Born Napoleon Brown Culp, 12 October 1929, Charlotte, North Carolina
When the transition from R&B to 1960s soul is discussed, the names of Ray Charles, James Brown, Jackie Wilson and Sam Cooke usually come to the fore. Though less commercially successful than those artists, Nappy Brown also played an important role in that musical development. His music is deeply rooted in gospel and his stentorian voice featured gospel effects such as vibrato and melisma. His Savoy recordings from 1954 to 1962 are of a consistently high standard.
Brown’s gospel background was evident from the start. His father was a deacon in the Mount Zion Baptist Church and Nappy started singing in the church choir at age nine. In his teens he joined a gospel group called The Golden Crowns, featuring his cousins. Later he was a member of The Golden Bell Quintet and The Selah Jubilee Singers out of Raleigh, NC. Finally he joined The Heavenly Lights who auditioned for the Savoy label in New Jersey. There he was discovered by A&R man Fred Mendelsohn who signed him to Savoy in January 1954 as a solo artist. Mendelsohn tried to steer Nappy in the direction of secular blues, saying there was more money in it. Brown, being a poor Southern boy, went along.
Fred Mendelsohn took the time to give Nappy’s career some direction. He hand picked the songs to suit the man’s gospel based style. The first single, “That Man”/“I Wonder” (released in May 1954) already shows a mature Nappy with a huge, powerful voice. But it failed to make a national impression. That changed with Brown’s third record, “Don’t Be Angry”, which he co-composed with Rose Marie McCoy, who would write or co-write many other songs for Nappy. It peaked at # 2 on the R&B charts and also crossed over to the pop charts, reaching # 25 in May 1955. However, this was still the era when R&B songs were covered by white artists for the pop market. An inferior version by the Crew Cuts outsold Nappy’s version, rising to # 14. “Don’t Be Angry” was the first record to show off Brown’s trademark “li-li-li-li” vocal gimmick.
The follow-up, “Pitter Patter”, went to # 10 on the R&B charts and was later included in the John Waters film “Cry Baby” (1990). Nappy hadn’t signed the most artist-friendly contract, and with his meagre record royalties he had to hit the road. He was booked in package shows and travelled all over the country. Savoy continued to release Nappy Brown singles, three or four times a year. The backing was always good, supplied by New York's ace session men, like Mickey Baker, Sam Taylor, Al Sears and Panama Francis. “Little By Little”, probably his most commercial recording, brought him another pop hit in early 1957 (# 57), though it failed to make the R&B charts. Also in 1957, Nappy released “The Right Time”, for which he took the writing credit, though it was based on a blues number by Leroy Carr from the 1930s. It didn’t chart, but when Ray Charles recorded the song one year later (as “The Night Time Is the Right Time”), it reached # 5 R&B and went on to become a standard. Brown’s last entry into the pop charts was “It Don’t Hurt No More” (# 89, November 1958), which also peaked at # 8 on the R&B charts. One more chart entry would follow, “I Cried Like A Baby”, which was recorded in October 1956, but not released until August 1959 (# 22 R&B).
Nappy stayed with Savoy until 1962. By then he had grown tired of the hectic lifestyle of a touring musician and eventually he settled back in Charlotte. He went back to gospel music and had two gospel albums released in the 1970s. In 1979 he returned to performing blues and did a successful tour of Scandinavia. More appearances on the European blues circuit followed in the 1980s, including a tour of the UK in 1986. At least seven albums were released between 1984 and 1994, including two live sets. In 2002, Brown was inducted into the Blues Hall of Fame.
Nappy Brown’s final album, “Long Time Coming”, was released in September 2007, on the Blind Pig label. He promoted the album with a European tour later that year. On June 1, 2008, following a performance at the Crawfish Festival in Augusta, New Jersey, Brown fell ill due to a series of ailments and was hospitalized. He died in his sleep on September 20, 2008, at Mercy Hospital in Charlotte, North Carolina.
More info : http://home.earthlink.net/~jaymar41/NapBrown.html
Obituary : http://www.nytimes.com/2008/09/25/arts/music/25brown.html?
Discography : http://wdd.mbnet.fi/nappybrown.htm
Acknowledgements : Colin Escott, Bill Dahl, Wikipedia.
Dik, October 2016
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