May 2012

Remembering Chuck Brown, 1936-2012

I still have fond memories of growing up in DC, and part of the music scene that made us groove was our very own, unmistakable "Go Go" beat. Everyone was diggin' it; from the kids drumming on their 5 gallon, plastic buckets at Dupont Circle, to the latinos jamming in the parks of Mount Pleasant, Go-Go was everywhere. During my halcyon days back in '99 as a volunteer and webmaster at DC Vote, (a non-profit dedicated to educating the public about DC's lack of real congressional representation), we often needed to put on events to heighten the public's awareness. There was only one man whose music we knew would inspire any DC crowd; the "Godfather of Go-Go", the one and only Chuck Brown. Chuck was a huge advocate for DC's voting rights and would go on to perform many concerts for our organization over the next few years. Last year, I happened to be back in DC on U Street, when suddenly, my friend and I spotted the legendary Chuck Brown on our way over to Ben's Chilli Bowl. Ironically, I'd just heard his latest CD, "We Got This", with his fabulous new tune "Love", featuring Ledesi, Marcus Miller and Jill Scott. "Yo Chuck!" we yelled, and he flashed that famous Chuck smile. Chuck Brown passed away this week at the age of 75, and we will sorely miss one of the great, musical geniuses the Washington, DC area has ever known.

The name Chuck Brown might not mean a whole lot to people outside the D.C. area. In D.C., Brown was widely known, even revered, as the Godfather of Go-Go, a title he's held since the late '70s. Though he started out as a jazz guitarist, Brown invented go-go, a style that incorporates funk, jazz, R&B, hip-hop and dancehall, and has mostly stuck with it ever since. "We Got This" is perhaps Brown at his finest, groove bustin', Go-Go best…

“The Godfather of Go-Go, Chuck Brown was the undisputed, sole founder and creator Go-Go music", as noted on his website, is "a hypnotically danceable genre deeply rooted in funk and soul that he developed in the early 70’s , and the only form of expressive culture to originate in the District of Columbia. Foreshadowing rap and many of the major popular R&B styles of the past three decades, Chuck's signature style earned him a place in American musical royalty. This esteem was maintained by the reputation of his legendary live shows, heavy on audience participation and built around “the beat” to create an unparalleled non-stop party atmosphere.

While searching for a sound to call his own in the 1960s, Chuck was deeply inspired by artists like James Brown. He latched onto the Latin percussion groove from the band he played with at the time, Los Latinos. Combining this with his roots, his love of blues, jazz, gospel, soul, and African rhythms, Chuck began to develop his own unique sound. Starting out playing top forty, Brown would break-it-down between songs with percussion and audience call and response, and keep the music going, and the dance floor packed.

His first hit was “We the People” on the debut album of the same name in 1972. Next came the album Salt of the Earth, with the hit “Blow Your Whistle” (sampled by Grammy winner Eve in 2007 in her hit “Tambourine”), and one of the most sampled break beats of ALL time from “Ashley’s Roach Clip” (including Eric B and Rakim, LL Cool J and countless others). In 1978, the Soul Searchers became Chuck Brown and the Soul Searchers, and Chuck’s original composition “Bustin’ Loose” took the #1 spot in Billboard, on Source/MCA Records. The song was used in Grammy winner Nelly’s 2002 smash “Hot in Herre,” and continues to be one of the most relevant and often sampled funk songs ever written (“Bustin’ Loose” is currently featured in a national television campaign for Chips Ahoy).

After substantial touring across the US, but no money to show for his success, Chuck found himself looking for inspiration. He found it in his next hit, the Billboard charting “We Need Some Money,” which propelled him around the world again. Brown then revisited his love of jazz and created the “Go Go Swing Medley,” introducing people around the world to classics by Duke Ellington, Johnny Mercer, and James Moody, spun in Chuck’s inimitable way. Released independently and later on Polygram Records, Chuck Brown and the Soul Searchers once again reached an international audience through a 1985 at Holland’s North Seas Jazz Festival. In between sets by Curtis Mayfield and James Brown, Chuck schooled everyone on the genre he created. That same year, Chris Blackwell introduced the movie “Good to Go,” a much hyped but poor reflection of the scene. Nonetheless other artists, such as Salt N Pepa, Kurtis Blow, and Grace Jones, began incorporating his sound in their music. Brown continued to record, perform in the US, with stints in Europe and Japan in the nineties.

After a string of live recordings, he met at the time an undiscovered, shy talent by the name of Eva Cassidy in the early nineties. His lifelong dream of singing with a lady, springing from his love of duets by the likes of Louis Armstrong with Ella Fitzgerald and Billy Eckstine with Sarah Vaughan, came to fruition with the critically acclaimed and worldwide release of “The Other Side” by Chuck Brown and Eva Cassidy (which contained the original recording of the worldwide Eva Cassidy hit “Over the Rainbow”). He dedicated a jazz standards album to Ms. Cassidy after her tragic loss to cancer.

In 2001, he released the Billboard charting “Your Game... Live at the 9:30 Club” which was voted as one of the top 10 albums of 2001 by Billboard’s R&B Editor, Rapper Chuck D and others. A live DVD came next, called “quite possibly the greatest live concert video/DVD I have ever seen” by Murder Dog Magazine. The same year a double remastered “Best Of” album was released. In 2006 the National Endowment for the Arts awarded Chuck a “Lifetime Heritage Fellowship,” the Federal Government’s highest honor for folk and traditional arts, and Chuck also performed at the Rock And Roll Hall of Fame in 2006. The following year his “We’re About the Business” CD debuted as the #1 independent album and #2 R&B album in Billboard. The National Visionary Leadership Project recognized Chuck’s contributions in shaping American history in 2007, joining previous honorees such as Ray Charles, Quincy Jones, BB King, and Earth Kitt.

Most recently Chuck recorded with artists as diverse as Thievery Corporation, Brian Culbertson and Jeff Majors. A street in Washington DC was recently renamed “Chuck Brown Way.” His most ambitious recording, a three disc set “We Got This” was released on September 21, 2010. It contains a live concert DVD shot in HD, a live concert audio CD and a CD of bonus new studio material including collaborations with the aforementioned Ledisi, Marcus Miller and Jill Scott. At 74 years of age, Chuck Brown remained not only culturally and musically relevant, but a tireless and constant tour de force in American music."

Yo Chuck, you got this….