To the outside world, Washington, DC is known as the capital of the most powerful nation in the world, but to lifelong residents of the District, it’s greatest title is being home to the funk-inspired genre of music known as Go-Go and it’s band leader emeritus, Chuck Brown. The singer, songwriter, and guitarist died on May 16th from multiple organ failure, but his legacy will live on in the numerous musicians he influenced during his 50 year career and the immeasurable pride he instilled in an entire region through his commitment to local music and tradition. Let’s celebrate the life of a hometown hero who left his impression on the sound of popular music around the world.
Inspired by the funk of James Brown, the big band showmanship of Cab Calloway, and the Latin percussion of Los Latinos, Chuck Brown sought to create a new sound in the early 1970’s that focused on live instrumentation with a danceable beat. The result was the introduction of a pre-hip hop, call-and-response performance style that kept dance floors rocking. Combining popular radio hits, jazz standards, and extended drum breaks into his 3 hour long sets, Brown made sure that the music kept “going and going.” And thus, “Go-Go” was born.
While Go-Go never achieved long term national prominence, Brown and his band, The Soul Searchers, did break out with their first single, “We The People,” and had a Top 40 and R&B hit with 1979’s “Bustin’ Loose.” The song was later sampled by St. Louis rapper, Nelly in his #1 single “Hot In Herre.” Go-Go influence can also be heard in other hit songs like Beyonce’s “Crazy In Love”, Amerie’s “1 Thing”, and Jill Scott’s “It’s Love.” Even though Brown never achieved major mainstream recognition in America during the height of his career, he still routinely sold out concerts across the globe thanks to his Duke Ellington cover song “Go Go Swing” released in 1986 and his extreme work ethic that motivated him to do as many as six shows a week.
Over the last decade, Brown’s contribution to American culture finally started to be recognized by national music critics and historians. Brown’s 2001 LP, Your Game…Live at the 9:30 Club, was named one of the best albums of that year by Gail Mitchell, Billboard Magazine’s R&B editor. In 2006, Brown was awarded the “Lifetime Heritage Fellowship” by the National Endowment for the Arts. The following year the National Visionary Leadership Project honored Brown as an artist who shaped American history, and he received his first and only Grammy nomination in 2011 for his song “Love” which featured Jill Scott.
The accolade that is probably most revered and celebrated by his legion of local followers is “Chuck Brown Way,” a DC street named in his honor in 2009. Not suprisingly, the corner of 7th and T Streets in northwest Washington became the site of an impromptu memorial, vigil, and party on the day of his death. The impact Chuck Brown had on the DMV (DC, Maryland, Virginia) goes beyond just birthing a distinctly unique sound, his music helped raise three generations of Washingtonians and provided an outlet of escape that spawned other DC acts like Rare Essence, Experience Unlimited (E.U.), Backyard Band, TCB, and Wale. Right now there are 12 year olds all across Washington, DC that are deciding to pick a trumpet or a pair of drumsticks instead of picking up a weapon. That’s the Godfather of Go-Go’s true legacy. Thanks Chuck.
Check out vids of a Chuck Brown live performance & interview: