On the memory-lane reverie of his elegant new album of doo-wop classics, Aaron Neville sings about things sweeter than wine and softer than a summer’s night. This Magic Moment – a song composed by Doc Pomus and Mort Shuman that was a hit for the Drifters in 1960 – is about charming things lasting forever. It’s wishful, of course, perhaps even folly. People change, fashions change – song styles change.
Doo-wop, that vocal-group thing of street-corner smoothies and an early companion to rock ’n’ roll, is the top-down T-bird of popular music. There is a generation of people who were teenagers when it happened. Neville, 72, is one of them, as is Keith Richards, the grizzled cockroach-outlaster who co-produced Neville’s My True Story along with Don Was, who spends an awful amount of his time these days with the Rolling Stones.
The challenge to making a doo-wop album in 2013 is to bring something fresh to the quaint pop genre – making that magic moment, as it were, “so different and so new.” What’s special here, of course, is Neville, he of the bobbing warble and serene sense of phrasing. And so, on Tears on my Pillow, Neville’s voice is vulnerable and reserved, in contrast to the boyishly bright croon of Little Anthony on the original. And where the Ronettes’ Veronica Bennett (later known as Ronnie Spector) pleaded grandly on 1963’s Be My Baby, Neville’s feathery request for companionship is softer and much less demanding.
The idea behind the project is that doo-wop is the bedrock soundtrack to the history of Neville. “I attended the university of doo-wop-ology,” he has said. “It’s just part of me …” The shang-a-lang school Neville refers to is not an accredited institution, but we can say that its staff was formidable, with instructors that included the Moonglows, the Clovers and the Platters, and the ornithology-minded Penguins, Orioles and Flamingos. (The school parking lot was, apparently, full of the Edsels, the Cadillacs, the Fleetwoods, the Impalas and the Imperials.)
Some of the surviving singers of the era were brought in for background vocals, but the stars behind Neville are the superb band members Benmont Tench (whose organ supports but never crowds Neville on This Magic Moment), bassist Tony Scherr, Dylan drummer George G. Receli and guitarists Greg Leisz and Richards himself, who tosses in a stylish riffed solo on Ruby Baby.
The original plan called for an all-ballads album, but there’s some rocking R&B here, even if the groove is relaxed on something like the sh’bopping boogie of Money Honey.
In an online video (Making of My True Story), Richards speaks fondly of doo-wop, but it was the Stones and other British Invasion bands that helped bring an end to the genre’s popularity. Doo-wop had its day, but it is long the stuff of nostalgia now. Which is okay. Frankie Lymon may be dead, but there are always teenagers around (even if just at heart).
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