If there was one guy I’ve held close to my miserly little rock snob heart, lo, these 75 years, it’s Napoleon Culp.
You don’t know him.
Though even I didn’t know him until this morning, when to my shock and dismay the digital New York Times informed me of the passing of a 78-year-old gospel and R&B singer from North Carolina who was born Napoleon Culp, but performed as Nappy Brown.
You don’t know him either.
And isn’t that the point? He was my secret. My invincibly winning gambit in the compulsive bloodsport of musical oneupsmanship. The one name I could reliably whip out in a crowd, and nobody would know.
Sure, John Goddard knew who he was. And the first time I walked into Village Music, John’s jampacked, soon-to-be-legendary little record store in Mill Valley, and saw a new album by Nappy Brown in the “Artists We Really Like” bin, I was staggered. In those days before Google or iTunes, I had not only assumed no one knew Nappy, but that he had already taken my secret (his existence) to the grave. (And, of course, in those days before Google and Wikipedia, I also had no idea of Nappy’s long-gone ‘50s glory days.)
But Goddard — well, he’s so cool he had a copy of my book in his store for 20 years. Literally, one sad, permanently unsold copy of The Noise (and I never said a thing, btw). John is part of that .001% who know Nappy Brown — along with every other musician you think no one else knows. I mean, I would never consciously compete with Goddard. But that’s not really a problem because like a lot of hardcore record nerds he doesn’t turn up at very many social occasions. And now, alas, his store is closed.
Anyway, Nappy Brown.
In the strange, dark days during which I occasionally attended college, 35 years ago, in Greenwich Village, my apartment was next door to one over-the-hill record producer and across the street from another. I think it was the across-the-street guy, Jeff, who brought the Nappy Brown album to one of our building’s non-stop parties. I forget who Jeff had produced in his heyday — no one big (the other neighbor was another story) — and I’m pretty sure he never produced Nappy. Jeff’s most distinguishing feature was that he always carried a folded-over Daily News under his left arm. Always — drunken days, messed-up nights, dancing on his toes in the living room or passed out upright on the couch, there it was, irretrievably tucked beneath his armpit, print rubbed illegibile, newsprint rubbed shiny.
So one evening he shows up with the paper under his left arm and an album under the other. Stark black-and-white cover. On the front, a black man — dressed more early-60s jazz than late-60s soul (the album was originally released in 1969) — sitting on tenement steps, not looking happy. In a semi-handwriting font, intended to approximate graffiti, the title reads, Thanks for Nothing. The artist, of course, Nappy Brown.
It was a weird album, even at a glance. Then Jeff put on the title cut.
OK, last night I rummaged through my records looking for it. Not surprisingly, my filing system, which encompasses 5,000 albums, is far from infallible. But it wasn’t in the box that starts with Beatles and ends with Cheap Trick, or the one labeled Miscellaneous, though it occurs to me now that it could be in the carton bracketed by New York Dolls and Ozark Mountain Daredevils. I’ll look later. I was rooting through the records because I couldn’t find the tune on the Internet. References to the album, yes, even a sealed copy on Ebay, but no MP3.
My point is, I’m doing this from memory. But I’ll tell you one thing, I remember it well. No doubt, because I listened to it obsessively for years. And while I know it won’t mean as much to you if and when you track it down, it hit the spot back then.
“Thanks for Nothing” was the bleakest song I’d ever heard. Where, for instance, the nascent heavy metal genre plumbed madness and clinical depression for downer delights, Nappy Brown dove right in. You really believed this man was suffering. The arrangement was spare, slow, vaguely gospel, and centered on piano, with zero production sheen. Just Nappy’s big, deep, raspy voice in your face. It was the story of a life and started out, “Baby’s born…” It went on to tell what this does to people around him: “Daddy gets drunk/He escapes…”
And then, in the coup de grace, Nappy sang, “Baby’s first three words are… Thanks for nothing.”
So bleak, so irredeemably bleak, it was almost funny. And that’s kinda where I started. But listening again and again, I was inescapably drawn into Nappy’s hopeless, tenement-steps world. And somehow, through some unfathomable blues or music alchemy — much as ha-ha funny quickly became goose-bumps chilling — hopelessness for me became, well, hope. And it’s not the song’s simple story. That’s not the triumph here. It’s all in the beauty of Nappy’s telling. And beauty like that is reason to live. And nothing but hope.
So, having discovered that the great Nappy Brown, my musical secret, is dead, I just wanted to tell him: Thanks for something.