Hal Neely produced hits by James Brown, Patsy Cline and others. He died Monday in Brooksville.
Published March 14, 2009|Updated Dec. 31, 2009

As a kid growing up in Nashville, Chris Neely never knew who might be dropping by his house for a visit. One night it could be an R&B great such as James Brown or Hank Ballard. Another night it might be a country star - Patsy Cline or George Jones.

All of them, as well as dozens more, were close friends and associates of his father, Hal Neely, who died Monday (March 9, 2009) in Brooksville at the age of 88.

According the his son, Mr. Neely was always fascinated by music and the people who performed it.

As an accomplished young trumpeter who wanted to play like Louis Armstrong, his first full-time job came during the late 1930s with big band leader Lawrence Welk. Welk was said to be so impressed with Mr. Neely's skills that he hired him knowing he wasn't old enough to legally enter most of the venues where the orchestra performed.

Following a stint in the Army during World War II, Mr. Neely obtained a degree in mechanical engineering. Though he still loved music, his return to the business wasn't as a musician, but as a technician for a Cincinnati company that pressed records.

According to his longtime friend and Brooksville resident John St. John, Mr. Neely's mechanical expertise impressed Syd Nathan, the founder of King Records in Cincinnati, one of the largest independent record labels of the 1950s and 1960s. Nathan made him a deal, St. John said: "Come work for me, and I'll turn you into a record producer."

For the next 30 years, Mr. Neely helped steer the careers of some of the biggest country and R&B artists of the era.

In addition to serving as James Brown's personal manager, Mr. Neely produced virtually all of Brown's 1960s hits, including the epic album Live at the Apollo, for which Mr. Neely won his first of four Grammy awards.

After Nathan's death in 1968, Mr. Neely and two partners bought the King label and merged it with the Starday label, which they had purchased a few years before.

During his long career, Mr. Neely produced 19 No. 1 hits and 23 gold albums. In Nashville circles, he became a man who many an aspiring recording artist wanted to meet.

"He had an ear for talent," Chris Neely said. Among the stars he discovered were Roger Miller, who pitched to Mr. Neely the song King of the Road inside the elevator Miller was operating.

After selling his share of Starday-King Records, Mr. Neely began to back away from the music business. He retired to Orlando in 1983 to devote time to his golf game and smaller music projects.

With his health failing, Mr. Neely moved to Brooksville in 2002, at the urging of St. John, and was a resident of Tangerine Cove until his death.

"He certainly lived a full life," Chris Neely said. "I don't think he ever regretted a thing he did."

A memorial service for Hal Neely will be at 2:30 p.m. today at Brooksville Church Of Christ, 604 W Fort Dade Ave., Brooksville.

Logan Neill can be reached at or (352) 848-1435.