THIS YEAR is shaping up as a milestone for Aaron Neville. The three-time Grammy-winning singer turned 75 in January, marked the 50th anniversary of his breakthrough hit, "Tell It Like It Is," and released Apache, his first solo album for which he cowrote most of the songs.
Since the early 1960s, Neville has occasionally composed songs for his solo work and with the Neville Brothers, the band he fronted with his siblings Art, Charles, and Cyril. He took it a step further with Apache, writing or cowriting 10 of the 11 songs on the CD, with help from collaborators Eric Krasno, the album's producer, and Dave Gutter.
"I've had the idea to do an album of my own songs for a while," he said in a recent phone interview. "I've been writing poetry on my iPhone and published a limited-edition book of poetry in 2009."
The songs include the social commentary of "Ain't Gonna Judge You" and the ecological warning of "Fragile World," a recitation with echoes of Marvin Gaye's classic album What's Goin' On. Neville also shows his versatility with the New Orleans-style funk of "Stompin Ground," a celebration of his hometown; the gospel-tinged "Heaven"; and the romantic ballads "Orchid in the Storm" and "Sarah Ann."
Throughout the album, Neville demonstrates the vocal control, peerless falsetto, and exquisite phrasing that have been the hallmarks of his sound.
"Make Your Momma Cry" has a hint of autobiography in its warning to young people. "That could be me talking to the young Aaron," says Neville, who served time as a youth for auto theft.
The album title is another reference to his younger days.
"Apache was my nickname growing up as a teenager," he says. "When I was in my late teens, in the summer I'd be out front, and my skin color would turn red."
The CD package includes a photograph of him with the word Apache tattooed across his broad shoulders. It's a detailed tattoo that incorporates tomahawks, feathers, and arrowheads into the letters, a proud acknowledgment of his Native American heritage.
Neville draws inspiration from vocalists across the musical spectrum, starting with his oldest brother. "I'd never be a singer if Artie hadn't been a singer," he wrote in The Brothers, the siblings' 2001 autobiography.
Other inspirations came from a variety of sources.
"My mom liked Nat King Cole. As a boy, I would go to the movies and see Roy Rogers and Gene Autry and hear them sing," Neville says. He also cites Clyde McPhatter, Curtis Mayfield, Sam Cooke, and Pookie Hudson of the Spaniels as influences.
"Over You," Neville's debut single, was written and produced by Allen Toussaint and cracked the Top 40 of the R&B charts in 1960. "Tell It Like It Is" was a No. 2 single nationally, but Neville didn't immediately recognize its merits.
"At the time I recorded it, I thought it was just another song," he says. He credits Art with putting him straight. "He kept saying, 'That's it. That's it.' "
The song has been a fixture of his concerts over the last half-century and will be celebrated Thursday, along with his birthday, at a special show at New York's Apollo Theater. "I don't get tired of singing it," he says. "It's my signature song."
Looking forward, Neville has other projects he'd like to tackle. "I've never done a blues album. I grew up singing Ray Charles and Jimmy Reed.
"I'd also like to do a country album." It's a genre he has periodically explored, having recorded songs by George Jones ("The Grand Tour") and Jimmie Rodgers ("Why Should I Be Lonely"). And he shared a Grammy in 1995 with Trisha Yearwood for their duet of Patsy Cline's "I Fall to Pieces."
It's clear Neville isn't keeping an eye on the calendar.
"Age and numbers are a concept made up by man," he says, adding with a chuckle, "I may only be 38."