Soul Survivor

updated 08/19/1991 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 08/19/1991 AT 01:00 AM EDT

AARON NEVILLE SPORTS A TINY GOLD medal dangling from his left ear and another on a gold chain around his neck. Each bears the image of Saint Jude, the patron saint of hopeless causes—which is how Neville has often seen himself. "Jude, the Saint of the Impossible," says the New Orleans-based singer, who credits the saint with turning his life around. "I feel like I'm a miracle."

If Saint Jude is indeed responsible, he probably had to work overtime. Today Neville, 50, is a hotshot solo artist possessed of an ethereal, inimitable tenor that legions of fans regard as a national treasure. Says Bonnie Raitt: "He's one of the most incredible singers I've ever heard." Linda Ronstadt dispensed with qualifiers altogether and called him simply "the best singer I've ever heard." Last year Neville had two big singles, "Don't Know Much" and "All My Life," both duets with pal Ronstadt. This year his romantic solo album, Warm Your Heart, is climbing the charts.

But many of his other credits are not nearly so glamorous. Among them: two prison terms, a 10-year heroin addiction and 20 years of backbreaking manual labor, including digging ditches and unloading freighters on Louisiana docks. "It was hard watching him suffer, knowing he had this great talent and he wasn't being heard," says Joel (pronounced Jo-el), his wife of 32 years. Perhaps even more remarkable than Neville's thriving career is his similarly robust marriage. Joel's faith in him was the key to preserving the union. "People kept telling him how well he could sing," says Joel. "I kepi telling him he was the greatest. I figured if I thought so, one day the rest of the world would realize it too." Aside from belief in Aaron's talent, they had a couple of oilier things going for them. "We have a lot in common," Joel adds. "We're always laughing together. And then there's love. We're strictly in love."

Faith, of the religious variety, was instrumental in his kicking drugs. A devout Catholic who is particularly drawn to that religion's mystical elements, Neville says he hasn't touched heroin, or any other drug, since 1972. "I stalled praying to Saint Jude," he says simply. "That got rid of it." These days he spends his spare time lifting weights. "My high now is going to the gym and trying to put on years instead of taking them off," he says. At 6' and 230 lbs., he can bench-press nearly as much as he weighs.

Neville is grateful for his second chance at the big time. A high school dropout—he quit halfway through his senior year to marry Joel and lake a job as a pin boy in a bowling alley to support their soon-to-be-born son—Neville was serving six months in a Louisiana prison for stealing a car by the time he was 17. "They had eight people in a cell designed to hold four," he remembers. "People sleeping all in the dayroom. Rats running over everything." Soon after his release, Neville moved for a while to Los Angeles, where his heroin use escalated; he spent another year in prison for burglary.

Through it all lie held onto his childhood dream of making music. "I remember singing my way into basketball games, movie houses and swimming pools when I was about 8 or 9 years old," he says. At 15, he had a regular gig singing with a blind band in the French Quarter and later performed in groups started up by older brothers Art and Charles. He had also had a brief brush with solo success with 1966's "Tell It Like It Is," but—as was not uncommon with inexperienced musical acts in those years—the singer saw meager royalties, and Aaron soon found himself back on the docks. "There were some hard times," remembers his son Aaron Jr., now 29, the second of four children (the others are Ivan, 32, Ernestine, 28, and Jason, 19). "We were eating mayonnaise sandwiches. And we didn't have a refrigerator. We had an ice chest."

After Aaron's mother's death in 1975 (his father, Arthur, died in 1967), Aaron, Art, Charles and younger brother Cyril decided to reunite, performing their own brand of Mardi Gras music as the Neville Brothers. Local heroes in New Orleans, they got a boost in 1984 when Aaron and Linda Ronstadt sang a few doo-wop oldies at a Nevilles' concert in the Big Easy. "I thought our voices sounded really good together," she told reporters. "So did he." And so began their collaboration.

For Neville, the hard times are all behind him. He finds he even enjoys the constant grind of touring. "I can think of worse things to do," he says. "Like loading ships." He and Joel live in a modest, four-bedroom tract house in the middle-class black New Orleans neighborhood called the East, and Joel, who works at the state-run Charity Hospital in the city, frequently meets her husband while he's on tour. They are, he says, as close as ever. "After 32 years; we raised each other," Neville says. "You got to look over petty stuff."

And despite his solo success, Aaron remains close to his brothers as well, vowing he won't quit the Neville Brothers. "They're my tribe," he explains. "I feel like wherever I go, they got to go, you know. I haven't made it until they done made it."

RON RIDENHOUR in New Orleans

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