Nappy Brown ‘Down In The Alley – The Complete Singles As & Bs 1954-1962’ 2CD (Jasmine) 5/5

nappy-brownSinger Napoleon Brown Culp, better known as Nappy Brown, belongs to a now virtually extinct style of singers who were variously referred to as ‘honkers and shouters’. Needless to say the late great Big Joe Turner belonged in this elite as did the likes of Wynonie Harris and Big Jim McNeely. Brown was in his mid-twenties when he cut a series of classic R & B 45s for the Savoy label during 1955 and 1956 and was backed by some of the very top musicians in the business and these form the basis of this excellent and comprehensive overview of the singer when the blues had branched out into the more urban sounding R &B and jukeboxes the length and breadth of the United States rocked to these new sounds. From this period, songs of the calibre of ‘Just a little love’, ‘Open that door (and walk right in my heart)’ and ‘Bye bye baby’ stand out from the crowd and were major crowd pleasers. Brown’s highly individual style reached its zenith in the late 1950s with a trio of hits including, ‘Don’t be angry’, ‘Pitter patter’ (a pop hit for Patty page no less) and from 1959 the jump blues of, ‘I cried like a baby’. Nappy Brown was hip to his contemporaries, Ray Charles in particular, and recorded two separate versions of Charles’ opus, ‘The night time is the right time’. That Brown was evolving as an artist can be judged by the contrasting takes on ‘Don’t be angry’, the earlier version dating from 1955 and the latter from 1961. Both have their merits. In fact the singer was clearly intent on achieving a pop/blues crossover and the uplifting,’Little by little’, proved beyond doubt that he could attract a wider audience.

That said, in the post-1962 period, Nappy Brown’s life took a dramatic downward spiral and sadly, from a musical as well as human perspective, he spent a good deal of that decade in prison. However, by 1969 he returned to recording duties and was now something of a reformed person, illustrated in the 1970s when he began recording gospel music (Tommy Dorsey would undergo a similar career and personal transformation a few decades previous) with the Bell Jubilee Singers on the Jewel label. That blues and gospel are closely related in spite of the diametrically opposed lyrical content is beyond dispute, and one only need to hear the gritty R & B of Aretha Franklin on her stunning Atlantic albums and contrast those with her live gospel recording on the very same label to realise that blues in its myriad forms and gospel can and indeed do co-exist in harmony provided there is mutual respect.

A much later return to the blues idiom was made by Nappy Brown in the late 1980s with a 1987 album recorded in Dallas, entitled, ‘Something gonna jump out the bushes’ on the Black Top label and this featured the fine guitar playing of Earl King and the offering won plaudits as a fine contemporary blues album. This new anthology captures Nappy Brown at his absolute prime and as such is a fine first port of call for any blues enthusiast who wishes to revisit those heady R & B sides of the 1950s.

Tim Stenhouse