Their names were never legendary, and are mostly footnotes today, but their music's roots have run deep through the history of rock and R&B ever since they all recorded sides for Savoy Records in the 1950s and early '60s. Nappy Brown, Drink Small, Kip Anderson and Clifford Curry were label mates on Herman Lubinsky's infamous label, wracking up hits and near-misses that echoed through Motown's heyday and today's soul revival, in the Stones' R&B era and in the soulful strains of Southern rock. And for one night they'll be on the same stage, recreating what was once called Jump Blues at the Savoy Records R&B Reunion Show this Friday at JBz.
Nappy Brown is probably best known to Charlotteans, a native of this city who got his start singing gospel for groups like the Heavenly Lights, who were signed to Savoy, a jazz label and early R&B pioneer. Brown's first solo hit for Savoy came in 1955: "Don't Be Angry" was one of the earliest R&B hits that crossed over to the pop market. The song was re-done by white bands -- a common practice at the time -- but Brown caught the ear of Alan Freed, later taking part in the radio DJ's All Star R&B concerts and eventually touring with Little Richard and Jackie Wilson. Known for his big, bluesy voice, rolled consonants and provocative live performances, Brown eventually reached number 2 on Billboard's R&B chart with "Don't Be Angry," just one of his many chartings during the late 1950s. He also penned and recorded what later became one of Ray Charles' hits, "Night Time Is the Right Time."
Working for Lubinsky was no financial picnic; however. African-American artists on Savoy were highly critical of their pay, but with little recourse or alternatives at the time. Tiny Price, a journalist for the black newspaper Newark Herald News, said of Savoy and Lubinsky, there was "no doubt everybody hated Herman Lubinsky. If he messed with you, you were messed with."
Brown eventually left Savoy in the early 1960s as his popularity waned. Little was heard from him during that decade and the next, but new generations' interest in the origins of R&B helped rekindle his career in the '80s. He made several records for different labels throughout the '90s, and in 2000 Savoy released a 36-song double-disc of his early Savoy material.
Drink Small got his start playing pump organ but switched to a home-made guitar at age 11. He developed a style reminiscent of Blind Boy Fuller, eventually mastering delta, slide, ragtime and Piedmont styles of blues guitar. Born in 1933 in Lee County, SC, Small's fear of singing led him to a sideman career at first, joining the Spiritualaires on the Vee Jay label and touring with the likes of Sam Cooke and the Staple Singers.
Once the Spiritualaires called it quits, Small overcame his vocal stage fright and recorded some sides for Sharp, a subsidiary of Savoy, developing a following among college kids. He became known for one of the few true basso profundo blues voices and proved adept at all manner of styles such as gutbucket blues, soul, funk, gospel and raunchy R&B. He also started his own label, Bishopville Records, in the 1970s. In 1986, his record The Blues Doctor: Live and Outrageous was nominated for a W.C. Handy award. He released records throughout the '90s and also stayed active by playing various festivals and giving music seminars. In 1992, he was featured on the cover of Living Blues magazine. Small was inducted into the South Carolina Music and Entertainment Hall of Fame in 1999, an honor he shares with Dizzy Gillespie and James Brown, among others.
Small re-emerged in 2002 with a bare-bones, live in-studio recording -- Does It All -- that featured solo performances on National Steel and barrel-house piano. Like all of his material, these songs are a mix of the profane and spiritual because, as Small once put it, he was "boogalooing on Saturday, hallelujahing on Sunday."
Kip Anderson is a survivor. He was only 13 years old and singing with his church choir when he was discovered in Anderson, SC, by gospel legend Madame Edna Gallman Cooke. He switched to secular music at the prodding of radio DJ and R&B singer Charles Derrick, and in 1959 had a regional hit with his debut single, "I Wanna Be the One." A brief stint with Savoy followed, which ended when Lubinsky terminated Anderson's contract over a songwriting credit dispute.
Anderson bounced around from label to label and studio to studio in the 1960s, committing some superb singles to Derrick's Tomorrow label and the Chess Records subsidiary, Checker. It was while on Checker that Anderson released what many consider to be his best work, a trio of charting singles recorded at the Fame Studios in Muscle Shoals, AL. "Woman, How Do You Make Me Love You Like I Do" "Without a Woman," and "A Knife and a Fork" (later recorded by Nick Lowe and Dave Edmunds in Rockpile) benefited from the studio's legendary sessions players, but Anderson's deep soulful growl was more than up to the task. Anderson followed up on Ernie Young's Excello label with another trio of strong singles, including "I Went Off and Cried," his best-known. But by 1970 he was mired in heroin addiction and cut loose from Excello; by the end of the decade he was serving a 10-year prison stretch in Columbia, SC.
Anderson resumed his career upon his release, releasing records for the gospel Lorma label and R&B independent Ichiban in the 1990s. He teamed up with Nappy Brown in 1996 for the duet collection Best of Both Worlds and released The Doll and The White Roses in 2003.
Knoxville native Clifford Curry has been in the music business for half a century, joining the Echos while still in high school and soon afterward backing Faye Adams on her chart-topping R&B classic, "Shake a Hand." Renamed the Five Pennies for its Savoy sides in 1955, royalty issues eventually led to the band's disintegration. After a five-year gig with the Bubba Suggs Band, Curry began a solo career in the mid-60s under the moniker Sweet Clifford, recording for Excello Records, among many others.
Curry kept busy throughout the 1960s and '70s, but with diminishing returns, despite a near-hit in 1967 with "She Shot a Hole in My Soul." But as the '70s evolved, Curry found his career was, too, as he made a name for himself throughout the burgeoning Carolinas Beach Music movement. In 1995, Collectables Records released a 20-song collection of Curry's singles from the mid- and late 60s -- many of them one-offs from long-gone labels -- that represent the height of Curry's jump blues work.
The Savoy Jump Blues Reunion features Nappy Brown, Kip Anderson, Clifford Curry, the Gay Poppers and Drink Small backed by the King Bees at JBz Beach Club on Aug. 18; 8pm; Advance tickets $12 each, $20 for couples, and $15 date of show. For more information, call 704-596-9194