Remembering Chuck Brown

Chuck Brown at the Great Northern Hotel, U.K. Photo: David Corio/Redferns

There aren’t many musical movements that you can trace to one particular place, and even fewer whose creation can be credited to a single artist. But nary a soul would dare dispute Washington D.C. legend Chuck Brown’s status as the man who built Go-Go from the ground up. The 75-year-old singer/guitarist, who died on May 16 of multiple organ failure after weeks in the hospital battling pneumonia, was known from Baltimore to Bakersfield as The Godfather of Go-Go, and for the last three and a half decades he has been the musical mayor of the Baltimore/D.C. region, known to everyone from old-schoolers to schoolkids for helping turn the tide of American music.

Brown was born in Gaston, NC, and came to D.C. as a child. In his twenties he did a stretch in Lorton Penitentiary, where he paid a fellow convict five cartons of cigarettes to make him a guitar in the jail’s carpentry shop. Brown’s fellow inmates included some professional jazz guitarists, who taught him the basics of the instrument and gave him a feeling for jazz that would remain with him his whole life and find its way into Brown’s Go-Go amalgam. Brown was released in 1962 and began playing with a band called the Earls of Rhythm (who were not, as has been mistakenly reported, affiliated with R&B singer Jerry Butler). He went on to work with the group Los Latinos, and it was here he picked up the Latin feel that would become a crucial Go-Go ingredient.

In 1966, Brown formed his own band, the Soul Searchers, and by the ‘70s he had begun blending jazz, Latin, African, and funk flavors — partly spurred on by the feel of Grover Washington, Jr.’s 1976 jazz-funk single “Mister Magic” — for a new brand of dance music he dubbed Go-Go because he and his band would play it all night long in Baltimore and D.C. clubs without a break. The group’s 1978 single “Bustin’ Loose” was a national R&B/pop crossover hit that took Go-Go from a regional phenomenon to a major musical force. By the time the decade was done, the Baltimore/D.C. area was overflowing with legions of great Go-Go groups like Rare Essence, Trouble Funk, EU, and the Junk Yard Band, all banging out their own variation on the swinging, sweaty, sexy conga-driven sound Brown perfected.

In the ‘80s, more and more Go-Go bands started releasing records on a national level, and the music began busting out bigger than ever, especially once its influence on hip-hop became clear. Kurtis Blow sampled Trouble Funk, and the drum break from the Soul Searcher’s 1974 track “Ashley’s Roachclip” found its way into so many hip-hop hits Brown would have needed a whole team of lawyers to track down all the royalties owed him. EU’s appearance in Spike Lee’s 1988 film School Daze put the icing on the cake — Brown’s Go-Go genie was out of the bottle for good and there was no squeezing it back inside.

But Brown’s vision of Go-Go was always more eclectic, expansive, and inclusive than that of his peers and disciples. The man who started out playing blues and jazz tunes in the ‘60s found a way to incorporate these influences into his sound, proving that Go-Go’s ostensibly rigid framework could be far more flexible than most people might suppose.  Brown’s dedication to making music never waned, and he kept on recording, playing live, and laying down that Go-Go beat until his health finally failed him. Even decades after the D.C. hero’s initial innovations, his work was still resonating in the collective consciousness. Nelly’s 2002 blockbuster “Hot in Herre” probably wouldn’t have had half the impact if it didn’t employ a sample from “Bustin’ Loose,” which can also be heard reverberating through Nationals Park when one of the Washington Nationals hits a homer. And in 2009, Chuck Brown’s legacy was taken to the streets in a very literal manner when a section of Seventh St. in D.C. was renamed Chuck Brown Way.

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