The roots of soul music were planted during the mid-1950s by a handful of visionaries who dared to mix melismatic gospel techniques into their blues singing. Ray Charles was a prime motivator in this movement, as were the “5” Royales. And so was Nappy Brown, whose hair-raising platters for Savoy Records boasted some of the most intense vocals of their era.
Nappy once again unleashes those powerful pipes on his new Blind Pig album, Long Time Coming. It recalls his early heyday by revisiting several of his Savoy classics, yet sends him in fresh and intriguing directions too. There’s an acoustic number, a gospel selection bringing Brown back full circle to his beginnings, and a tender soul ballad unlike anything he’s ever done before. Producer Scott Cable recruited a band that inherently understood Nappy’s swinging sound, including guitarists Sean Costello and Junior Watson, bassist Mookie Brill, organist Jim Pugh, drummer Big Joe Maher, and harpist (and fellow Blind Pig artist) John Nemeth. The results underscore the importance of Nappy’s contributions to rhythm and blues-and how vital he remains in the vicinity of a microphone.
Born Napoleon Brown Culp in Charlotte, N.C. on October 12, 1929, Nappy hails from a sanctified household. “I just grew up religious,” he says. “I got started singing when I was about 9 years old in the choir at church. Me and my dad. He was what you call a steward, but he sung in the choir. He was the bass singer in the choir.” Nappy formed a gospel aggregation with his cousins, the Golden Crowns. “That was the first group I had,” he says. “I was real young then. I was about 16 years old.” He soon graduated to the Golden Bell Quintet, and then moved up to the Selah Jubilee Singers. “That was the big one, the Selahs out of Raleigh,” he notes of the Thurman Ruth-led aggregation. “I stayed with them about five years. We were broadcasting on WBT.”
Gospel wasn’t Nappy’s only musical love. He dug the blues too, especially suave piano-playing L.A. crooner Charles Brown. “That’s one of my idols,” says Nappy, who also cites saxman Eddie “Cleanhead” Vinson as a primary vocal influence. Admitting you were partial to the blues wasn’t a good idea around Nappy’s family. “Yeah, you didn’t do that. My mama used to call it the devil’s music,” he says. “After I got to makin’ money, she didn’t call it the devil’s music then: ‘Give me some of that money!’”
Relocating to Newark, N.J. to join yet another gospel outfit, the Heavenly Lights, led to Nappy’s big break. “They sent for me. So after I got up there with them, they wanted to record. So we went down to Savoy Record Company and took a test. And after we took the test, we passed,” says Nappy (the Heavenly Lights’ lone ‘54 single for the label coupled “Jesus Said It” and “Lord I’m In Your Hands”). Sensing commercial paydirt, Savoy boss Herman Lubinsky had other plans for Nappy’s stirring vocal delivery. “After the fellows got goin’ back to their places, he asked me, did I know how to sing the blues. He needed an R&B singer. They didn’t have any. So I told Mr. Lubinsky, I said, ‘Yes, I can do it,’” he says. “He’s the one that called me Nappy, because, see, Napoleon was too long to go on the record back then.”
Nappy had a ribald ditty entitled “Lemon Squeezin’ Daddy” ready to go; it wowed the crowd at a local talent contest but proved too raunchy for Savoy. “At that time, you couldn’t put no stuff like that on record,” says Brown. So at his secular debut session in March of ‘54, Savoy A&R man Fred Mendelsohn found Nappy the humorous “That Man,” where he alternated between his own impassioned voice and a deep, intimidating bass. A revival of that gem graces Nappy’s new album.
The blistering rocker “Don’t Be Angry” was Nappy’s breakthrough platter in the spring of 1955. Surprisingly, he had conceived it as a ballad, in the style of a mellow vocal group such as the Orioles. But no one on the R&B scene had ever dreamed up anything quite like Nappy’s rolling of his ‘l’s, which was central to the song’s chorus. Savoy’s big boss man initially gave it a thumbs down.
“(Fred) and Mr. Lubinsky fell out about ‘Don’t Be Angry.’ When we first started it back there in the office, Lubinsky said, ‘I don’t like that! I don’t like that!’” says Nappy. “I had it slow at first, the way I wrote it. And so when he said, ‘I don’t like that type of song,’ Freddie said, ‘Well, I’m gonna tell you something. Either you let him record that song, or I quit right now! You can fire me!’” Lubinsky finally acquiesced and let those ‘l’s roll. “I come up with the idea when I was a boy,” Nappy says. “I used to listen to real late, late, late night (radio), like foreign music. And that’s where I picked all that up from.”
Boasting a hair-raising Sam “The Man” Taylor sax solo (Nappy’s New York-cut Savoy sides always featured the best session men New York had to offer), the scorching “Don’t Be Angry” vaulted to #2 on Billboard’s R&B hit parade, though a sanitized Crew-Cuts cover for Mercury impacted his pop airplay. The tune also gave Nappy an enduring vocal gimmick. “After the record came out, ‘Don’t Be Angry’ with the l-l-l-l-l’s, it was a big hit. And every time I recorded, he wanted a l-l-l-l-l-l in it!” he laughs. “Like ‘There’ll Come A Day,’ ‘Apple Of My Eye,’ oh, Lord. He wanted l-l-l-l-l on everything!”
New York songwriter Rose Marie McCoy, who shared writers’ credit on “Don’t Be Angry” with Mendelsohn and Nappy himself, co-penned his lighthearted Savoy hit followup “Piddily Patter Patter” with partner Charles Singleton. This time a Patti Page cover minimized Brown’s pop spins. But those back-to-back 1955 hits sent Nappy out on the road, where he toured with everyone from Sarah Vaughan, Al Hibbler, and his Savoy labelmate Big Maybelle to Muddy Waters, Mickey & Sylvia, and Jackie Wilson. “Big Maybelle was tops,” says Nappy.
“Louis Armstrong played behind me at the Apollo,” he says. “Yeah, Pops played behind me there. Oh, man, that was a kick, because I didn’t know that was Louis Armstrong playing behind me until I looked back. That was him!”
Nappy kept churning out awesome rockers-“Just A Little Love,” “Open Up That Door,” “Am I,” the inexorably catchy “Little By Little”-and frighteningly intense blues ballads for Savoy (“Is It Really You”--the B-side of “Don’t Be Angry”--and “I’m Getting Lonesome” captured Nappy at his most intense), but hits grew more elusive. Even his pounding ‘57 testifier “The Right Time” fell through the cracks. “I wrote that,” he says. “After I wrote it, mine died down. Then Ray Charles picked it up.” Brother Ray borrowed Brown’s throbbing arrangement and enjoyed the hit instead, his Raeletts handling the call-and-response action the way the Heavenly Lights had on Nappy’s original. “He had all of my notes in there,” Nappy says. “He had everything. Everything. But one thing, he had the women.”
The pop-tinged “It Don’t Hurt No More” restored Nappy to the R&B charts in 1958, and he repeated the feat with the powerful “I Cried Like A Baby” the next year. But rock and roll had softened significantly, soul was still in its infancy, and most of Brown’s spectacular Savoy offerings failed to find a substantial audience. Nappy remained with the company through 1962 before largely disappearing from public view apart from an obscure ‘69 album for the equally unknown Elephant label.
Over in Europe, interest in Nappy’s Savoy catalog and his then-current whereabouts blossomed at the dawn of the ‘80s. Brown proceeded to wage a triumphant comeback, cutting critically lauded albums for Landslide (1984's Tore Up, reissued on Alligator) and Black Top (Something Gonna Jump Out the Bushes! in ‘87). But things had recently been pretty quiet on the recording front for Brown, though he has been touring on a fairly steady basis with ex-Muddy Waters guitarist Bob Margolin (who plays on this album’s acoustic number).
“He’s the one that called me to come back. I had done quit. I had done retired. I done give it up,” says Nappy. “Bob said, ‘Nappy, why don’t you come on back into the blues?’ I said, ‘No-o-o! I ain’t gonna fool with it no more. I’m tired of travelin’.’ He said, ‘Nappy, come on back.’” We can all be pleased that Brown heeded Margolin’s sage advice.
Now rhythm and blues pioneer Nappy Brown returns to full-fledged action with Long Time Coming, an album that swings with the same soulful authority that he exhibited a half-century ago.
- Bill Dahl