It may sound illogical, but the million-selling Tell It Like It Is – still Aaron Neville’s signature song, 50 years after he recorded – bankrupted the company that manufactured and distributed it.
In 1966, Aaron Neville was approached by writer and arranger George Davis, part-time session saxophonist Alvin “Red” Tyler and teacher Warren Parker, who were partners in a new production company called Par-Lo Enterprises. Davis was friends with a musician called Wilbert Smith, who wrote and performed as Lee Diamond. Diamond had the beginnings of a new song called Tell It Like It Is. Davis loved the hook and the title, and thought it sounded like a hit, but Diamond was in trouble with the law and was sent to prison before he could write any lyrics, so Davis was left to finish the song.
Neville agreed to cut it, so went into the studio with a band that included Davis on baritone sax, Emory Thomas on trumpet, Deacon John on guitar, Tyler on tenor, Willie Tee on piano and Gentleman June Gardner (born plain Albert Gardner, but Gentleman June Gardner is such a wonderful name) behind the drums.
Delighted with the recording, Davis and Parker took it to New York and were frustrated to find no one willing to release it. So they decided to turn Par-Lo Enterprises into a for-real record label and put it out themselves. They pressed 2000 singles and signed a distribution deal with Dover Records. To ensure local airplay, and hence local sales, Par-Lo made the ill-advised decision to give WYLD’s Larry McKinley – then the most popular DJ in New Orleans – 50% of the record’s publishing.
The bribe did its job. McKinley played the hell out of Tell It Like It Is. Wouldn’t you if you had a 50% financial stake in its success? Soon other stations across Louisiana were doing the same. Dover Records reported selling 40,000 singles in a single week, just in New Orleans. Gradually the song broke across the country, topping the national R&B charts for five weeks and reaching number two in the pop charts early in 1966. All told, the single sold about two million, so Par-Lo rushed out an album, also called Tell It Like It Is.
Neville should have been set up from all this success. Unfortunately, Par-Lo and Dover were inexperienced, small-time players, trying to do business like the big boys but not quite knowing what they were doing. Dover kept plying distributors with freebies long after it stopped being necessary, giving away 300 free copies for every 1000 actually sold. Soon, wth Dover making only two-thirds of the income they should have been making and Par-Lo only making half, as they’d given McKinley 50% of the publishing royalties, neither record company Par-Lo nor distributor Dover could pay the bills they’d amassed for pressing, shipping and promotion, and they had no money left to pay the taxman, either.
With all of Dover’s and Par-Lo’s assets seized by the IRS, Neville was left, again, without a label or all the money due to him. Perhaps that’s why he’s rerecorded Tell It Like It Is several times (a decent version from the 1970s, with Neville backed by the Meters, was the first one I ever heard; my mum picked up a cheapie Aaron Neville compilation that included it), but the original, the one he cut at 25 that saved him from a life spent drifting between longshoreman jobs and petty-criminal scams, is still the finest. Indeed, it’s a classic, a belter, one of the very best.
I’m indebted to an OffBeat Magazine article for the backstory to this wonderful song. For fans of New Orleans music, OffBeat is a treasure trove.
If a 10-minute distraction would help right now, here’s a couple of new songs I released recently. Email me through the contact form on the About page if you’d like a Bandcamp download code.