drugs," he recalled. "We got back together, and she stuck with me through the rest. She helped me grow up."

In 1977, Aaron realized his parents' dream and formed a band with his three brothers. The Neville Brothers forged a potent mix of funk, second-line rhythms and chants learned from their uncle, Mardi Gras Indian Big Chief Jolly Landry.

Joel's steady paycheck from Charity Hospital's business department provided stability. By the early 1980s, Aaron was finally making a living from music.

The week of the couple's 25th anniversary, Joel took a cruise with her family. Back home, a lonely Aaron gazed at the full moon as lyrics formed in his head.

"I was missing her. There was a big yellow moon out my window. That's how I got through a lot of things, writing about it. I'd write it, and it would help me out."

He conjured "Yellow Moon" and credited Joel as a co-writer because of her inspiration. The song served as the title track of the Neville Brothers' Grammy-winning 1989 album, considered one of their best.

That same year, Linda Ronstadt invited Aaron to sing on her "Cry Like a Rainstorm, Howl Like the Wind." The album yielded two smash duets, "Don't Know Much" and "All My Life."

Building on that momentum, he relaunched his solo career in 1991 with "Warm Your Heart" and the single "Everybody Plays the Fool," his biggest hit since "Tell It Like It Is."

This time, however, he got paid.

"It was smooth sailing after that," Neville said. "I was able to give Joel things I wasn't able to give her before. She liked to shop. Her and my sister Athelgra were shopping buddies."

Joel and Aaron moved to a ranch-style brick house at the end of an eastern New Orleans cul-de-sac, and Joel retired from Charity. They soon upgraded to a spacious two-story alongside the golf course in the gated Eastover subdivision.

Neville imagined living in that house until he died.

"I always thought Joel would bury me one day. I used to make plans with her, telling her what I wanted. But it didn't work out like that."

In 2004, Joel was diagnosed with inoperable lung cancer. Her prognosis was poor. "The doctors gave her three months," Neville said. "We started praying and doing our novenas. We prayed together every day."

She bore her cross with quiet strength and humor. She also proved to be a tenacious fighter, forcing the cancer into remission with radiation and chemotherapy.

Then Katrina destroyed their home, neighborhood and city. Aaron, on tour in upstate New York at the time, met up with his family in Tennessee, and they resettled outside Nashville.

In the spring of 2006, Joel got sick again. The cancer had invaded her bones and brain.

Aaron doted on her through the long, terrible descent, as the disease laid waste to the woman who had sustained him through his darkest days.

The extended Neville family gathered at the Brentwood house for New Year's Eve and to say goodbye.

As the end drew near, Aaron maintained a vigil at Joel's bedside. He cradled her frail wrists in his hands, his physical strength and fame of no use.

"I couldn't help her," he said. "She was hurting. She prayed for God to come for her. At 2:30 that morning (on Jan. 5), He came and got her."

Joel had made her intentions clear: She wanted to be laid to rest in New Orleans in the family's vault at Mount Olivet Cemetery on Gentilly Boulevard.

So on January 10, his 48th wedding anniversary, Aaron returned to New Orleans for the first time
since Katrina.

Aboard Southwest's 10 a.m. nonstop from Nashville, he focused on a book of Sudoku puzzles, a favorite pastime.  He traveled with Joel's brother, John, and mother, Beatrice Roux Taylor.

Athelgra Neville Gabriel, Aaron's sister and one of Joel's closest friends, picked them up at Louis Armstrong International Airport.  She dropped off Aaron at the downtown Sheraton where he holed up in a 48th floor room with a sweeping view of the Mississippi and downtown. Family and friends stopped by to offer comfort and support.

The next day he ventured out onto the streets of New Orleans for the first time in 16 months.

With his brother-in-law Vincent, he walked a block up Canal Street to Rubenstein Bros. and bought two shirts. He turned onto St. Charles Avenue and stopped at Meyer the Hatter, a Neville family tradition. Aaron's father, "Big" Arthur Neville, and his Uncle Jolly both favored hats from Meyer.

Aaron stocked up on Saints caps, a flat "apple" cap, and a black Dobbs 5th Avenue dutton with a stingy brim.

And then he retreated to the Sheraton.

Along the way strangers offered condolences or asked if he would be singing at that weekend's Saints-Eagles game in the Superdome.

"I'm afraid not," Aaron replied. "I'm not here for the game."

He was not inclined to tour the city's ravaged neighborhoods. His own house in Eastover was gutted and sold without his ever laying eyes on it.

"I don't know if I'll get out or not," he said. "I don't think I want to see it. I've got memories."

Joel loved Our Lady Star of the Sea, a Catholic church in a hardscrabble swath of the 8th Ward. Years ago Aaron painted houses alongside an uncle of Our Lady's priest, Tony Ricard.

During Katrina, 6 feet of water swamped the surrounding neighborhood. Only 2 inches climbed the steps to breach the church itself, which faces St. Roch playground and its rows of FEMA trailers.

On the night of January 12, a street basketball game occupied the nearby corner of St. Roch and North Roman. Blue flashes from patrol cars pierced the amber glow of streetlights lighting the way for hundreds of mourners.

Inside the cavernous domed sanctuary, larger than life figures ascend the wall behind the altar. In 2001 artist Vernon Dobard rendered eight strikingly beautiful angels, women of various races, with long, sensual locks. Some sprinkle flower petals, one strokes a pelican. Above them towers an equally radiant Virgin Mary.

Beneath the angels rested Joel Neville's open casket.

She was laid out in a black ensemble with leopard print trim. Aaron sat alone in the front pew steps from her body. In an embroidered burgundy suit and sunglasses, he clasped hands with passing friends, family, and fellow musicians. The gathering felt like a family reunion.

Finally, Ricard appeared and crossed his chest. "If I do the Sign of the Cross," he said, "most people will be quiet."

In the ensuing service, Ricard explained, there would be no introductions of performers. "We're not having a concert," he said. "We're having a prayer service."

Jazz vocalist Phillip Manuel sang "Come Ye Disconsolate." Jason Neville eulogized his mother with a solo piano tribute titled "An Angel." His uncle, Charles Neville, unspooled a lovely saxophone solo.

Cyril Neville stepped up with a statement Aaron wrote as a raw expression of loss. To read it, Cyril said, "is one of the greatest honors I've had in my life."

With that, he channeled his brother's words:

"I remember the first kiss back in 1957, and I'll never forget our last kiss. I held her head in my hands and was as gentle as I could be. I kissed her eyes, her face, and her hands. I knew I was losing my best friend."

Cyril choked up, then continued through tears.

"She was everything a person could be to another. I still feel her lips on mine. I'll never get over losing her. But I know she's in a better place. She's gone home, and I'll see her again some day."

Aaron sat, head bowed. His sunglasses, removed earlier in the service, were back on.

That week he had stressed that he would not speak or sing: He wanted only to mourn.  So family and friends were stunned when he stood up, signaled the musicians to be silent, and made his way to the lectern.

He recalled meeting Joel on Valence Street, and their flexible wedding anniversary. Then, abruptly, "It's going to be the hardest thing in the world for me to accept that Joel is not there no more."

Words caught in his throat, and he could not continue. He moved toward the casket where Vincent Roux embraced him. He leaned over his wife's body then returned to his seat. His daughter, Ernestine, wrapped an arm around his shoulders.

The next morning Our Lady Star of the Sea filled once again for Joel's funeral Mass.

Aaron arrived at 9 a.m., as his recording of "Take It To the Lord In Prayer" wafted from the church speakers.  A comforting voice that happened to be his own.

The seven surviving members of Joel's pokeno club, including Athelgra, wore pins made out of playing cards.

Art Neville, Aaron's eldest brother, delivered a lovely piano eulogy prompting a "Thanks, Daddy" from daughter Arthel.

She read "To My Lil Joel from Your Big Aaron," one final open letter from Aaron to his wife: "Through it all I've never seen anyone as strong and faithful as you. If I can be half that strong, I'll be all right."

Ricard's upbeat remarks referred to Joel's legendary shopping prowess: "She's going to let us know where the best deals are when we get up there." He imagined Joel sashaying down a line of friends and family in heaven.

After two hours the Rebirth Brass Band, and brothers James and Troy Andrews, led a recessional down the center aisle with a dirge, "Just a Closer Walk With Thee."

Outside, Athelgra orchestrated a brief second line, white handkerchiefs fluttering. Aaron retreated to a waiting limousine.

Thirty minutes later the casket arrived at its final resting place on the second floor of the Mount Olivet mausoleum. The funeral director had called in extra vans to transport dozens of floral arrangements from friends among them Trisha Yearwood, Garth Brooks, Linda Ronstadt, Take 6 and actor John Goodman.

Athelgra was the last to leave after the brief interment ceremony.  She etched names of loved ones into the casket's polished mahogany, a family tradition started 25 years ago for a Neville family aunt who feared someone else might reuse her coffin.

The next day Aaron visited Art's house Uptown -- Art is the only Neville Brother who still calls New Orleans home -- but did not detour into the devastation. The following morning, he flew back to Tennessee.

When he will return to New Orleans again is uncertain. As in 2006 the Neville Brothers have opted not to perform at this year's Jazzfest, a disappointment to many fans. Aaron takes full responsibility.

"I love New Orleans, and I want to come back, but I want to be safe," he said. "I don't want to chance it on the Fair Grounds and get real sick and have to go in the hospital. I've got to take medicine to keep my lungs clear. It's a scary thing."

He encountered no problems during five days in New Orleans for the funeral, but "didn't go nowhere except to the car. I've talked to people that did go places and have a cough."

He hopes to sing in New Orleans again "at some point. Right now I'm not even thinking about it. I'm taking it one minute at a time and going through what I've got to go through. Right now, I'm missing Joel."

He canceled two gigs with the San Diego Symphony scheduled for the weekend after the funeral.  He'll likely avoid solo shows for now.

"With the Nevilles, I have them to take up the slack," he said. "When I'm doing solo stuff, it's on me, and I don't want to cheat nobody if I get emotional and can't perform."

Which is what happened the week before Christmas with the Nashville Symphony his final performance before Joel's death. He broke down during Jimmie Rodgers' country lament "Why Should I Be Lonely."  I got halfway through and couldn't sing no more. It was like recording (his latest CD) 'Bring It On Home: The Soul Classics.' All those songs, like 'Ain't No Sunshine When She's Gone' and 'Stand By Me,' took on new meanings. They turned into prayers."

He plans to be back onstage with the Neville Brothers this spring and anticipates a busy year as 2007 marks the 40th anniversary of "Tell It Like It Is" topping the charts and the 30th anniversary of the Neville Brothers.

The band's manager is sorting through material for a possible CD/DVD box set. The Nevilles may record a new album. There is talk of Aaron collaborating with Linda Ronstadt again.

But in the coming weeks, he'll mostly be at home in Brentwood with John and Beatrice Roux, resting, recuperating, writing, sorting through a lifetime of memories and adjusting to the massive void left by Joel's passing.

"I have good moments and bad moments," he said. "But I'm learning to make all of them good moments. If I'm crying, it's a good cry."

Ultimately he anticipates one final trip to New Orleans to Mount Olivet Cemetery. Where Joel is.

"Because that's where I'm going to be buried," he said. "With her."

Reprinted with permission

Music writer Keith Spera can be reached at or (504) 826-347




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