Blues Fest 2007: Plenty of Juice in the Battery - Nappy Brown: Friday, 10:30 p.m., Tent Stage Print
Music - Feature Stories
Wednesday, 27 June 2007 03:04

Nappy Brown I've read about Nappy Brown's energetic and ribald stage antics when he was a big star in the 1950s. And having seen him lying on the floor doing the "bug dance" at the 1993 Mississippi Valley Blues Festival, I asked him what we should expect of his set with Muddy Waters alumnus Bob Margolin at the fest this year.

"You can expect everything from me!" he said. "I'm gonna pull off my clothes on the stage. I'm a lemon-squeezing daddy - I have to pull them clothes off. I won't have nothin' on but my shorts!" Nappy laughs with a big, deep-throated guffaw.

Then he gets more serious. "I'm 78. Me and Bob and his band been together for about 14 years. In fact, Bob is the one who called me to get back out on the road again" after Nappy's hiatus in the ‘60s and ‘70s. "After Muddy Waters died, he [Margolin] met me in South Carolina and he said, ‘Nappy, come on back. You sure put me in mind of Muddy Waters.' I can't quit it, you know - I got the fever."

Nappy Brown can be seen as the link between the down-and-dirty blues of Muddy Waters and the soul of Otis Redding. Bill Dahl, of the All Music Guide, described Nappy's singing as "bellowing the blues with gospel-inspired ferocity. Napoleon Brown's sanctified screams come naturally."

Nappy confirms this. "I got started in music from First Mount Zion Baptist Church in Charlotte [North Carolina], singing in the choir with my daddy," he said.

As a youngster he performed in several gospel groups, including the Heavenly Lights, who recorded for Herman Lubinsky's Savoy Records. But he moved to R&B - "They called it the devil's music back then," said Nappy - when an appearance in Newark, New Jersey, led to his own recording contract in 1954 with Savoy, which signed him to compete with blues shouters such as Roy Brown, Wynonie Harris, and Big Joe Turner.

Between 1955 and 1959, Nappy Brown appeared over and over on Billboard's R&B charts, with hits including "Don't Be Angry," which reached number two nationwide and crossed over into the pop charts. He became part of Alan Freed's rhythm-and-blues revues and toured with such names as Little Richard and Jackie Wilson.

But probably the song that had the biggest impact for Nappy was a tune he wrote and recorded, but which is best remembered as a hit for Ray Charles - "Night Time Is the Right Time."

As Dahl wrote: "Brown brought hellfire intensity to his blues-soaked Savoy debut, ‘Is It True,' but his throat-busting turn on the 1957 blues number ‘The Right Time' (borrowed by Ray Charles in short order) remains a highlight of Brown's early heyday."

"Right Time" has been covered by dozens of artists including Aretha Franklin, Tina Turner, the Animals, Rufus & Carla Thomas, the Rolling Stones (on tour), and Joss Stone (in a TV ad for Gap). Although many sources say that Nappy Brown wrote the song, some artists who've done covers of the song (including Creedence Clearwater Revival) list writing credits for a "Lew Herman," which sounds suspiciously like a rearrangement of Herman Lubinsky's name.

Nappy boomed, "I'm the one that wrote ‘Night Time Is the Right Time.' After mine cooled off - called ‘Right Time' - the record died down. I had mens behind mine. Then Ray Charles recorded it over again. He had womens behind his. But his was up-tempo. It become a big hit."

Nappy Brown About the writing credit, Nappy declared, "Well, I've got it; you can look on all my 78s and it'll be ‘Napoleon Culp.' Napoleon Culp - that's my real name. I loved it when Ray Charles had that hit! I loved it because I belongs to BMI - I collect from him right now and he's a dead man. As long as I live I collect [the royalties]."

After his early R&B success with Savoy, Nappy remained unrecorded for years. He returned to music with an album for Elephant V in 1969 and recorded gospel music in the '70s with the Bell Jubilee Singers for Jewel, and as Brother Napoleon Brown for Savoy.

Settling down in a small town outside of Columbia, South Carolina, he focused his singing efforts on gospel during the 1970s and early 1980s. But renewed interest in his earlier R&B recordings abroad and the re-release of a number of his early songs on albums in Europe resulted in a Scandinavian tour in 1983.

In the '80s, Nappy Brown was discovered by a later generation of blues fans. He performed at festivals and recorded for blues labels Black Top and Alligator Records, with guitarist Tinsley Ellis and his band the Heartfixers accompanying him on 1984's Tore Up, a collection of songs that showed Nappy's powerful voice to still be in excellent form. Living Blues noted that "Nappy Brown shows himself to be still in considerable command of a wide range of nuances, as well as the basic primal power that has always been his strong point. In his choice of material, his demeanor, and his musical technique, he epitomizes the phrase ‘living history.'"

In 1987, he recorded a set for Black Top (Something Gonna Jump Out the Bushes) with Anson Funderburgh, Ronnie Earl, and Earl King on guitars. Nappy also appeared on a live album recorded at Tipitina's in New Orleans in 1988. He made several records for different labels throughout the '90s, and in 2000, Savoy released a 36-song, two-disc set of his material from 1954 to 1962.

Nappy's excited about his new album coming out in September on blues label Blind Pig, where he's backed by Bob Margolin, Sean Costello, and Junior Watson on guitars, Mookie Brill on bass, and John Nemeth on vocals and harmonica. It's called I'm So Glad I Don't Have to Cry No More, and on it "I write most all of my lyrics," Nappy said. In a release from Blind Pig, producer Scott Cable said, "I have wanted to make this record for 20 years. The time is right now for the public at large to hear and appreciate a singer of Nappy's caliber with the right backing."

With all of this talk about gospel and R&B as well as blues, it's difficult to describe just what kind of impact Nappy Brown's voice can have. As Blues Access said, "Nappy Brown's voice has the soul singer's extra dimension. When Brown jumps from blues to R&B, and touches on rock and roll, you know there's juice left in the old battery."

"If I haven't been home in years, and I meet up with them old timers and we drink that white lightnin', that's the blues," Nappy said with preacher-like cadences. "I'm sittin' right here now with two bottles of scotch, sittin' here with my retired friends. I'm too old to do anything else." Another long laugh.

I think Nappy's just joking around. The way he laughs - sounding like someone with a twinkle in his eye, crossing his fingers behind his back - gives it away.

This man is not too old for anything.

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