Back in 1985 the producer Joel Dorn took Aaron Neville into a New Orleans studio to record the five tracks that became a mini-album titled Orchid in the Storm. The chosen songs – and there were six of them, since two were conjoined in a medley – were all drawn from the classic repertoire of 1950s and early ’60s doo-wop and early R&B, giving the third of the four Neville brothers, who was born in 1941, a chance to revisit the sounds of his youth.
First issued on vinyl by A&M and repackaged as a CD by Rhino five years later, Orchid in the Storm remains an absolute beauty: the tremulous purity of Aaron’s voice is exposed to its very best advantage on tender treatments of Johnny Ace’s “Pledging My Love”, the Impressions’ “For Your Precious Love”, the medley of Gene and Eunice’s “This Is My Story” and Robert and Johnny’s “We Belong Together”, and the Penguins’ “Earth Angel”. Dorn’s sparing use of modern instrumental textures – a Fender-Rhodes piano, a lightly flanged electric guitar – is beautifully judged, providing a platform over which that unearthly falsetto voice floats with wonderful grace.
The best part of two decades later, can Don Was and Keith Richards pull off the same trick? At the beginning of his eighth decade, does Aaron still have the vocal chops to do anything more than remind us of former glories? Like its predecessor, My True Story assembles a bunch of classic songs from the same time period, this time arranged and performed more or less in the style of the originals, with Richards playing rhythm guitar in a band that also includes Benmont Tench, a vital ingredient in these projects, on Hammond organ.
For me, it doesn’t have the magic of the earlier recording, perhaps partly because the material is more varied. the album begins with the brusque swing of “Money Honey” – the first of four songs associated with the Drifters — before switching to the tearstained doo-wop of the Jive Five’s “My True Story” (possibly my all-time favourite doo-wop song) and then to a version of “Ruby Baby” closer to Dion’s than to the Drifters’ original. That’s how it continues, and it’s all very nicely done, from the Impressions’ “Gypsy Woman” through Little Anthony’s “Tears on My Pillow” and the Ronettes’ “Be My Baby” to a lovely all-Drifters medley of “This Magic Moment” and “True Love”.
No, Aaron’s voice doesn’t quite soar as it once did. But he and the band and the material are more than good enough to make you feel that if you walked into a bar one night and this was what the house band sounded like, you might never want to leave.