The intention of this biography was not to evoke pity for a man with a successful career whose final years were not lived in the same economic circumstances as the vast majority of his life. While others of his music contemporaries may have had more creature comforts, none were surrounded by warmer friendships.
While actual court records do not support Neely’s claim of a lawsuit, the underlying feelings about James Brown are nevertheless true. Brown was sued over royalties by an agent, but that agent was Ben Bart and not Hal Neely. Bart’s son Jack said Brown had a habit of “using, abusing and discarding” people throughout his career.1 Both Neely and Bart provided Brown with more than their expertise in the music business; they became surrogate fathers to him who consoled and counseled him during the rough times of his life.
One theme repeated by the many people who moved through Neely’s life was his generosity to artists coming up through the industry and to ordinary people he casually met along the way. Many people related their Neely stories with a smile and a tear. Some thought his generosity was a weakness in business, and perhaps it was. Better to be remembered as someone with a big, foolish heart than as a successful bastard.
As Neely himself said in his last interview, “The human brain remembers the good things…the good times…it rationalizes the rest.”
Rarely are people privileged to help another person fulfill the dying wish of a dear friend. I thank Roland Hanneman for allowing me to help keep his promise to Hal Neely to have his memoirs completed. Roland spent many hours with me relating Hal’s stories and supplying names of other friends and acquaintances to fill in the enigmatic blanks of Hal’s life. I also thank Roland for introducing me to Hal at his nursing home so I could interview him for a local newspaper article the year before his passing. Roland’s devotion to his friend inspires me to be a better person.
Dr. Art Williams graciously spent several hours telling me about Hal’s years in Nashville and in Florida and providing valuable insights into Hal’s life and the inner workings of the music industry.
Some of Hal’s most vivid memories are of his second wife Victoria Wise and of her beauty. She agreed to meet me at a Tampa restaurant in 2011. I had seen only one photograph of her so I was concerned I would not recognize her, but when she walked in the door I instantly knew this was the woman who had enthralled Hal many years ago. I thank her for sharing her personal memories and for being the first person to challenge Hal’s claim he had sued James Brown in 2005. Victoria has recently remarried and I wish her all the happiness in the world.
I also appreciate the time and information from Al Nicholson, Buddy Winsett, Vic McCormick, Abe Guillermo, Sarah Nachin, and Bruce Snow whom I interviewed in Florida. I thank Ellen Paul of Brooksville, Florida, for her editing skills in preparing the final draft of this biography.
Those who spoke to me by telephone who provided assistance were Jack Bart, John Rumble, and Brian Powers. Mr. Rumble and Mr. Powers were kind enough to send me information from the Country Music Hall of Fame and the Cincinnati Public Library which proved invaluable.
Equally important were the e-mail communications shared with Mr. Bart, Randy McNutt, William Lawless, Nathan Gibson, John Broven, Cliff White, and Mike Stoller. Mr. Lawless, as Hal’s attorney, confirmed there had never been a lawsuit against James Brown. Mr. Gibson revealed hard feelings among Starday-King staff toward Hal. Mr. Stoller discounted Hal’s claim that he lost a coin toss and thereby lost his position at the Tennessee Recording Company. Mr. Stoller was the only celebrity who replied to my requests for information. As I said in my e-mail to him, I enjoyed his music and respected him for being a gracious human being.
In closing I thank my wife Janet for her memories about her grandmother’s fascination with Oral Robert’s radio program and about how she had ordered the small vial of Jordan River water which actually came from Hal Neely’s tap at home.
1 Bart Interview.