Legendary Musical Icon Celebrated as a Visionary and Mentor to Fans, Other Artists
The District of Columbia is known throughout the world by many monikers: the nation's capital, 'Chocolate City,' and the seat of Western democracy. However, among Go-Go music enthusiasts worldwide, it is known as Go-Go central. And its king, affectionately known as the Godfather of Go-Go, Chuck Brown, enjoyed a reign unlike that of any seated elected official in D.C. history. Brown succumbed to pneumonia, Wed., May 16, following a stay in the intensive care unit of Johns Hopkins Hospital, in Baltimore. He was 75. Brown had demonstrated little signs of slowing down until his hospital stay and his death left both fans and industry colleagues in shock. Within hours of his death, impromptu block parties, replete with driving Go-Go beats, dancing, and chanting, erupted all over the metropolitan area.
"I was at Howard University hospital to get my knee checked out and heard the music," said Charlene Thaxton of Reston, Va., who took part in one of the parties. "I had to come over and pay my respects because I've been running with Chuck since I was fifteen and I'm 54 now. I had to say my good-byes."
Many told the Washington Informer that with Brown's death they lost a close friend, mentor and father figure, as well as a musical icon.
"It was an honor for me to work with Chuck Brown and promote his music. I was a follower of Chuck's before I got into the business," said Bo Sampson, who promoted the song "Your Game" and a mix with Peaches & Herb, and one with Sugar Bear with Brown. "I think the legacy of Chuck Brown for the city is a blueprint to keep his name alive."
Radio personality Michelle Wright said Brown's ability to bridge musical genres and relate intimately to audiences of all ages, enhanced his genius.
"Chuck Brown's impact has been in being a bridge musically and as a family figure. One of the things that resonated most with me about Chuck Brown was that he was an authentic soul. He could relate to a person no matter their age," said Wright.
"So many people have the same memory of jamming with Chuck and the band. The call and response and the crowd participation was amazing. When Chuck would see you, and call you out: 'Hey Sweet Michelle, I love you so much,' he meant it. It was just so heartfelt and amazing," Wright said.
Others, like hip-hop artist DJ Kool said that among Go-Go artists, Brown was viewed as an educator who infused business lessons with advice about life.
"Chuck Brown was a total source of inspiration and information for all of us. He was our godfather, our kingship, and our everything. He let us know that not only can you do it, but you can do it as long as you feel it. He was in his 70s, giving the crowds exactly what they wanted no matter how he was feeling," said DJ Kool, who played on Brown's "Block Party" release.
DJ Kool said that he admired Brown's ability to keep the beat going and not give up, especially when the mainstream music industry was not particularly fond of Go-Go or its artists.
"Chuck told me about his early career when he and the band played in joints for all the chicken they could eat and all the beer they could drink, but no money. I had the exact same types of situations where I played for no money; it wasn't for chicken and beer, but for not much more than that. I learned to press on anyway because of what Chuck taught me. He had an appreciation, respect and a crazy amount of love for people. A lot of people are broken-hearted and worry that no radio stations will play our music now," DJ Kool said.
District native and beloved songstress Stacey Lattisaw believes Brown's legendary style and personal swag helped transition Go-Go music from a local street sound to a legitimate and respected genre, enjoyed worldwide.
"Folks are on Twitter in New York and Down South discussing the impact Chuck made on the music world. It is important for people to understand that an artist can be talented, gifted and successful, but their true legacy is their character. Chuck was a nice person; he didn't have an ego. Not one time in all of his career have I ever heard a single negative thing about Chuck. My heart goes out to his kids, his wife, and his whole family," Lattisaw said.
Comedian Chris Thomas concurred, comparing Brown's musical genius to that of late jazz legend Miles Davis saying he symbolized the spirit of a true artist.
"Chuck Brown was the epitome of what real musicianship is. Not only did he produce several decades of good music, but he was also the ambassador of the city and what it stood for. Losing Chuck is like losing rhythm itself," Thomas said. "So much of Chuck was spiritual – the whole practice of shouting out people's names during his songs – it was not just performance, I was spiritual."
Brown certainly made a lasting impression on all who met him. For hip-hop lyricist Big Daddy Kane, sharing the stage with Brown during the Tom Joyner Fantastic Voyage Cruise two years ago was life-changing. At his passing, Kane immediately tweeted, "Go-Go will never be the same."
"Chuck was such an innovator because he was able to combine different forms a music and new ways for soul, R&B, and hip hop artists to collaborate. I knew he was a phenomenal man when he pulled off a live, Go-Go remake of Smooth Operator," Kane told the Informer. Chuck's passing is the type of thing --- let me keep it 100 – I'm looking at the coverage of Donna Summer and the Kennedy girl, who died making national news. That may not happen for Chuck Brown nationally, but D.C. will not let him go like that. He is gone, but never forgotten and D.C. will celebrate him every year because he wasn't just a Go-Go artist or performer, he was a creator."
Still, artists from around the globe have enjoyed Brown's sound and will similarly mourn. The British band Coldcut's celebrated 1987 hit "Say Kids What
Time Is It?" and Indie group Farm's pop anthem "All Together Now" from 1990 used Brown's rhythm from "Bustin' Loose".
Additionally, the Eric B. & Rakim classic "Paid in Full" album fused Brown's songs, as did Nelly's hit "Hot in Herre."
For Al Johnson, lead singer of the Unifics and long-time friend of Brown's, longevity was what made the Go-Go legend unforgettable. Said Johnson, 64, as the decades mounted, so did Brown's ability to shift the music and reinvent the sound.
"Brown kept the sound young enough to be significant to the young, but classic enough to keep more mature fans happy. To the area he was one of the prime-time ambassadors of the Washington music scene and he gave D.C. respectability by refining Go-Go and giving it relevance. There were other bands before him, but none with his sophistication or polish. He was a guy you automatically liked. Most people especially his live audiences loved him. They saw something in him that made them love him. 'Ain't no party like a Chuck Brown party' was such a truism," Johnson said.
Rapper and radio host Nonchalant said it was not uncommon to have a grandmother, mother, and daughter at the same show enjoying Brown's music. Calling Brown "our Dick Clark," Nonchalant said he had the same energy, demeanor, and mellowness he has since his youth.
"Chuck Brown's music is timeless. Anytime an artist can go on stage and play music recorded 15 years ago and have the same reaction then as now, it is saying something. He could also play a gig five nights a week and the same audience would be there all five nights. Face it, "Run Joe" is timeless music. You think of where you were, how old you were, and what you were doing when you hear it," Nonchalant, 41, said.
"I believe younger people and young bands saw what possibilities there could be in the music industry when they examined Chuck's career. His music touched Los Angeles and traveled overseas. He proved that you could be nominated for a Grammy award for Go-Go and that it could happen at any age," she said.
Some musicians closest to Brown felt they loss a mentor and friend. Rare Essence percussionist Milton "Go-Go Mickey" Freeman said that had it not been for Brown, few other Go-Go bands would have reached their mark.
"Chuck Brown started a lot of bands playing in the city like EU and Trouble. You got bands that are playing in television shows and movies because of what Chuck started. It's hurting a lot of people and you could turn to him about industry issues. I don't know who we can turn to now. Really, if you had business questions, you first wanted to hear from Chuck because he had seen the good and the bad and would genuinely help other artists. His passing is going to affect us for a while," Mickey said.
"I know Chuck grabbed Big G from Backyard off the street at seventeen and helped him get started in the business. There would have been no James Funk or Lil' Benny without him. Chuck would leave a nice message on your answering machine and stuff like that to keep young artists inspired and encouraged. We listened to Chuck," Mickey said.
Others, like Big Tony, are handling the loss with sobering hope. The Trouble Funk front man said that because Brown represented the seeds of Go-Go, his passing would have a tremendous effect on the entire Go-Go music scene. Calling Brown his "musical mentor", Big Tony said his hope is that the death of the man who brought so many people into the forefront of the music business, would encourage the individual bands to work together more.
"I hope together we can represent his name and make Go-Go a global musical force. No words can express how I feel at this point. Chuck's death is one of those hard realities you don't want to accept. There will never be another Michael Jackson or Richard Pryor, and there will never be another Chuck Brown. No one could replace him, and I wouldn't even try. But I will go out and represent him the best I can," Big Tony said.
Jalil Hutchins of the soul group Whodini told the Informer that when he looked at Brown's Go-Go reign, there was much more there than his artistry.
"He was a phenomenon in this game. To go that strong, for that long, is unheard of in this industry. He reminds me of Frankie Beverly, because they both got better with age. Both are kings and when they play, D.C. comes running. The whole game is hurt right now. Even people who don't love D.C., loved Chuck Brown," said Hutchins.
Brown began his career in the 1960s, having been inspired by artists like James Brown and performing with Jerry Butler and The Earls of Rhythm and the percussion-driven Latin band, Los Latinos. Brown soon developed a call and response routine with Los Latinos that later became a staple of Go-Go performances.
Charles Louis Brown was born in Gaston, N.C. and had his first hit with "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 is currently featured in a national television campaign for Chips Ahoy cookies. Brown was also featured in the D.C. Lottery's "Rolling Cash 5" ad campaign singing his 2007 song "The Party Roll".
Among his many honors was the 2009 renaming of the 1900 block of 7th Street NW, in Northwest Washington, DC between Florida Avenue and T Street to "Chuck Brown Way." Brown was also honored in 2011 by the National Symphony Orchestra, as the NSO paid tribute to Legends of Washington Music Labor Day concert. Brown was nominated for his first Grammy Award in 2010, for best R&B performance by a duo or group with vocals for Love, a collaboration with singer Jill Scott.
Brown is survived by his wife Jocelyn "JaJa" Brown, daughter Takesa "KK" Donelson and sons Wiley Brown, Nekos Brown and Bill Thompson. At print, funeral arrangements for Brown had not been finalized. Please check the www.washingtoninformer.com for up-to-the-minute information as it becomes available.
Go-Go enthusiast and author of "The Beat: Go-Go Music from D.C." Charles Stephenson believes that the sound of the city may go on, but with Brown's unique spirit keeping watch.
"Chuck felt the people, it was true love and you can't teach that. You must be born with the tools that Chuck possessed; he still lives in all of us and will continue to endure," Stephenson said.
Promoter Bo Sampson and Stacey Palmer of Executive Virtual Assistance (EVA) contributed immensely to this article.