The Godfather of Go-go (In Memory of Chuck Brown)

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I’m sure you’ve noticed by now that here at DJBeTray.com I believe in paying homage to music legends.  And while the death of an artist who has influenced me often takes the wind out of me for a while, I always try to find the strength to explain why they were important.

Translating the significance of Chuck Brown may be the hardest yet.

I was 11 years old the first time I understood the importance of Chuck Brown and what part his music had and would play in my life. I say “had” because I heard Chuck throughout my childhood.  Bustin Loose and We Need Some Money were in heavy rotation in the early 80’s.  I’m sure those songs were played more on DC radio than anywhere but I never imagined that the man singing those tunes was actually from DC.  It sounded so much like the funk of the day, I figured it was Parliament or one of the other funky soul bands.

But in the mid 80’s, when Brown released Run Joe, everything changed for me.  From the opening of the song, “The policeman is on the premises ya’ll, what his he doing in here?” I knew I was hearing something special.  Unlike the other songs Brown had released before, targeting hopeful radio crossover success, Run Joe was raw, unapologetic Go-go; a sound created and nurtured by Brown.

The melodic fusion of percussion, horns, bass and his classic electric guitar strum had long since moved beyond him and his live band by then.  By the mid 80’s there were a number of Go-go bands, in fact some had already come and gone by then.  There were Trouble Funk, Experience Unlimited (EU), Rare Essence and a new group at the time called Junk Yard.

But Chuck’s sound was different.  It was refined and blended more musical influences than the bands that emulated him.  The blues, Latin, R&B, jazz and at times big band sounds were more obvious.  Brown’s experience as a seasoned musician blended with his teenage heart to create music that spoke to multiple generations.

In fact, I was feeling a mix of shock and aw when I realized that I wasn’t discovering something new when I heard “Run Joe.”  My parents, uncles and older cousins had been listening and partying to Chuck some 20 years earlier.

From the height of Go-go to its lowest point during the late 80’s, Chuck played.  When Go-go clubs became synonymous with violence during the crack years – Chuck’s events were always a safe haven.  No one would dare “wile out” while chuck was on stage.   And when the death toll on the streets of Washington hit an all time high, Chuck reminded the youth through song that DC “don’t” stand for Dodge City.

Until just a few months before his death, Brown played live all over the Washington area to sold out crowds.  The older he got, the more diverse his following became.  In the mid 90’s Chuck did a Jazz/Blues album with another DC music legend, folk singer Eva Cassidy.  This timeless collaboration gave fans from both sides of this City a chance to hear what happens when real musicians cross genres and make music together.  Surely their album, The Other Side,  contributed to the growing diversity of Chuck’s following.

 

The last time I saw Chuck play live it was at the 9:30 Club here in DC.  He was celebrating his 75th and what would be his last birthday.  He was under the weather that night and apologized to the audience for his naturally gravelly voice being a little coarser than usual.  Then he played for hours nonstop.  This is what Chuck did, played without intermission.  If the band took a break it was with a musical interlude.  Soon that music would be filled with chants of “wind me up Chuck,” meaning the crowd wanted Brown to keep going; thus the name Go-go.  That night his now thin and bony fingers strummed that electric guitar giving off his signature echoed riff.  The horn section boomed and leapt across the stage to the Go-go rhythm.  The congo player banged out our miseries as the keyboard player and drummer kept time.  Even members of other Go-go bands joined Brown onstage playing some old Go-go favorites.  And we danced, from Northeast, to Southeast, to Southwest, to Northwest… we danced.  We sweated out our clothes, hair, troubles, cares and we danced.

As Chuck said his goodnights and we all began our slow walk to our cars, there was laughter in the air and a feeling of euphoria.  When we chanted, “wind me up Chuck” he did, just like he always had and always will.

If you ask why Go-go has never gone pop beyond EU’s Da Butt, I don’t know what to tell you.  While artists from Beyonce to Salt and Pepa and Grace Jones have used or sampled the sound, very few of our bands get recognition.  The musicians who have dedicated their lives to this music sacrifice.  They play in church on Sunday to earn the money to jam with a band on Friday.  They studied their craft with the high school band and dreamed of playing for the Backyard Band.  Then there are the countless kids who set their buckets up on downtown street corners earning change while cranking out the “bangingest” beat they can.  These musicians may say, it’s not fair, Go-go deserves a national audience.

But for Washingtonians who have traveled this Country and the world, we love it.  We love that Go-go is all ours.  Only we know how to dance to it, only we understand the call and response and know that “wa-wa-wa where we’re from” matters.  And when I’m homesick and away from DC, I blast my Go-go and wear it like a tattoo.

This is why Grammy nominated, Chuck Brown is the Godfather.  While most musicians struggle to make a hit, Chuck created a musical genre that is the soundtrack of my life and the lives of countless other music lovers and musicians.  It’s the last non-commercial music format.

Thank you Chuck Brown, the Godfather of Go-go, for leaving Chocolate City and this world a funkier place!

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