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Book recounts former Brooksville resident's days with James Brown

BROOKSVILLE — The name Hal Neely probably won't pique the interest of anyone not well-versed in pop music. For Brooksville author and storyteller Jerry Cowling, even an appeal by a close friend to help assemble Neely's memoirs didn't elicit much excitement at first. But it didn't take long for Cowling to change his mind.

Neely, who died five years ago at age 88 in a Brooksville assisted living facility, was something of an obscure legend — a record company executive and producer who helped steer the music careers of dozens of musicians, including soul music icon James Brown.

It was Neely's long and complicated relationship with the singer and his former recording company cohorts that compelled Cowling to write his fourth book, James Brown's Favorite Uncle, which was recently released as an e-book available at Amazon.com and Barnesandnoble.com.

Cowling admits he knew little about Neely when they first met for a story interview in 2008 other than what he had learned from his friend, Roland Hanneman, also known by his professional name, John St. John. Though weakened from years of illness, Neely demonstrated to the author a charm he had not expected.

"He was a proud man, proud of his accomplishments and that he had done things his way," Cowling recalled. "But there was also a sense of bitterness. There were often others who wanted to see him fail."

Indeed, Cowling's account of Neely's career examines the highs and lows of being a player in a shadowy, ego-driven industry that few truly understood. Too often, Neely found that he was expected to keep the cash flowing, no matter what. It was hardly an easy task, Cowling discovered.

"It demanded a lot of energy from him," Cowling said. "Not everyone shared his vision of how the business should be run."

Indeed, James Brown's Favorite Uncle often juxtaposes Neely's recollections with those held by industry colleagues and rivals. Using narrative from Neely's own unfinished biographical manuscript obtained from Hanneman, Cowling also interviewed several Neely's friends and family to try to get a true picture.

Neely, who once played trumpet for Lawrence Welk's orchestra, went to work for Cincinnati's independent King Records in 1949, first as a record pressing technician. At the time, the label mainly specialized in Southern "hillbilly" music. But owner Syd Nathan also owned a label called Federal Records that had boosted regional African American blues and R&B artists such as Hank Ballard, Billy Ward and Earl Bostic into national stars.

Brown was by far the most famous name on the King/Federal roster, dominating both the R&B and mainstream charts with hits such as Please, Please, Please, Papa's Got A Brand New Bag, I Got You and It's A Man's Man's Man's World. For more than 20 years, Neely served as right-hand man to the charismatic Nathan, who was happy to put him in charge of artist development.

While others have often disputed his version of events, Neely claimed that he was the first at the label to hear the demo recording that led to Brown's signing with King in 1956, and served as producer on the singer's first hit, Please, Please, Please.

Through the years, Neely maintained a close, yet often difficult relationship with Brown, an egocentric entertainer who claimed he was shortchanged by King Records. For that, he often blamed Neely. And Brown, in his testimony over a 2005 suit brought by Neely, refused to acknowledge that the two had ever been associates until he was confronted with copies of his signed recording contract with King.

Neely's career in music began to fade after Nathan's death in 1968. He managed to buy King Records and merged it with Nashville-based Starday Records. But by then, the industry was fully controlled by interests that had little use for independent labels. Unable to keep up with drain of company resources, Neely and his partners began liquidating assets in the early 1970s. Neely eventually sold his interest to another label.

By the mid 1990s, Neely's health began to fail, as did his second marriage. His move to the Tangerine Cove in Brooksville in 2006 was prompted by Hanneman, who routinely looked after Neely until his death.

Cowling said he doesn't know if his book will ultimately settle anything.

"It's said that history is written by the victors," Cowling said. "Hal Neely never got the chance to present his side to the public. I hope to present to readers a balanced story that they will find interesting and compelling. In the end, it will be up to them to decide for themselves the real story."

Contact Logan Neill at lneill@tampabay.com or (352) 848-1435.

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