Aaron Neville already has three Grammys, but when Devotion his first all-gospel album was nominated this year for Best Traditional Soul Gospel Album, it meant something special.
"It was something near and dear to my heart, something I'd wanted to do for a long time," Neville said of the album, which includes gospel standards alongside covers of Cat Stevens' version of the hymn "Morning Has Broken" and Simon and Garfunkel's "Bridge Over Troubled Water."
Neville said he'd been trying to convince A&M Records to let him record a gospel collection for years. Then, in 1998, the label released him as part of the shakeup when Seagram took over PolyGram, A&M's parent company.
It turned out to be a blessing in disguise for Neville, even though he had released the well-received To Make Me Who I Am in 1997. He financed the album himself and released it on Tell It Records/EMI Gospel.
"I figure that if the door closes, the window opens," Neville said from his home in New Orleans. "When I became a free agent, I figured now was the time.
"I'd had the songs in my mind for years," he continued. " 'Mary, Don't You Weep,' my boys and I used to sing that all the time. I had a gospel group back in the 1970s. We never recorded, but we used to get off on rehearsing, just trying to sound like Sam Cooke and the boys, or Claude Jeter."
When he set out to record "Mary, Don't You Weep," in fact, he went for Jeter's version with the Swan Silvertones rather than the better-known version Cooke did with the Soul Stirrers. "I did it like Jeter done it, with all the high notes," he said. "I don't know if I got as high as he did, but I tried."
He said he picked "Morning Has Broken" because it helped him get through one of the toughest periods in his life, a stretch in the 1970s when he was a heavy drug user. "I was in New York at the time, and I was suffering. I was in that zone. That song kept me going," he said.
Neville, 63, and his brothers Art, Cyril and Charles last year released an oral autobiography, "Brothers," a book full of stories of violence, drug use and crime. He said they decided to tell their own stories while they were still alive, before someone else came along and put out a different version.
"It was emotional," Neville said of the interviews he did with author David Ritz. "It brings you right back to the places and the scenes. It was like a rollercoaster; all the emotions you can think of, you're gonna have 'em."
One of the incidents in the book helped Neville prepare for his small role in the upcoming HBO movie "Boycott," about the 1955 Montgomery, Alabama, bus boycott. Neville plays a crowd member outside Martin Luther King Jr.'s house, just after it was bombed.
"The line I say, 'If you hit my brother again, we're all gonna die,' is something I said to a police officer in an alley once," Neville said. "He had just hit Cyril over the head with a flashlight. I had to do my part over and over again, and I kept seeing it."
But Neville knows that to find salvation, you first have to be open about the reality of your life, no matter how brutal. "Otherwise, you're just fooling yourself and everybody else," he said.
Neville is already choosing songs for his next album, which will be another spiritual collection. So far, it's heavy on Soul Stirrers classics from the Sam Cooke era, such as "Wonderful" and "I'm So Glad (Trouble Don't Last Always)," and from the lineup led by Cooke's replacement, Johnnie Taylor ("The Love of God" and "Out on a Hill").
Also, he and his brothers are writing songs for the next Neville Brothers album.
Neville said the Grammy nomination surprised him, as the album came out less than a week before the October 1 cutoff date. "They must have been waiting for it," he said with a laugh.
Neville isn't sure if he's going to attend the ceremony. He's already won twice for duets with Linda Rondstadt ("Don't Know Much" in 1989, "All My Life" in 1990) and once for a collaboration with Trisha Yearwood ("I Fall to Pieces" in 1994).
"They asked me to sing, but if that doesn't work out, I might just stay home," he said.