I first met Chuck Brown in late October 2010, to interview him for a feature story in the Informer. As I waited for Brown and his manager to show up at Tryst Coffeehouse in Adams Morgan, I was still surprised my editor had asked me to do the story several days before. Brown had just released an album featuring Jill Scott, among other guest artists. Like many local residents, I grew up listening to his music and saw Brown in local commercials.
Brown arrived in his trademark hat, shades, and a suit was a total gentleman. He had no airs, and graciously answered my question, smiling and laughing often. I walked away impassioned by Brown's appreciation for local residents and their love of his music. Fans approached him during our interview and he respectfully paused each time to shake hands, give hugs, sign autographs, and pose for camera-phone pictures. He loved his fans, and his fans loved him.
I am honored to have had the opportunity to meet and interview Chuck Brown and present portions of that interview for your reading here.
Go-Go pioneer Chuck Brown is in the prime of his life: a music career that spans more than three decades and counting, the admiration and respect of local residents, and a new album that recently received a Grammy Award nomination. Not bad for a man who once shined shoes for entertainers as a child and later had run-ins with the law.
Dressed in black from head to toe with his signature hat and gold-rimmed shades during a recent interview at Tryst Coffeehouse in Northwest, Brown smiled easily and spoke in a low, deep voice. Brown, 74, said he was grateful to still be around performing. "D.C. to me has been so great; my greatest inspiration has been this city," Brown said.
Brown's newest album, "We Got This," is a three-disc set featuring an album recorded in the studio, a live album, and a DVD of a live concert performance.
For "We Got This," Brown collaborated with artists who included R&B singers Jill Scott and Ledisi, and Jazz musician Marcus Miller. "Love," the new album's single that features Scott and Miller, was nominated earlier this month for Best R&B Performance by a Duo or Group with Vocals, by The Recording Academy.
Go-Go, the genre Brown helped create, is a blend of funk, Latin percussion, and R&B. While the genre's popularity remains strong, Brown said he had a difficult time trying to convince fellow musicians about the legitimacy of his musical creation.
"I had no idea it would just be [me] creating something that people like," Brown said.
"I had to change three or four drummers," he said, in reference to the direction in which he wanted to take his music.
During the 1970s, Brown said that he was performing in a club when he started to try some of the beats that would eventually be associated with the go-go genre. His drummer disliked the beat, but Brown said it didn't matter: when he looked out on the floor, he saw the audience grooving to the beat.
The experience taught Brown a very valuable lesson. When performing, "you don't play for yourself; you play for your fans," he said.
Brown's tastes in music did not exist in a vacuum. Growing up, Brown's mother was a source of musical inspiration, and people predicted that he would one day be successful.
"My mom, she out-sang everybody in the family," Brown said. "I played the piano in church. Before that, I was wild, running around."
Outside of his family, Brown said his favorite is musician is blues guitarist Bobby Parker.
"I don't think he got the credit," Brown said. Parker was the "greatest blues player" and Brown said he admired Parker's stage presence. "He makes you feel down to your very soul," Brown said.
At eight or nine years old, Brown also shined shoes for the popular musicians who performed at local venues. As a young man, he later had brushes with law, and spent time in prison.
"I didn't get serious about music until I was 24," Brown said.
To this day, Brown said he listens to young people, which he credits as one of the reasons why he has enjoyed longevity in the music business. His daughter, KK, even performs with him on stage.
"She listens to her daddy, and I listen to her. When you don't listen to young people, you give up," Brown said. The elder Brown considers his family among his proudest achievements.
"I ain't been to jail in over 50 years. I got my high school diploma [during my incarceration], I got some skills. I have four beautiful children," Brown said. He and his wife have been married for 27 years, "with over 50 years of togetherness," and have six grandchildren, ranging from six months to 11 years old.
Like others who are at the peak of their careers, the husband, father, and grandfather does have his share of regrets.
"When I was boxing, I wish I had become a world champion, but that didn't work out," Brown said. Though he never boxed professionally, Brown said he was "inspired" by the sport; he began boxing at the age of 10 and continued until he was 30 or 34, he said There were times when Brown also turned down opportunities due to his personal convictions.
"I was given an opportunity to play on a [military] base. I told them to bring them [the troops] home, then I'll perform," Brown said. "I'm not going to Iraq," Brown said, calling the conflict an "ignorant war."
Local residents also praise Brown's music and career.
In the future, Brown said his next album will have some gospel tunes. He said that he also wants to open a homeless shelter for children, families, and the elderly. The music legend said that he was once homeless, and that he makes an effort to visit the homeless shelters.
Brown also has advice for aspiring musicians: work hard at your craft, protect your image, and be there for your family.
"Whatever you do, be it big or small, do it well or not at all, and that comes from not giving up," he said.
Brown also stressed the importance of having a clean public image, and to avoid compromising positions that can be leaked on the Internet, which can end up embarrassing your loved ones.
"Do whatever is necessary to keep your family together. If you don't have one, get one," he said.
With go-go now spanning more than three decades, Brown sees a bright future for the genre.
"It ain't going nowhere. If it fades out anywhere else, it's still gonna be" popular in D.C., Brown said.