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Aaron Neville: A blessed voice

(CBS News) Aaron Neville's path through life has been anything but easy, as he tells Anthony Mason . . . For The Record:

Aaron Neville has one of the most distinctive voices in American music, which he describes as a mixture: "When I'm singing it's a mixture of my innocence in the projects, my Mom and Dad. It's all the good and the bad, the laughs and the frowns that I went through and seen other people go through. Then you be trying to write it. Whatever's coming out, you try and make it all cool."

That voice is widely-admired, and often imitated. Beyonce did her version on "The Tyra Banks Show."

"That's cool, man," Neville said of her impression.

Neville is one of the greatest singers of all time, says renowned producer Don Was, who's worked with the Rolling Stones, Van Morrison and Bob Dylan.

"It's like French cooking," Was said. "You've got a few flavors going on at once. There's definitely this sweet creamy overtone to the thing, but it's deeply soulful. There's nobody else sings like him."

Was co-produced Neville's latest solo record, the singer's 13th -- an album of classic Doo-Wop songs that Neville says he's long wanted to record:

Click here to listen to sample tracks from Aaron Neville's "My True Story" on iTunes.

"What brought you back to Doo Wop?" Mason asked.

"I never left Doo Wop," Neville said. "Doo Wop was in my blood all my life. Everything I've done you can hear some kind of Doo Wop influences."

Neville grew up in the Calliope Projects of New Orleans. "My brothers and I would sit out on the park bench and harmonize," he said.

As a boy he'd trek over to the Gem Movie Theater, where he'd sing for the box office lady in exchange for free admission.

"Something like, 'Mona Lisa, Mona Lisa men have named you. You're so like the lady with the mystic smile.'"

"Did it work every time?" Mason asked.

"Every time!"

Web extra: Click on the video player below to watch artist James Michalopoulos as he reveals to Aaron Neville the painting he'd created of the singer for the 2013 New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival.

And the movies he saw ended up being influential, including the yodeling in the cowboy movies of Roy Rogers and Gene Autry.

Another landmark in his life was the New Orleans Parish Prison, where he spent six months. He was 16 or 17 when he was busted for joyriding.

"It was just too easy to steal cars back in them days," Neville said. "All you needed was the silver paper on a cigarette pack, put it behind three screws on the ignition and put it in neutral and start it. So it was really tempting."

But Neville would write his first record inside, a song called, "Every Day":

Every day along about noon
Oh, how I'm dreaming of the day that I'll be home soon
And every day along about one
Oh, how I remember how we used to have fun. And every day along about two
Whoa, how I'm so lonely in a world so blue
And every day now along about three
When I'm dreaming of a day that I'll be free ...

It was his first recording, in 1960. Six years later, Neville would have his breakthrough hit, "Tell It Like It Is."

He said when it happened, "Man, I was scared. I didn't know what to think. All of a sudden I got a record climbing the charts and I'm out in the streets. You know, workin' on the docks. And the first week it sold something like 40,000 in New Orleans."

"Tell It Like It Is" would hit number 2 on the charts. But Neville would get arrested again, on drug charges. He got off with three months probation.

"I was walking out the door," he recalled. "The Federal Marshal is standing there. He says, 'I don't know who you had in there with you, but these shackles were for your ass.' I said, 'Man, you ain't gotta worry about me no more."

In 1977, Aaron started performing with his three brothers -- Art, Charles and Cyril. But his solo career floundered until 1989, when he connected with Linda Ronstadt.

"That rejuvenated it?" Mason asked.

"No doubt. Thank you, Linda!"

His duet with Ronstadt of "Don't Know Much" would win Neville the first of three Grammys. Two years later she produced the song that would put Neville back on the charts as a solo artist, "Everybody Plays the Fool."

Walk through New Orleans with Neville now, and everywhere people come up to him. His younger sister Athelgra still lives here. They've always been close:

"I was maybe in kindergarten, there was a little boy that liked me and he wanted to sit next to me on the bus. He had to pay Aaron -- Aaron charged him to sit next to me!" she laughed.

"That was the only pimpin' I ever did," he added.

Neville lived here, too, until 2005, when Katrina destroyed his home. He told Mason he never went back to the house, and didn't want anything from it. "I was bitter. I felt violated."

At the same time, his wife Joel had been diagnosed with lung cancer. The two of them had been married for 48 years. "I mean, we'd been together since I was 16."

"How did you get through that?" Mason asked.

"By the grace of God, a lot of prayer. And I prayed 24/7. Cried and, you know, it was . . . it was deep."

In 2007, Neville went back to New Orleans for the first time, to bury Joel. "At that time I didn't think I could ever be happy again. But I'm really happy."

"And that's a blessing."

"No doubt," Neville said.

Because the next year he returned to New Orleans to perform at JazzFest with the Neville Brothers, at which time Sarah Friedman came in to photograph them.

"What did you think when you saw Sarah?" Mason asked.

"I fell in love with Sarah. I'm serious. I didn't, you know, say it at the time, but I couldn't stop looking at her."

He did give Sarah a copy of his book and, she recalled, "He proceeded to call me right after the JazzFest and left a message that said, 'This is Aaron Neville, and I want a book report.':

Two years later they were married. New York is now home. And Aaron Neville is back to making the music that made him want to become a singer:

"Singing is, you know, it's like medicine. You know, it's like some people tell me what my voice did for them. I say, 'I wish I could tell you what it do for me to be doin' it.'"

For more info:

Web Exclusive: Click on the video player below to hear Aaron Neville talk of when he discovered he had a voice.

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