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.

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