Nappy Brown knew how to put a song over. Performing his raunchy hit "Lemon Squeezin' Daddy," he'd charm the pants off the ladies with his voice, before launching into a raunchy strip tease culminating in a wild, stage floor-humping exhibition that left audiences and performer breathless.
Although rooted in gospel, Napoleon Brown Culp was in touch with his sensual side. Before the Charlotte singer got his first big break in 1955 with his hit "Don't Be Angry," he had spent most of his life singing in church.
While still a member of the Heavenly Lights gospel group, Brown got the opportunity to record for Savoy Records and was asked by the label head if he could sing blues. Though his parents and the congregation of The First Mount Zion Baptist Church were unaware of it, Brown had been dabbling in blues all along, singing on street corners with neighborhood crooners, even writing the raucous double entendre show-stopper "Lemon Squeezin' Daddy" while still singing gospel.
Turned loose at last, Brown proved to be a leather-lunged blues shouter in the Big Joe Turner style; bold, brassy and bodacious. Although Brown authored a string of hits in the '50s, including what should have been Brown's lifelong money maker, "Night Time Is the Right Time," covered by Ray Charles and a slew of other artists including Tina Turner, James Brown, Joss Stone and Aretha Franklin, his share of the money was greatly diminished when the Savoy label owner allegedly sold the publishing rights to other labels.
Disgusted with the business end of show business, Brown went back into gospel, returning to the charts in 1972 with "Do You Know The Man From Galilee," with the Bell Jubilee Singers. By the '80s he was touring with Tinsley Ellis and the Heartfixers, recording a romping R&B blockbuster, Tore Up, backed by Ellis and the band in '84.
Bob Margolin started featuring Brown as a special guest in '85 and continued his association right up until a few months before Brown's death in '08. "It was a thrill to back him up on guitar, to learn from his stage presence and stories, and to present him to the audiences he always devastated," Margolin said in an obituary for Brown he wrote for BluesWax magazine last year. "Singing harmonies with him is an experience that is otherworldly, one of the delights of my life."
Margolin denies that he brought Brown out of obscurity. "He was already on his way back to our Blues World when I met him."
It looked like things were finally turning around for Brown with the release of '07's Long Time Coming. Produced by Charlotte native Scott Cable, Chicago bluesman Carey Bell's band leader/guitarist, and backed by an impressive cast including West coast blues guitar wizard Jr. Watson, Robert Cray's B-3 organist Jim Pugh, guitarist Sean Costello, R&B shouter/drummer Big Joe Maher, Margolin and bassist Mookie Brill, the record got rave reviews, introducing Brown to a new generation of blues lovers.
R&B star Chuck Jackson from the 1960s ("Any Day Now," "I Don't Want to Cry") reconnected with Brown. "I just wanted to let him know he was the reason I started to sing," Jackson told Cable.
"Screamin' Jay Hawkins thought he was the greatest," says Cable of the man whose act consisted of bursting out of a closed coffin onstage to sing of cannibalism and spell casting. Cable was planning a big comeback show at New York's Apollo theatre, with Jackson, Bonnie Raitt and a stellar R&B cast slotted to appear. "Nappy was so happy," Cable says. "If I get back to the Apollo, that means I'm on top again," Brown told him.
Unfortunately, Brown died before the event could take place. Despite Brown's comeback efforts, his finances were in disarray. "A lot of families think that because their uncle, grandfather had a couple of records or a DVD they're rockstars and there's a million dollars somewhere they don't know about, which is almost never the case unless you're really big like Muddy or B.B.," Cable says.
But Raitt did help with a last tribute to Nappy. "The Rhythm and Blues Foundation (co-founded by Raitt) and a couple of other foundations paid for Nappy's funeral," Cable says. But somehow one important detail was overlooked. A big fan of Brown's, photographer Gene Tomko, went out to put flowers on the grave and couldn't find it. "I thought at the end of the day the family was gonna do a headstone and was shocked to hear there wasn't one," Cable says. "That's why we're doing this. We're gonna give him a super deluxe one, one that stands up, and have his picture on it. It's something that's fitting for somebody like him."
The Oct. 18 benefit will feature an array of artists who worked with Brown. Brill, Margolin's bassist/harpist/singer since '88 and leader of the rockabilly outfit the Parodi Kings, says he was impressed with the hugeness of Brown's voice. "Especially if he did a slow blues, how he could really do the slow burn," he says. "Man, he could just bring it up to -- wow, I can't believe what I'm hearing, somebody kill me 'cause I can't take anymore."
Big Joe Maher, who played on Brown's last record, can't make the show but says he'll be there in spirit. "He always told me if you could sing really well that was always a bonus, but people want to see a show. Nappy always came out and put on a great show every performance," Maher says, providing an epitaph every bluesman would want on his headstone: "Right up to the very end, he was still trying to give it his all."
The Nappy Brown Memorial Fundraiser takes place at the Double Door Inn on Oct. 18 at 6 p.m. $15 donation/cover. Scheduled to appear are Robin Rogers, Mookie Brill, Scott Cable, Bob Margolin, Audrey Madison Turner, Mack Arnold, Sandra Hall, Betty Pride, Michael Wolfe & Voodoo Brothers and others.