By Jason Berry, Reprinted by permission of NCR Publishing Company www.NCROnline.org
(Editor’s Note: The International Shrine of St. Jude and Our Lady of Guadalupe Church in New Orleans are ministries of the Missionary Oblates of Mary Immaculate)
On a balmy afternoon in 1979, I interviewed New Orleans rhythm-and-blues singer Aaron Neville under his favored tree by the Audubon Park lagoon. He came ambling down the park road in gym shorts, track shoes and a tank top, looking more like a fullback than a vocalist raised on doo-wop who loved singing “Ave Maria.”
Of the dagger tattoo covering his left cheek, he said freely, “Some people see me and think I look thuggish.” In the next breath he spoke about his daily prayers and reliance on St. Jude. With a fleeting reference to the shackles of a drug addiction, he said, “Believe me, bro, I was a hopeless case.”
The International Shrine of St. Jude occupies a corner of Our Lady of Guadalupe Church on N. Rampart Street in New Orleans. At the time of that long-ago interview, Neville took Jonathan Foose, my colleague on a book project, to the shrine. Foose, a lanky chap raised in the big house on a Mississippi delta plantation, was awestruck at the burning candles and sounds of some people sobbing as they prayed. Neville nudged him: “You got to kneel for the dude, Jude.” Foose, raised an Episcopalian, got down on his knees on the marble floor next to Neville.
Quite a number of musicians have found their way to the shrine. One of them, pianist A.J. Loria, oversaw the recording of “Midnight at St. Jude’s“, a Mass featuring Neville and Loria, along with Allen Toussaint, Mighty Sam McClain, Lady B.J. and Edgar Blanchard. All of those artists have since passed away, save for Neville, now 82.
St. Jude’s role in Neville’s life flickers through his new memoir, Tell It Like It Is: My Story. The acknowledgements’ first line reads: “I want to first thank the Lord Jesus and St. Jude Thaddeus, the saint of impossible and hopeless cases.” Roughly half of the book recounts in graphic detail his years of addiction, the strange ritual attraction of heroin, collisions with cops, stretches behind bars and the unstinting love of his wife, Joel — pronounced Jo-el. He was 18 when they married, their first baby on the way. She died of cancer shortly before their 48th anniversary.