Nappy Brown: Gospel singer who switched to rhythm 'n' blues and influenced James Brown and Otis Redding

During their "A Bigger Bang" tour of 2005-07, the Rolling Stones often paid tribute to the late Ray Charles with a performance of "(Night Time Is) The Right Time". Though Charles is most commonly associated with the song, his 1958 version closely followed a 1957 recording of "The Right Time" by the gospel singer turned rhythm 'n' blues shouter Nappy Brown. "He had all my notes in there," Brown said. "He had everything. Everything, but one thing. I had men [doing backing vocals] behind mine. He had women [the Raelettes] behind his. But his was up-tempo. It became a big hit."

He also claimed authorship. "I'm the one that wrote 'Night Time Is (The Right Time)," he insisted. "Mine was called 'Right Time'. I've got it. You can look on all my 78s and it'll be Napoleon Culp. That's my real name. I loved it when Ray Charles had that hit. I loved it because I belong to BMI [the organisation that collects royalties]. I collect from him right now and he's a dead man. As long as I live I collect."

That glosses over the fact that, alongside his name, "The Right Time" has often been credited to Ozzie Cadena, the staff producer at Savoy Records – the label Brown was signed to in his Fifties heyday and the company which issued his biggest hit, "Don't Be Angry" – and Lew Herman, thought to be a pseudonym for Herman Lubinsky, the notoriously devious Savoy boss. Whatever the truth behind the genesis of "The Right Time", it has been covered by the Animals, Creedence Clearwater Revival, Aretha Franklin, Lulu and Tina Turner, as well as being reprised by Joss Stone in a TV advertisement.

Brown's throat-burning style of singing and melismatic ad-libbing, which originated in his gospel roots, along with his no-holds barred performances,influenced a host of R&B, soul and rock 'n' roll performers including James Brown, Wilson Pickett and Otis Redding. Though he disappeared from view for over a decade, he came back in the mid-Eighties, and recorded his most critically acclaimed album last year.

Born in Charlotte, North Carolina, in 1929, he said he "just grew up religious. I got started singing when I was about nine years old in the choir at church. My dad was what you call a steward, and the bass singer in the choir." At 16, he formed a gospel group with his cousins, the Golden Crowns, before moving on to the Golden Bell Quintet and the Selah Jubilee Singers, led by Thurman Ruth, with whom he spent five years.

Already, Brown felt torn between his gospel roots and the secular music he listened to, in particular the blues of Charles Brown. "That's one of my idols," he said. "My mama used to call it the devil's music. After I got to makin' money, she didn't call it the devil's music then."

In the early Fifties, Brown joined the Heavenly Lights and travelled to Newark, New Jersey to audition for Savoy Records, a local company associated with jazz artists but moving into the gospel and R&B market. The Heavenly Lights were successful, issuing a single comprising "Jesus Said It" and "Lord I'm In Your Hands". In early 1954, Lubinsky convinced the singer to go solo and secular under the name Nappy Brown. "He needed an R&B singer," Brown explained. "I said, 'Yes, I can do it'. He's the one that called me Nappy because, see, Napoleon was too long to go on the record back then."

The singer had planned to release a risqué song entitled "Lemon Squeezin' Daddy" but Lubinsky vetoed the idea in favour of "That Man", a humorous song about cheating which enabled Brown to switch from a deep bass on the verses to a wailing tenor on the chorus. After the bluesy "Is It True", his second Savoy single, he crossed over from the R&B charts to the Top 30 with "Don't Be Angry" in 1955.

Conceived as a ballad, the track became an infectious rocker under producer Fred Mendelsohn, who co-wrote the song with Brown and the New York songwriter Rose Marie McCoy. "Don't Be Angry" also opened with a gimmicky 'so l-l-l-l-l-l', a vibrato trick Brown had picked up from listening to foreign radio stations and which became his trademark.

"Every time I recorded, he [Lubinsky] wanted a l-l-l-l-l-l in it. 'There'll Come A Day', 'Apple Of My Eye', oh, Lord. He wanted l-l-l-l-l-l on everything!" said Brown.

"(My Heart Goes) Piddily Patter Patter", another McCoy composition, this time written with Charles Singleton, started life as the B-side of "There'll Come A Day" in 1955 but became the singer's second biggest hit when DJs flipped the record over (in 1990, it was included on the soundtrack to Cry-Baby, the John Waters film starring Johnny Depp).

Unfortunately, as was common throughout the Fifties, a cover by a white act, this time Patti Page, soon eclipsed Brown's own, much like a version of "Don't Be Angry" by the Crew-Cuts had caused Brown's original to stall at No 25 on the US pop charts earlier that year.

But he was established enough to go out on package tours presented by the disc jockey Alan Freed and featuring Big Maybelle, the Moonglows, Bo Diddley, Muddy Waters or Jackie Wilson, and even played the Apollo Theatre in Harlem with Louis Armstrong. "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!" he recalled.

However, only three of his subsequent Savoy singles – "Little By Little" (1956), "It Don't Hurt No More" (1958) and "I Cried Like A Baby" (1959) – made any impact and, when his contract ended in 1963, Brown all but vanished from the scene, releasing a sole album in 1969 on the Elephant label.

In the mid-Eighties, European interest in the roots of R&B and rock 'n' roll brought him back out on tour and into the studio for several albums, most notably Tore Up (1984), Something Gonna Jump Out The Bushes! (1987) and more recently Long Time Coming (2007) recorded with Muddy Waters' guitarist Bob Margolin. Brown still performed occasionally and appeared in June at the Crawfish Fest in Augusta, New Jersey. He remained the consummate entertainer, wearing a suit and a fedora hat, wowing the crowds with the double entendre of "Lemon-Squeezin' Daddy". "I can't quit," he said. "I got the fever."

Pierre Perrone

Napoleon Brown Culp (Nappy Brown), singer and songwriter: born Charlotte, North Carolina 12 October 1929; married (one son); died Charlotte 20 September 2008.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksAn introduction to the ground rules of British democracy
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
SPONSORED FEATURES
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Senior Environmental Adviser - Maternity Cover

£37040 - £43600 per annum: Recruitment Genius: The UK's export credit agency a...

Recruitment Genius: CBM & Lubrication Technician

£25000 - £27500 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This company provides a compreh...

Recruitment Genius: Care Worker - Residential Emergency Service

£16800 - £19500 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Would you like to join an organ...

Recruitment Genius: Senior Landscaper

£25000 - £28000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: In the last five years this com...

Day In a Page

Refugee crisis: David Cameron lowered the flag for the dead king of Saudi Arabia - will he do the same honour for little Aylan Kurdi?

Cameron lowered the flag for the dead king of Saudi Arabia...

But will he do the same honour for little Aylan Kurdi, asks Robert Fisk
Our leaders lack courage in this refugee crisis. We are shamed by our European neighbours

Our leaders lack courage in this refugee crisis. We are shamed by our European neighbours

Humanity must be at the heart of politics, says Jeremy Corbyn
Joe Biden's 'tease tour': Could the US Vice-President be testing the water for a presidential run?

Joe Biden's 'tease tour'

Could the US Vice-President be testing the water for a presidential run?
Britain's 24-hour culture: With the 'leisured society' a distant dream we're working longer and less regular hours than ever

Britain's 24-hour culture

With the 'leisured society' a distant dream we're working longer and less regular hours than ever
Diplomacy board game: Treachery is the way to win - which makes it just like the real thing

The addictive nature of Diplomacy

Bullying, betrayal, aggression – it may be just a board game, but the family that plays Diplomacy may never look at each other in the same way again
Lady Chatterley's Lover: Racy underwear for fans of DH Lawrence's equally racy tome

Fashion: Ooh, Lady Chatterley!

Take inspiration from DH Lawrence's racy tome with equally racy underwear
8 best children's clocks

Tick-tock: 8 best children's clocks

Whether you’re teaching them to tell the time or putting the finishing touches to a nursery, there’s a ticker for that
Charlie Austin: Queens Park Rangers striker says ‘If the move is not right, I’m not going’

Charlie Austin: ‘If the move is not right, I’m not going’

After hitting 18 goals in the Premier League last season, the QPR striker was the great non-deal of transfer deadline day. But he says he'd preferred another shot at promotion
Isis profits from destruction of antiquities by selling relics to dealers - and then blowing up the buildings they come from to conceal the evidence of looting

How Isis profits from destruction of antiquities

Robert Fisk on the terrorist group's manipulation of the market to increase the price of artefacts
Labour leadership: Andy Burnham urges Jeremy Corbyn voters to think again in last-minute plea

'If we lose touch we’ll end up with two decades of the Tories'

In an exclusive interview, Andy Burnham urges Jeremy Corbyn voters to think again in last-minute plea
Tunisia fears its Arab Spring could be reversed as the new regime becomes as intolerant of dissent as its predecessor

The Arab Spring reversed

Tunisian protesters fear that a new law will whitewash corrupt businessmen and officials, but they are finding that the new regime is becoming as intolerant of dissent as its predecessor
King Arthur: Legendary figure was real and lived most of his life in Strathclyde, academic claims

Academic claims King Arthur was real - and reveals where he lived

Dr Andrew Breeze says the legendary figure did exist – but was a general, not a king
Who is Oliver Bonas and how has he captured middle-class hearts?

Who is Oliver Bonas?

It's the first high-street store to pay its staff the living wage, and it saw out the recession in style
Earth has 'lost more than half its trees' since humans first started cutting them down

Axe-wielding Man fells half the world’s trees – leaving us just 422 each

However, the number of trees may be eight times higher than previously thought
60 years of Scalextric: Model cars are now stuffed with as much tech as real ones

60 years of Scalextric

Model cars are now stuffed with as much tech as real ones