Chuck Brown - Godfather of Go-Go Gets Grammy Nomination
Karisse Carmack | 12/21/2010, 6:21 p.m.
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.
Several local artists who have also received nominations for the prestigious award include R&B singer Raheem DeVaughn for "The Love & War Masterpiece." DeVaughn picked up a Grammy nomination in the Best R&B Album category, while Carolyn Malachi was nominated for Best Urban/Alternative Performance for her single "Orion."
Other local artists who have received nominations are BT, whose album "These Hopeful Machines," was nominated for Best Electronic/Dance Album, and five-time Grammy winner Mary Chapin Carpenter, whose latest album, "The Age of Miracles," was nominated for Best Contemporary Folk Album. The 53rd Grammy Awards is scheduled to air Feb. 13.
Go-Go, the genre Brown created, 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.
Chuck Brown greets a fan during a recent CD signing. Photo by Khalid Naji-Allah.
"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.
While taking a break from work at the Capitol Hill Beauty Salon in Southeast on a recent Saturday evening, Darryl Williams, who specializes in home improvement, shared his reflections on the Godfather of Go-Go, whose music he first heard in the early 1970s.
"His music comes from within," Williams, 61, said. "Like Quincy [Jones], he can play for just anyone," Williams said. He cited Brown's jazz albums as an example of his versatility outside of go-go genre.
Williams also mentioned Brown's level of professionalism, compared to other musical acts that demean women.
"I've never heard him [say] anything derogatory," Williams said.
Standing outside of the brick row house, home to both the beauty salon and his tattoo parlor, Off Da Hook also in Southeast, manager Ricky Mercer said he prefers the old-school go-go that originated with Brown, but acknowledged that the new acts' sound is different.
As she was leaving the Howard University campus on a weekday afternoon, the Rev. Christine Wiley, pastor of Covenant Baptist Church, reminisced about the time when a club would have go-go playing in one room for the younger audience and jazz playing in another room for the older patrons.
Today, Wiley said she doesn't know the lyrics to the go-go songs but she likes popping her fingers to the beat, and recognizes that Brown has "a very positive influence on people in D.C.," especially in Wards 7 and 8.
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.