Nappy Brown sings the devil's music. That's what his mama called it. When Brown crossed over from his gospel-singing gig with the Heavenly Lights to record his first secular R&B hit, 1955's "Don't Be Angry," Mama Brown wasn't aware of it -- at first.
"Another lady told her, 'Mag, do you know your son Napoleon is singing the blues?'" says Brown, phoning from his Charlotte home. "Oh no," his mother told her. "He wouldn't be doin' that -- we raised him up in the church. He better not be doin' that." The Browns hadn't seen their son for a couple of years when he paid them a visit after the tune came out. The record came on the radio while Brown was in his parents' house. "My father was sitting there patting his feet," Brown recalls. "He didn't know that was me."
But Mama did. As he was leaving, Brown offered to leave his parents some money. "Mama said, 'No. I don't want that money, that's the devil's music!' I said, 'Well, I'll guess I'll go then. I'll see you when I come back through.' And when I got on the porch, Mama hollered, 'Boy, you better bring me some of that money!'"
That tune made Brown a big star. It had everything a 1950s R&B hit record should have: a driving beat, a lusty delivery and indecipherable lyrics. Brown's vocals have a Caribbean lilt, but he won't pin down the location that inspired him. "When I was coming up as a teenager, I was listening to the radio and way late on over into the night, I heard what I called then this foreign music, la-la-la-li --oooh," Brown explains. "During them days, over in Paris and over in there through the European countries, they thought I was a Frenchman."
Brown continued his rockin' "Frenchman" style for his follow-up "Piddly Patter Patter." Though Brown's original records did well, covers by white artists, including Patti Page on "Angry," sold better, but Brown did not share in the royalties. In 1957, Ray Charles hit big with Brown's original composition, "Night Time is The Right Time." Brown toured with Charles during that time. "We would do it together," says Brown. "He had all of the horns, all the music, just like mine."
Brown says that caused confusion among fans as to the song's ownership. "But when they looked on his record, it's under there who the writer is, and it's my name."
Nevertheless, Brown never got his rightful share of the profits, and was so disgusted with being cheated out of publishing rights he quit the business for nearly a decade, going back to his gospel roots through the 1970s and early '80s. Brown found career salvation with '72's "Do You Know The Man From Galilee," with the Bell Jubilee Singers. "It carried me everyplace," Brown recalls. "I went all over the country. It was a wonderful hit."
In '84, Brown left gospel again, teaming up with Tinsley Ellis and the Heartfixers for some blistering blues on Tore Up, covering Little Walter, Howlin' Wolf and Solomon Burke. Brown is at his lusty, brassy best, belting it out while Ellis' guitar screams behind him. "Gospel wasn't like it used to be," Brown says of his reasons for returning to secular music. "Used to be just sho nuff what you call foot-stompin' stuff. It got to be almost like blues. If it's gonna sound like it, might as well do the real thing."
Brown's latest, Long Time Coming on Blind Pig, is indeed the real thing. Brown's old-school style doesn't sound dated. And at 78, Brown's vocals are as strong as ever -- a little crusty around the edges from time to time, but that just adds character. He even reprises "Don't Be Angry" with all the vocal trills and rolls intact. He's backed by an all-star band that includes guitarist Junior Watson, left coast harpist John Nemeth, Jim Pugh of The Robert Cray band on keys, and Charlotte's Mookie Brill, winner of the '06 Blues Music Award (formerly the W.C. Handy award) as best bassist. "What you talking about?" says Brown when asked what he thinks of his band and his resurrected career. "It's wonderful."
Nappy Brown's CD release party featuring Brown's All-Star Review with Bob Margolin, Sean Costello, Mookie Brill, Big Joe Maher and Scott Cable is at the Blues, Brews & BBQ Festival on Sept. 15 on the Michelob Entertainment Stage North Tryon between 6th & 11th streets from 7:30-8:45 p.m. Admission is free.