The Right Time for Nappy Brown
Fifty years after helping invent rock and roll, Charlotte's Nappy Brown is back with a new album—and the same old spirit
Written by Gene Tomko
A booming economy, relative low cost of living, temperate climate, the relaxed Southern atmosphere—it was mostly the usual suspects that brought me to Charlotte. But for this fan of classic rhythm and blues, I was most excited about the chance to finally see a performance by one of my all-time favorite R&B singers. When I arrived in 2002, the legendary Nappy Brown, a Charlotte native, was rumored to be still living here.
After settling into my south Charlotte apartment, I quickly thumbed through the white pages of my recently delivered phonebook. I saw it right there under the Bs—the listing of one Napoleon Brown. It had to be him, I thought. How many Napoleon Browns could there be out there? Heck, how many Napoleons could there be? Partially satisfied with my findings, I resisted the urge to blindly call the number and decided instead to wait and see if I could find any listings for area performances by the elusive singer.
Nappy Brown, now seventy-eight, was a huge recording star in the 1950s, producing numerous chart-topping hits on the Savoy label from 1955 through 1962. Along with Little Richard, Chuck Berry, and Fats Domino, he was among the first African-American rhythm and blues artists to cross over to the pop charts, helping to create the distinctive sound that was soon to be called rock and roll. He was also an important early link in the development of soul music when he became one of the very first to fuse gospel-inflected vocal phrasing with the beat of secular rhythm and blues. I had been a fan of the music for more than twenty years, and seeing a performance by Nappy Brown had been at the top of my musical wish list for quite some time.
Several months later, I saw a small advertisement in the music section of Creative Loafing: "The Legendary R&B Singer Nappy Brown" was scheduled to appear at Charlotte's premiere blues club, the Double Door, that Friday evening. Not wanting to miss a single note and fearing this might be my only opportunity to see him perform, I showed up several hours early to garner a choice seat near the stage in the notoriously cramped club.
As the clock approached showtime, the club became increasingly crowded. Then, after a couple of quick warm-up instrumentals from the band, the man I had been searching for finally appeared. Dressed in a sharp pinstriped brown suit, the tall and lanky singer took the stage with the determined authority of a champion prizefighter. His performance was nothing less than spectacular. His impeccably rich and powerful voice, hailed by critics as one of the greatest ever in rhythm and blues, belied his advanced years as he tore through scores of his signature numbers. All the while, he entertained the audience with his trademark stage moves such as rolling around on the floor and "dancing" suggestively with the microphone stand straddled between his legs. Yes indeed, much of the real blues is often not approved for all audiences.
Throughout the next five years, I would not only get the chance to see the legendary singer perform many times, but I would also have the privilege to eventually become his friend. Working on various projects as a music writer and photographer gave me the rare opportunity to spend a lot of time with him. Proud of his place in music history, Nappy is always eager to share his time and his recollections with me. And, of course, I am more than eager to listen and learn.
His fascinating story begins in Charlotte on October 12, 1929, where he was born Napoleon Brown Culp, named after a friend of the family by his grandmother. Like many early R&B stars, he sang gospel music as a child, encouraged by his parents, who were both singers in the church. "I was raised up in the church. Gospel was the first [music]. That's where I come from—gospel," he explained to me recently at his modest two-story West Side apartment that he shares with his son and daughter-in-law. "I was very young. I sang in the choir with my father at the First Mount Zion Baptist Church." When asked about his extraordinary ability as a singer, he states matter-of-factly, "It was a gift, a talent. I was born with that gift." Nappy's deep speaking voice is unhurried and steady, with just enough of a warm Southern drawl to reveal his Carolina roots.
As a teenager he began listening to the popular R&B records of the day on the "piccolo," better known as a jukebox, by such recording stars as Louis Jordan, Eddie "Cleanhead" Vinson, and Charles Brown. Soon he was slipping out to neighborhood juke joints to catch shows by local and traveling musicians. "It was real wonderful when I was growing up in Charlotte. They had different nightclubs on the corners and things. When the vocalist blues singers would come to Charlotte, we'd go out and listen and just have a wonderful time."
One spot he fondly remembers frequenting was the Night Owl Club, which stayed open all night long and was located on Beatties Ford Road, near Oaklawn and Booker avenues. As a teenager, he also caught performances by national touring acts at the Charlotte Armory, which was located where the Grady Cole Center is today. It was here that he finally got a chance to see many of his idols in person, such as one of his all-time favorites, Louis Jordan. "It was packed out for Louis. We loved him! Oh, yes indeed. It was hot!" Nappy's eyes sparkle when he talks about the good old days, revealing his famous toothy grin that has over the years become as much of a trademark for him as his magnificent voice.
At age sixteen, Nappy joined the local gospel group the Golden Bells and appeared with them on many radio broadcasts across the region, including on Charlotte's WBT. Later he moved to New Jersey to join the quartet the Heavenly Lights. When the group got a chance to record for Savoy Records in 1954, Nappy's singing caught the attention of label owner Herman Lubinsky, who was looking for new rhythm and blues talent. He approached Nappy about making the switch from gospel to R&B and secured him a spot on a local talent show. Within hours of seeing him perform his song "Lemon Squeezin' Daddy," Lubinsky signed him to Savoy.
The very next day he was in the recording studio. Although the song he sang that night brought the house down, its risqué double-entendre theme was a little too racy to record at the time. "Back in those days, you couldn't do that. Most everything had to be clean and polished up. Of course, nowadays you can do exactly whatever, you know." Nappy still routinely features "Lemon Squeezin' Daddy" in his live shows, and it's still a showstopper.
By early 1955, Nappy had his first smash hit for Savoy, "Don't Be Angry," which peaked at number two on the charts and established him as a national star. Throughout the rest of the decade, he climbed the charts numerous times with hits such as "Pitter Patter," "It Don't Hurt No More," and "I Cried Like a Baby." Then in 1957, he wrote and recorded the blues classic "The Right Time," which would become a major hit for Ray Charles two years later.
"The difference between me and Ray Charles's ‘Night Time Is the Right Time'," Nappy explains, "is he had it up-tempo with Mary Ann and them behind him—the ladies [Charles' female backup singers, the Raelettes]. I had mine in a slow tempo with a gospel group behind me. That was my gospel group. But he got everything just like mine, note for note." Even though Charles's version overshadowed Nappy's original recording, he was still pleased with the outcome. "It felt good he had covered it. That still was good for me," he says with a sly wink and a jingle of his pocket, signifying the royalties he's received.
To this day, Nappy takes a lot of pride in his music. Everything from the quality of his touring band to the way he dresses on stage has to be "right." He rarely performs wearing anything but a well-pressed, custom-tailored suit, often with a matching fedora hat. One thing that really bothers him is when he sees professional musicians dressed shabbily on stage. "If you are up there [on stage], you better look right! When I walk out, I want people to know that I'm the entertainer, not just somebody off the street." This respectful approach to his music and his audience was instilled in him at an early age as a traveling gospel singer and then reinforced when he started performing R&B and learning directly from some of his idols.
During his heyday, Nappy's popularity allowed him to tour extensively throughout the country with some of the biggest names in the recording industry. He was a featured performer in a variety of R&B and early rock and roll package tours that relentlessly traveled the country. "They put me out on the road with the Sarah Vaughan Show, Al Hibbler, Jackie Wilson … all of those. I was with Muddy Waters, Wynonie Harris, Jimmy Reed, Big Maybelle. That was the big show days. We went everywhere. Three hundred sixty-five days a year we were out there."
Occasionally, Nappy's constant touring schedule would give him the chance to perform for his hometown. "We would come through Charlotte with the big show," Nappy remembers. "I would stop by and spend some time with my mother and father. Everybody was calling me then ‘Charlotte's Pride and Joy.' They were all so happy for me. I went away and came back famous with those big shows." In what was surely a satisfying albeit surreal experience for him, the all-star revue would frequently be held at Nappy's favorite boyhood venue—the old Charlotte Armory where not that long before he was watching his favorite performers and no doubt daydreaming about being the one up there on stage.
Unfortunately, just about all of the Charlotte nightclubs of the 1950s that Nappy performed at are now just fond memories. On one blisteringly hot afternoon last summer, I spent some time with Nappy and a few of his old friends at their favorite spot—a backyard hangout complete with weathered picnic tables and chairs set up under a lazy old oak that provided just enough shade. Nappy and his friends spend a lot of time here, sitting in the precious shade, sipping on something refreshing while telling stories and playing cards. He rarely drinks alcohol anymore, and in an effort to prolong his life and his singing career, he's even given up smoking.
It was there that I met Nappy's old friend Wiley, who excitedly recounted seeing him perform back in the 1950s. "Every time Nappy played in Charlotte," he exclaimed, "I was there. It was somethin' else!" Looking for a classic backdrop to photograph him against for his upcoming release, I hoped out loud that maybe there was something still standing from the old days. "Nah, everything is gone now," lamented Wiley. "There's nothing left from back then." Nappy sadly shook his head in agreement, mourning another part of Charlotte's history erased under the guise of progress.
Nappy stayed with Savoy for seven years and made more than sixty-five recordings for the label. By the early 1960s, he grew tired of the hectic lifestyle of a touring musician and eventually settled back in Charlotte. After a long absence, he returned to the blues scene in the early 1980s and recorded several albums sporadically during the next two decades, remaining largely out of the national spotlight.
Today, more than fifty years after he first hit the national charts, Nappy is in the midst of a major comeback with the release of the critically acclaimed Long Time Coming on Blind Pig Records, one of the largest blues and roots labels in the world. He's also getting a lot of well-deserved attention in the media. He was recently featured on the cover of Living Blues magazine and also profiled in Down Beat.
After more than a decade since his last recording, Nappy says that the recent CD project finally came about due to the strong persistence of his longtime manager, Scott Cable, a former Charlottean himself. "Scott kept on after me: ‘It's time for you, Nappy, it's time for you.' So, we got everything together." Cable elaborated to Living Blues, "The whole intention was to do a record that was all about Nappy. He's the focal point. He's the singer. It's his record. He just nailed it."
Nappy feels that this new release contains the best music that he has recorded since his classic sides for Savoy all those years ago. With top-notch musicians filling out the band such as Sean Costello and Junior Watson on guitars, Charlotte's own Mookie Brill on bass, pianist Clark Stern and Big Joe Maher on drums, the release has a decidedly retro sound to it.
Long Time Coming features remarkable remakes that recapture much of the magic of many of Nappy's greatest songs including "Don't Be Angry," "That Man," "The Right Time," and "Bye Bye Baby." Coming from a time where it was commonly believed that secular and sacred music should not be mixed, Nappy confesses that he was more than a little uneasy about including a gospel song on a blues album. In fact, he was dead set against it until Cable talked him into it while in the studio. "I did not want to do that. I didn't want to mix it. But Scott said, 'Well, Nappy, everybody else is doing it. It's no harm.' So we left it on there, and it's taking off!" The resulting "Take Care of Me," written by Nappy, is one of the CD's many highlights and is a wonderful way to end the release.
These days, Nappy performs in Charlotte only once or twice a year, so it is always a special occasion to see him in his hometown. His most recent area performance was as the musical guest of the live national broadcast of NPR's A Prairie Home Companion at Ovens Auditorium in October. The show reminded him of playing on the old radio broadcasts in his early days. "I played those kinds of shows back in the 1950s in New York. Places like the Paramount Theater, the Apollo, and all of those places. This brought me back to the way the crowd used to be."
As much as Nappy loved the experience, it was clear that the sold-out Ovens crowd enjoyed it even more, giving him a touching standing ovation. After host Garrison Keillor asked him to do one final number for the audience, he closed out the show that night with a fitting version of "Bye Bye Baby." Once again, with his many fans, friends, and family in the audience, the great Nappy Brown reclaimed his title of "Charlotte's Pride and Joy."