Napoleon "Nap" Turner Jr., 73, whose long love affair with music made him an institution on the Washington blues and jazz scene and whose flair for storytelling enlivened his show on WPFW radio, died June 17 at George Washington Hospital. He had liver disease.
Turner heard gospel, R&B, jazz and blues wafting through the streets as a youngster coming of age in D.C.'s Shaw neighborhood, and for the next 60 years he cultivated his own sound that became legendary in the city. First, he teased out bluesy, jazzy moans on his bass, and then he discovered the deep, opulent baritone of his own voice and shifted his career to singing and hosting a radio show.
For two decades on Pacifica Radio's local station, Nap "Don't Forget the Blues" Turner's distinctive intonations were broadcast on the popular Saturday program "The Bama Hour." Over the years, he featured a selection of blues, jazz and R&B and showcased his talents as a storyteller by giving new currency to Langston Hughes's Jesse B. Semple character, better known as "Simple."
Exercising his "beautiful, mellifluous speaking voice," as it was described by one writer, Turner also read the Simple stories at libraries and community events. "Nap Does Simple's Blues" was the first production of the new African Continuum Theatre in 1995.
While living his dream of being a hip blues musician, Turner entered the world of drug dealing and heroin abuse that sent him to jail several times and to St. Elizabeths Hospital for three years and nearly cost him his life during the late 1950s and early 1960s. In a 1999 article in The Washington Post, Turner recounted coming up with his signature middle name during one stint in jail:
"I was sitting in jail, thinking about what was going on with me . . . during that period, and 'Don't forget the blues' came to me, because I had the blues all locked up in there. And I realized that I was in there because of the decisions I was making. And that if I wanted to stay away from there that I had to change. So I said, "Don't forget what you're going through now, because if you forget, you might repeat yourself and end up here again."
Not until the 1970s did he finally free himself of his drug addiction, through methadone treatments. Afterward, Turner worked with the District's Alcohol and Drug Abuse Services Administration to help other addicts. He worked as a public health analyst, administering grants and helping oversee addiction research. He also provided counseling and treatment options to clients. He retired in the mid-199os but returned in 1998.
His most recent position, which he left in April, was as community relations specialist for the District's Addiction Prevention and Recovery Administration. He worked in the office of special populations services, providing outreach and education to seniors about prescription drug use and other issues and coordinating services for the homeless with other agencies.
Turner continued to perform during this time. He dedicated himself to promoting and preserving blues music in the District and in helping nurture "the young'uns," as he called the younger musicians, said his wife, Gloria C. Turner.
In the 1990s, he also acted in performances of "Ma Rainey's Black Bottom" and "Lady Day at Emerson's Bar & Grill." He released an audiotape of his readings of Hughes's Simple stories, backed by a jazz and blues combo, called "Hughes' Views of the Blues." His voice was also featured in commercials for the D.C. Lottery and on drug prevention.
Napoleon Turner Jr. was born in the small coal-mining town of Tams, W.Va., where he was known as "Junior." He came to Washington when he was 12 and worked in his great-uncle's shoe shop at Fifth and Warner streets NW. On Seventh Street on Sunday mornings, he heard gospel groups such as Wings Over Jordan and the Tuskegee Choir pouring from radios; during the week, it was rhythm and blues.
He described this scene in a Washington Post article:
"At M and Six-and-a-Half streets, it was like Mississippi with all the guitars and washboards out on the front steps. I saw a guy playing a homemade bass. It was a single piece of clothesline on a stick, and that stick was set into an old Pepsi-Cola syrup can, a five- or 10-gallon can. He'd pull on the stick to increase tension and change the tone, and I wanted one of those, so I built myself one."
As a student at Shaw Junior High School, Turner would slip out of his home at night and go to the Howard Theater and nearby clubs, entranced by the sounds of Count Basie, Woody Herman and Duke Ellington.
Turner, whose name was shorted by his city friends to Nap, graduated from Armstrong High School in the early 1950s, took some courses at what is now the University of the District of Columbia and jammed with Sonny Stitt, Gene Ammons and Webster Young. Charlie Parker tried to counsel him to stay away from drugs.
In the late 1950s, he put down his bass and started singing. He was in at a club on U Street playing with singer Mary Jefferson when she encouraged him to sing a song. He sang Percy Mayfield's "Please Send Me Someone to Love." "And people applauded, and I said, 'Whoa! I like this,' " he told a Post interviewer.
Nearly 50 years later, Turner was a part of Wayne Kahn's Right On Rhythm label's first release, "The Blues You Would Just Hate to Lose," in 1995. Then again with Kahn, Turner made his first CD as a featured singer, "Nap 'Don't Forget the Blues' Turner: Live at City Blues," followed by "Live at Cada Vez!"
Wayne Kahn, who followed Turner around town to tape his first CD, called Turner "the godfather of the local blues scene."
Turner's marriage to Patricia Turner ended in divorce.
Survivors include his wife, of Fort Washington; two sons from another relationship, Gerald Turner of Alexandria and Leonard Turner-Flowers of Frederick; seven grandchildren; and five great-grandchildren.