Chuck Brown, the guitarist and singer most associated with the Washington, D.C.-based genre go-go, died Wednesday after a long hospitalization. Brown, a monumental figure in the D.C. music scene for more than 30 years, died in Baltimore from sepsis after multiple organ failure, says his manager, Tom Goldfogle. Brown was 75 years old. Listen at the audio link for the remembrance that aired on Morning Edition.
It took a lot of work getting an interview with Chuck Brown. There were people to go through, and people who had people. It took a lot to get to the guy, and when we finally hooked up, we spent an inordinate amount of time talking about shoes.
Chuck Brown got his start in music shining shoes on the streets of Richmond, Va., in the early 1940s, and then around the corner from the Howard Theater in Washington D.C. Chuck was possibly the only person to have bootblacked for both Louis Jordan, the early king of rhythm and blues, and Hank Williams, the country star who was the first person to tip Chuck a whole dollar. He asked questions, listened to their music and everything else on the radio. And by the time he had made his way in the world, Brown could say he had done one amazing thing that those two giants never had: invented a whole new music by himself.
I needed to talk to Chuck for a book I was writing about James Brown. There were few folks alive who could speak more knowingly about funk, as a music and a state of mind, than Chuck. And, like James, he'd had a huge influence on George Clinton and hip-hop, from his gold tooth down to his popping bass. Both Browns grew up poor, Southern, both had gone to prison as kids, heck — both shined shoes.
By the time I spoke with him, Chuck had long become famous around the world as the Godfather of Go-Go, the Washington D.C.-based sound that was the square root of funk. In 1965 the African-American guitarist was playing in Los Latinos, a multi-racial Top 40 band pumping Latin rhythms into the soul they were playing. Soon on his own Chuck was jamming James Brown grooves at casual District backyard parties, incorporating the Latinos' sound into what was becoming his own. He called himself The Soul Searcher, and fancied himself a guitar star.
But it was when he got his own band together, called them the Soul Searchers and used his cigarillo-sooty rasp as the band's lead instrument, that go-go took off. Maybe urban places were supposed to be the death of folk styles, but with go-go, Brown created a sound that was purely of the place he called home. Go-go was the boogaloo beat transforming the barbecues of Chocolate City.
"I wanted something different!" he barked at me with a smile. "I wanted my own sound, you know what I'm saying? And I said, 'I'ma create my own sound.'"
It was music with a fat bass that hovered over the night like a rhetorical question, and that clarified itself at 4 am. By then D.C. and Maryland clubs were supposed to be shut down, but Brown was just establishing his presence. And it was regal: big-pimpin' velours, a devilish grin and a chapeau broad enough to to block the sunrise. That showmanship propelled the music, as did the conga/bass drum interplay threading through and between the songs.
Go-go birthed numerous D.C. bands, and was a crucial influence on George Clinton's P-Funk; Chuck's 1979 hit "Bustin' Loose" got him on Soul Train. For a moment go-go was marketed as a national craze; in the 'early '80s Brown showed punk rockers they, too, had rumps. Everyone from Eric B. and Rakim to Duran Duran sampled his music, but while it eventually fell off the charts go-go never fell out of favor in D.C. Chuck was doing shows every week or two, and had been around so long that the regional icon was treated like a national treasure.
Another D.C. musician of note, Duke Ellington, once said, "Fate is being kind to me. Fate doesn't want me to be famous too young." A year before he died, around the time the National Symphony Orchestra played a show of Sousa, Ellington and Chuck Brown music on the West Lawn of the capitol, Brown told me, "I think if I was a young man and was as famous as I am now — oh, man I might be all messed up. I just thank God that it happened in its time, and that the older I get the more famous I get." Throw your hands up!