On the face of it, Linda Ronstadt and Aaron Neville couldn’t be more dissimilar. She’s a pale, diminutive Arizonan of Mexican and German heritage. He’s a dark, barrel-chested Louisianan, an African-American steeped in the rich musical traditions of New Orleans. At 44, Ronstadt has sold millions of albums as a rock singer and tackled an array of musical genres, from heavily orchestrated pop to country-western to Mexican mariachi to light operetta. At 49, Neville has been more successful with critics than record buyers, consistently producing, as part of the Neville Brothers, the sinuous funk that has made New Orleans R&B famous. These distinctions are forgotten, however, once Ronstadt and Neville begin to sing together. Something magical happens when Ronstadt’s buttermilk soprano meets Neville’s creamy falsetto. ”We don’t sing the same style at all,” Ronstadt says, ”but when we sing up high together we just blend.”
Those sweet harmonies soared to unexpected heights last year. Ronstadt and Neville recorded four duets for her solo album Cry Like a Rainstorm — Howl Like the Wind and became the First Couple of pop music. In 10 months Cry has sold nearly two million copies, and three of the Ronstadt-Neville tunes have been chart hits: ”Don’t Know Much,” which peaked at No. 2 before winning a Grammy for the duo in February, ”All My Life,” and ”When Something Is Wrong With My Baby.”
Since then the collaboration has deepened. Ronstadt is making her debut as a producer on Neville’s upcoming solo album, half of which was recorded in New Orleans this spring. And last week Ronstadt and Neville were reunited in concert, on her first rock & roll tour since 1981. Neville is singing duets with Ronstadt on the tour, as well as performing with the Neville Brothers as her opening act.
Ronstadt has been an Aaron Neville fan for a long time, but she didn’t meet him until 1984. ”I was in New Orleans singing with Nelson Riddle,” she remembers, ”and we went to see the Neville Brothers — what else do you do when you’re in New Orleans?” Neville dedicated a song to Ronstadt and invited her onstage to sing along on a doo-wop medley. ”I was just sort of oohing on top,” she says. Afterward, she asked for Neville’s autograph. ”She told me, ‘I’ll sing with you and record with you anytime,”’ says Neville. Getting into the studio was easier said than done. Despite frequent attempts to coordinate their busy schedules, Ronstadt and Neville didn’t manage to record together until last year.
Choosing songs for the duets proved nearly as difficult. Ronstadt won’t record any type of music she wasn’t familiar with ”by the time I was five or six,” she says. ”That’s what I can authentically express. I’ve had a lifetime to use it and have it go through my neurological patterns and mean something in my life.” As the variety of her work in the ’80s indicates, she did a lot of listening when she was a kid. After an extensive search for material that would be true to both herself and Neville, Ronstadt called upon a variety of composers — a California singer-songwriter, British pub-rockers, New York songsmiths, and old-fashioned soul masters — for four tender love songs.
For the Neville solo album, Ronstadt studied the music of New Orleans. ”Aaron asked me to help him find material,” she says before launching into a discussion of his hometown. Ronstadt speaks eagerly of the blend of French, Spanish, and West African cultures in the Crescent City, and tosses off references to the importance of music in such rituals as Mardi Gras. At times she even sounds like a musicologist: ”I’m convinced that (New Orleans singer- pianist) Professor Longhair is the beginning of rock & roll.” While scouting for Neville tunes, Ronstadt has also been researching her next two solo projects: a second album of mariachi music and an album of big-band R&B, à la Ray Charles’ ”Drown in My Own Tears.”
Neville wants his new album to remain true to his New Orleans roots, while flexing some musical muscles away from his family band. ”There’s a lot of stuff inside of me that I want to get out,” he says. The religious song ”Ave Maria,” for example, is something that he can sing in the bathtub, but not in the middle of a funky Neville Brothers show. As producer, Ronstadt says, ”I’m trying to serve two masters, because I would like to make a record that could get played on the radio. But I’ve never made any of my records that way.”
Ronstadt hopes that the Neville solo album will be a commercial success because he’s never made much money from his recordings. ”Even when ‘Tell It Like It Is’ was a big hit (No. 2 in 1967), he was loading coffee into ships,” she says. Ronstadt also wants him to become famous: ”I’m surprised when people say I uncovered this man. It never occurred to me that housewives in Cincinnati have never heard of him. I thought I was following on his coattails.” Neville’s guest appearance on her album introduced him to more listeners. The Grammy Awards, which included a Ronstadt-Neville performance just before they won, also helped. ”It was one of the greatest feelings in the world,” Neville remembers. ”I was thinking about all the people back home. I felt like I was winning it for New Orleans.”
Maybe that sounds sentimental, but that’s the way Neville sings. ”Sometimes I want to make it so tender it can wipe out anything negative in people’s lives,” he says. When Neville sang the theme from The Mickey Mouse Club on Stay Awake, a 1988 Disney tribute album, he made that sappy number a heartbreaker. ”It makes me feel like a child when I’m doing it,” he says.
Neville follows his instincts, and so does Ronstadt. ”Music for me is the personal thing that goes on in my living room, or someone else’s living room, or when my hands are in the dishwater,” she says. ”It’s something I do to organize the more chaotic aspects of my life into something meaningful. It’s how I try to understand life. When I was a little child, I didn’t wonder if anybody was listening.”
Neville isn’t surprised that he and Ronstadt have harmonized successfully. For him, the differences between them aren’t great at all. ”I think our singing together was meant to be,” he says. ”We have the same type of heart.”