Nappy Brown

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Date: 2009
Publisher: Gale
Document Type: Biography
Length: 1,208 words
Content Level: (Level 3)
Lexile Measure: 1100L

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About this Person
Born: October 12, 1929 in Charlotte, North Carolina, United States
Nationality: American
Occupation: Blues singer
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Though Nappy Brown grew up singing gospel hymns, it was as a singer of the blues that he first rose to national prominence in the 1950s. His lush arrangements and innovative vocal style were major influences in the development of rhythm and blues (R&B), a genre then in its infancy. After dropping out of the music business in 1962, he lived a private life for two decades, emerging again only at the behest of fans in the early 1980s. While the strength of that comeback eventually waned, the release of the critically acclaimed album Long Time Coming in 2007 revived his fortunes again, and at the time of his death the following year he was enjoying some of the greatest success of his career.

Born Napoleon Brown Goodson Culp in October of 1929 in Charlotte, North Carolina, he would live in that city for most of his life. His exposure to music began with church services in early childhood. His father sang in the choir of Charlotte's First Mount Zion Baptist Church, and the rhythms and cadences of the gospel music he heard there as a boy would have a lifelong influence. His own vocal abilities were quickly recognized, and by the age of nine he had taken his place in the choir alongside his father. As a teenager, he formed a gospel group, the Golden Crowns, with some cousins. "That was the first group I had," Brown would later tell music critic Bill Dahl in a profile posted on the Blind Pig Records Web site. "I was real young then. I was about 16 years old." After moving on to another gospel group, the Golden Bell Quintet, Brown joined one of the genre's best-known groups, the Selah Jubilee Singers, then based in Raleigh, North Carolina. Though the group made a number of recordings and was often heard on radio broadcasts, Brown and the other members often had to take odd jobs to make ends meet.

In 1954 Brown's fortunes improved dramatically when he was invited to Newark, New Jersey, to join the Heavenly Light Gospel Singers. Shortly after his arrival, the group had an audition with Herman Lubinsky, owner of the Savoy record label. After listening to Brown's powerful and resonant voice, Lubinsky asked him if he would consider switching from gospel to the blues. "I was just a poor boy from the South and wanted to make some money," Brown would later recall in remarks quoted by Tony Russell in the London Guardian. "So I said yes." Brown was a gospel singer by training, but he had long enjoyed listening to the blues, which lacked gospel's religious overtones but shared its emphasis on vocal strength and its ability to evoke raw emotion. Among the blues performers Brown would later cite as a major influence was Charles Brown, a California singer who preferred lush, jazzlike orchestral arrangements to the spare, guitar-driven style that was typical at the time. Nappy Brown also preferred a fuller sound. Therefore, like his slightly older namesake, he is often considered a pioneer of R&B.

With the backing of several highly regarded session musicians, notably saxophonist Sam Taylor, Brown quickly made a number of recordings for Savoy, including his first major hit, 1954's Don't Be Angry, which rose to number twenty-five on Billboard's pop chart and to number two on its R&B chart. The album featured the wordplay and idiosyncratic pronunciations that would become Brown's trademark, including his habit of adding "-li" or "-la" to the ends of words. While these extra syllables undoubtedly helped him synchronize the lyrics with the rhythm of the music, they also served to set his records apart in an increasingly crowded and competitive market. According to Ben Sisario in the New York Times, Brown conceived the idea while listening to foreign-language radio broadcasts.

Brown would remain with Savoy until the end of 1962. While a number of the songs he arranged and recorded for the company became hits, he never achieved the celebrity status of other performers in the blues tradition, notably pianist and vocalist Ray Charles. Perhaps the most striking example of this dichotomy came in 1959, when Charles had a major hit with the song "(Night Time Is) The Right Time," which Brown had written and recorded earlier with only modest success. Brown would later attribute Charles's achievement to the pianist's use of female backup singers instead of the male gospel chorus he himself had used. In his recollection of the incident to Gene Tomko in Charlotte Magazine, Brown said, "It felt good [Charles] had covered it. That still was good for me." Tomko added that Brown made these comments "with a sly wink and a jingle of his pocket, signifying the royalties he's received."

In 1962 Brown left Savoy and returned to private life in North Carolina. The reasons for his abrupt departure have never been entirely clear, but Brown would later say that he had simply tired of the music business. After returning to his hometown, he held a variety of jobs, including circus elephant handler. His musical activities, meanwhile, were limited to occasional, noncommercial gospel performances. After roughly two decades of relative obscurity, however, he enjoyed a remarkable comeback in the early 1980s, when European fans of his Savoy recordings convinced him to go on a number of overseas tours. A series of U.S. concerts followed, as did the release of several new albums, including 1987's highly regarded Something Gonna Jump out the Bushes. He continued to release albums throughout the 1990s, but they were less successful, both critically and commercially.

In 2007 he staged a second comeback with the release of Long Time Coming, which Scott Yanow on the allmusic Web site called a "spirited set" that showed the singer "at the top of his game." At the age of seventy-eight Brown found himself in the spotlight once more, with a prominent appearance on the popular National Public Radio program Prairie Home Companion and two Blues Music Award nominations from the Blues Foundation. His performance at the foundation's award ceremony in May of 2008 proved to be one of his last. After several months of hospitalization, he died of respiratory failure on September 20, 2008. Surviving him were two sons, two daughters, and several grandchildren. Toward the end of his life he often expressed his gratitude to critics and fans for their renewed interest in his work. As his producer, Scott Cable, told Russell, Brown "always felt very lucky to have a second chance."


Born Napoleon Brown Goodson Culp on October 12, 1929, in Charlotte, NC; died on September 20, 2008, in Charlotte; children: four.


Vocalist with various gospel groups, 1940s-54; solo recording artist for Savoy Records, 1954-62; solo performer, 1980s-2008.


Nominated for Blues Music Award for traditional blues album of the year and traditional blues male artist of the year, Blues Foundation, 2008, for Long Time Coming.


Selected discography

  • Don't Be Angry, Savoy Jazz, 1954.
  • Nappy Brown Sings, Savoy, 1955.
  • The Right Time, Savoy, 1958.
  • I Done Got Over, Stockholm, 1983.
  • Tore Up, Alligator, 1984.
  • Something Gonna Jump out the Bushes, Black Top, 1987.
  • Apples & Lemons, Ichiban, 1990.
  • I'm a Wild Man, New Moon, 1995.
  • Who's Been Foolin' You, New Moon, 1997.
  • Long Time Coming, Blind Pig, 2007.




Charlotte Magazine, March 1, 2008.

Guardian (London), September 26, 2008.

New York Times, September 25, 2008.


Dahl, Bill, "Nappy Brown," Blind Pig Records, (accessed December 1, 2008).

Dahl, Bill, "Nappy Brown: Biography," allmusic, (accessed December 1, 2008).

Yanow, Scott, "Long Time Coming: Review," allmusic, (accessed December 1, 2008).

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Source Citation   

Gale Document Number: GALE|K1606004331