Aaron Neville Makes Doo-Wop Magic With Don Was, Benmont Tench, and Keith Richards


“As a kid growing up in New Orleans, the song ‘Work With Me Annie’ was everywhere. It was an anthem back in those days,” legendary singer Aaron Neville says of the original version of one of the tracks on his latest album, My True Story. “I remember hanging around the sweet shop with my friends as a kid, and it was always on. It was hard to get it out of your head!”

Doo-wop is the most immediate forbear of American rock ’n’ roll, and on his star-studded new album, Neville revisits timeless doo-wop tracks with the help of famed producer Don Was, Rolling Stones guitarist Keith Richards, and Heartbreakers keyboardist Benmont Tench. On the entire album, Neville and company strike an artful balance of reinvention and reverence, infusing protean classics with gritty grooves and ensemble interplay. A few weeks before the album’s release Neville, Was, and Tench spoke about its inspiration and creative process.


What was it about making a doo-wop record with Aaron Neville that excited you?

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Don Was: Aaron wanted to do an album of the songs he grew up singing. No matter what generation you’re from, you’re always partial to those songs, because they’re the ones that inspired you to have a career in music in the first place. But by the time you’re old enough to record them, there’s another kind of music that’s popular. So Aaron was never really able to make a pure doo-wop record. It was an intriguing challenge to do so and not just make a derivative, Karaoke-style album. Bringing Keith Richards on board to co-produce certainly helped. When I produced the Rolling Stones’ album Voodoo Lounge, I lived in a hotel room directly above Keith’s room. So I know firsthand the affinity he has for doo-wop—he listened to the Jive Five for six weeks straight! [Laughs.]

So you called Keith first?

DW: Yeah. I said, “Let’s do this together.” So we agreed to co-produce the album, with him on guitar. I knew that Keith isn’t interested in imitation—in fact, he’s diametrically opposed to it. Keith won’t learn the guitar parts from the original record and just play them back to you. He’ll understandthe feeling that was there and then create something new.

Why is the track “Work With Me Annie” such a centerpiece of the album for all of you?

Aaron Neville: I was around 12 years old and living in the Calliope housing projects in New Orleans. My brother Art worked at a place called Tickles Record Shop and he’d bring lots of records home. That’s when I first heard Hank Ballard and the Midnighters’ “Work With Me Annie.” They didn’t want to play it on the radio because the lyrics were too sexy, which is ironic because most things on the radio today are so racy, you need to plug your ears! At that age, I had no idea what “Work With Me Annie” meant. It was just a cool dance song. Later, they recorded a sequel called “Annie Had a Baby,” with the lyrics, “Annie had a baby, she can’t work no more!” [Laughs.]

DW: “Work With Me Annie” isn’t only a seminal record— it’s a seminal keyboard record. Everybody talks about how racy the lyrics were for their time, and how the song was a forbear of suggestive rock music. It’s often cited as being one of the earliest rock ’n’ roll records, even though it’s slightly pre-rock ’n’ roll, coming out in 1954. But one of the really important features of the song is the piano playing by Sonny Thompson. He played on a lot of early James Brown records, and other things for the King Records label. Sonny was at least a year ahead of what [pianist] Johnnie Johnson was doing on Chuck Berry’s first record, in terms of applying boogie-woogie piano to rock ’n’ roll. So his piano part on the song is incredibly significant.

Benmont Tench: I heard that song as a teenager, on a compilation of ’50s music. I just loved the feel of it. So playing it with Aaron and [drummer] George Receli, who are such deep musicians and come by that feel naturally, along with everybody else on the record like Keith and [guitarist] Greg Leisz was just remarkable. I was overjoyed to be part of it.

Aaron, between you first hearing “Work With Me Annie” as a kid and now recording it for the new album, did you perform it live?

AN: I mostly performed it on duet gigs, and I’d tell the audience the story of how I learned it. But I never recorded it before. When I brought up the idea of including it on the album, Don immediately said, “We’ve gotta do that song.” Keith said the same thing—it’s almost like he and I grew up on the same block, because we both listened to the same things growing up.

How did you go about re-interpreting it in the studio?

AN: We were trying to bring the song up to date, but at the same time be true to the spirit of where it came from. I always liked Hank Ballard’s voice and the harmonies in the song. So when we got into the studio, I tried to peg up the groove a bit, because the original version really lays back on the beat. I showed George the groove I was thinking about by motioning to him with my whole body. And he picked it right up. It was really about giving the song an attitude.

DW: I remember that the instant before we started recording the song, Aaron looked at George, and there was a “New Orleans moment.” Aaron did a sort of strut and a handclap that suggested a New Orleans rhythm. That kind of thing is second nature to George—he knew exactly what Aaron was talking about. We didn’t do any rehearsals. I think we even used the first take on the album.

That one rhythmic change puts the song in a totally different place. It’s what you hope a remake will be—fresh but familiar.

DW: Totally. It’s a doo-wop song, so we kept the lead and background vocals almost identical to the original. But in the moment, the groove went New Orleans on us!

I’ll tell you a story—when I met Leon Russell for the first time in the 1990s, I asked him, “What’s the difference between making records today and making them in the ’50s and ’60s?” He told me, “In the ’60s, if you handed in your album and someone from the record company said, ‘Oh. I love it. It reminds of this artist,’ those were fighting words. You could punch your A&R guy for saying that. In the last couple of decades, if you can’t go to your record company and say, ‘This album is a cross between this artist and that artist,’ the label won’t know what to do with it. It’s all about demonstrating precedent for the marketing department.”

Another facet of “Work With Me Annie” is Benmont’s rollicking piano solo. How did that come to fruition?

DW: Benmont heard what George was doing rhythmically, and about 12 seconds into his solo, he went “Professor Longhair” on it. His solo is absolutely riveting. While he was playing, everyone in the studio stopped and stared. He’s an extremely versatile musician who has absorbed many styles. I’ve been making records and playing live with him for over 30 years, but I’ve never heard him play like that! It just came out of him.

BT: It does come from Professor Longhair and the rhythm of New Orleans in general. For me, it’s a push-pull feel that really depends on the rhythm section. And the rhythm section on Aaron’s record swung like crazy! They understood that kind of rhythm-and-blues, “second line” New Orleans groove. [Pianist and session musician] Larry Knechtel was a big influence on me as well. He played piano on Johnny Rivers’ version of “Rockin’ Pneumonia.” That’s where I first heard that kind of feel, long before I went to New Orleans and started getting into Doctor John, the Meters, and the great piano players Toots Washington and Allen Toussaint. Then, the way that Aaron sings makes you react rhythmically. You don’t want to get in the way of that voice. You want to spend as much time listening as you do playing, because it’s so pleasurable.

I have to say that solo was almost a complete accident. I was like, “I’m taking a solo? Damn!” It was kind of like my fingers stumbled over each other in places and we ended up with that solo. I wasn’t in charge of it—it took control of itself! But I can’t emphasize enough that that record made itself because of Aaron. He started singing, George understood it, and then Keith and Greg locked in, and we were rolling.

AN: Benmont went back to that song’s era with his solo, just like everyone in the band did. You can hear the smiles come through the record—that’s how much fun all of us had making it.

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Don, can you talk about why Benmont is still considered the gold standard when it comes to taste at rock keyboards?

DW: Benmont’s playing amazes on a number of different levels—from the practical to the magical. First of all, he is one of the most tasteful musicians you’ll ever hear, and he’s the exact opposite of a show-off. Not a note he plays is designed to draw attention to him. He plays to support the music at hand. Secondly, he’s listened to a whole lot of things, and he has a knack for making different styles his own. Though his solo on “Work With Me Annie” was influenced by Professor Longhair, it didn’t sound like him. It’sBenmont’s take on that sound, and because it’s coming naturally to him, it’s every bit as authentic as the original.

The third thing that Benmont does that’s totally mystical and not something you can teach is that he has a natural instinct for where to lend support without getting in the way. That’s the biggest danger for keyboard players. If you start playing notes where the singer is singing, what’s the singer going to do? If the singer phrases a certain way and it clashes with what the keyboard player is doing, then it sounds like the singer has no rhythm. Willie Nelson is a good example of that. For years, people thought he had no sense of time. They threw him out of Nashville because he didn’t fit their rigid musical formula. But as soon as he got to Austin and got a band that left space for him to sing in, people realized he was a phrasing genius. Benmont is always anticipating where the singer is going and staying out of his or her way. So he’s tremendously supportive, and on top of that, he always comes up with an emotional component that cuts straight through to your heart. He’s as gifted a musician as I’ve ever met.

BT: I’ve just always loved that kind of playing. Also, Denny Cordell, who produced the first few Heartbreakers records, along with Tom Petty and [Heartbreakers guitarist] Mike Campbell, taught me how to play around vocals and guitars. I’ve never wanted to be anything but part of an ensemble. You have to be aware, and you have to pay attention, but you also have to get into a zone where you’re not totally conscious. You have to let the song play itself. Someone once wrote, “When you’re playing, listen to everybody except yourself.” It’s such good advice but so damned hard to do, especially when you take solo. It’s a very Zen thing.

Aaron, what is it about songs from the doo-wop era that still affects you today?

AN: Maybe it’s because when I listen to them and sing them, it takes me back to my youth and my innocence. I can still remember what I was doing back then—who I was with, and that sense of adventure and possibility you have as a kid. That kid inside me never left.

Don Was on Tape versus Digital

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Photo by Gabi Porter.

“There’s no question that there’s an incredible sound to two-inch tape,” says Blue Note Records President Don Was, who co-produced Aaron Neville’s My True Story with Keith Richards. “In fact, we mixed the album to tape out of Pro Tools. Tape does provide a glue of sorts—it’s like a Jell-o mold that warms things up. But it’s really about how you usethe tools at your disposal.

“When I produced John Mayer’s Born and Raised, John and his engineer Chad Franscoviak thought the album needed to go to two-inch tape to sound organic, but they’d never recorded to tape before. But Chad, like a lot of great young engineers, had already come up with his own method for adding warmth to Pro Tools. I’m not saying you can make digital sound identical to tape, but you can use plug-ins to bring that kind of warmth to a mix. So on John Mayer’s album, when Chad used his process and then added two-inch tape on top of that, along with recording through a vintage Neve console, it was just way too dark. So we dispensed with tape after the second day, and it turned out to be a great sounding record. Any advantage we would have gotten from tape, we’d already compensated for digitally.”