"It was just a gimmick," says Nappy Brown, explaining how he derived the comic, syllable-rolling vocal style that made him one of the '50s' most distinctive R&B singers. "I've always been a versatile singer and I came up with that approach by listening to foreign music late at night. I love the sound of foreign languages, so I just tried singing regular words like they were foreign."
Napoleon (Nappy) Brown, who performs at Friendship Station Saturday night, was much more than a novelty singer with a knack for odd vocal effects, though. The many singles he recorded for the Savoy label in the '50s proved Brown effective as a big-voiced shouter like Joe Turner and an expressive bluesman capable of bringing a churchlike intensity to a slow-burning ballad.
Not surprisingly, Brown, who was born and raised in Charlotte, N.C., began as a gospel singer before moving into the secular field in 1955. "I went up to Newark with a friend who wanted me to sing with his gospel group, the Heavenly Lights," Brown recalls. "I met Roy Hamilton's manager and he asked me if I wanted to sing in a talent show. I said I did, although I only had one blues song, called 'Lemon Squeezin' Daddy.' So I entered the show and Roy won first place for 'You'll Never Walk Alone' and I won second."
A few weeks later, Herman Lubinsky, a hard-nosed businessman who had built the Newark-based Savoy label into one of the most successful postwar independents with a big roster of R&B and gospel acts, called Brown.
"I had already recorded gospel at Savoy with the Heavenly Lights," Brown explains. "Lubinsky asked me if I could do blues, and I said, 'Yes.' I had a thing I wrote called 'Don't Be Angry,' so I sang it for him at 4 in the morning and he beat on this old cardboard box for rhythm. When I was done, Lubinsky said, 'This is my lucky day' and arranged a recording session for me."
"Don't Be Angry" soared to the top of the R&B charts in 1955 and was successful in the pop market as well. Usually backing an up-tempo novelty number with a slow blues number, Brown's Savoy singles sold well throughout the '50s, especially "Pitter Patter," "Little by Little" and "I Cried Like a Baby." Like so many R&B singers at that time, though, Brown received little monetary reward for his efforts.
"I never got the royalties I was supposed to," Brown says, his anger only slightly disguised. "I wasn't treated too well. Lubinsky would do some things for you if you needed clothes or something, but there were no royalties. A short while before he died a few years ago, he called me up and said he had a "token" for me. It had been 20 years since I had seen him, but he flew me up to Newark. When I got there, he said, 'I've got to do this before I die,' and he gave me $4,000. That was more than I had ever got before."
Brown's records never hit very big in the white pop market, partly because he was a victim of the then prevalent practice of white artists covering new R&B discs as soon as they were released. The Crew-Cuts covered "Don't Be Angry," Patti Page changed "Pitter Patter" to "Piddily Patter Patter" and Micki Marlow did well with Brown's "Little by Little." The most famous cover of a Nappy Brown record, however, came in 1958 when Ray Charles covered fairly exactly the now classic Brown composition "(The Night Time Is) The Right Time."
"All those cover records didn't bother me at all except for the Ray Charles one," Brown says. "I never got a cent from it and I wrote it. It was mine but Lubinsky and Oscar Cadena slipped their names on it without me knowing. But I never even got my third of the royalties."
The '60s brought in new styles and Brown, like so many blues-based artists, seemed to fade away. In fact, Brown disappeared so completely that the rumor spread that he had spent the whole decade in jail. "That rumor was all over Europe when I toured there recently," Brown admits. "I've never been in prison in my life, much less committed a crime. I just went back to gospel music and church work in the '60s."
After coming out of retirement to record one album in 1969, Brown retired again until just recently when he recorded "Tore Up," a new album released on Atlanta's Landslide Records. After feeling he'd been taken advantage of for years, it's not surprising that Brown was a little reluctant to go into a recording studio again.
"This white boy from Connecticut named Teddy Roberts kept writing letters to my church in Charlotte," Nappy explains. "I finally called him up and invited him to come down. He spent two weeks talking with me but I still didn't want to get back into recording. But he kept enticing me, saying he had a good label and that I'd be treated right. Then he introduced me to Landslide and I found out they were good, honest people. So I recorded again. I wish me and all the R&B artists could have been treated this way in the '50s."