“Wind Me Up” Chuck needed to wind down by the time he arrived for an afternoon interview with me at the Washington Informer in 2007.
Brown had just spent the previous two hours pumping up a capacity crowd at a free lunchtime concert outside the D.C. Lottery headquarters on Martin Luther King Ave SE. Brown, “the Godfather of Go-Go,” chatted with me for almost two hours about his life, his legacy — and his relationship with my dad.
Brown was part of the Soul Searchers, when my father, the late Joe Tate, produced their album “Salt of the Earth,” featuring the breakout tune “Blow Your Whistle”. My dad had also co-produced Chuck Brown and the Soul Searchers on their first song that hit the Billboard R&B charts. The song was “We the People,” a hit in 1972. Brown’s love for the people grew over the next four decades and the people reciprocated — filling clubs to capacity when he performed. Crowds swelled and cheered him wildly at summer concerts and festivals.
I found his story inspiring. His love for music began when he was a tot. As a toddler, he sang and entertained his mother’s neighbors at picnics, cookouts and parties. “That’s how we ate,” he said laughing, during our 2007 interview. He leaned back in the fold-up chair across the table from me and laughed heartily while recalling his life and music career. “My mama used to carry me around to different houses. Sometimes they passed a little hat around, take up a little collection for us . . . My mother took real good care of her little boy.”
At 7 years old, he learned to play piano in church. But he began running away from home at 13, and left home for the last time at age 14, he said. He landed in jail, and that changed his life for good. He learned to play guitar in jail. His friends encouraged him to join a band when he got out.
He recalled playing with Jerry Butler, the Earls of Rhythm and Los Latinos in the 1960s, which prompted him to create a new sound fusing R&B, Latin beats and jazz. He tested his new sound at nightclubs and cabarets around D.C. He noticed how his crowd would relax as he drove hard rhythms and engaged them in African-styled call-and-response.
“People would come in there in minks and neckties, but when I started that go-go thing, the mink coats disappeared. They started coming in more relaxed,” he told me. “The neckties and all that disappeared, and the tables and chairs disappeared off the floor and the floor was cool. I knew it was going somewhere.” They danced nonstop as long as the music kept going. The craze became known as go-go.
Brown performed live and recorded in studio. He told me the heartbreak that followed the success of his third album, “Bustin’ Loose” (which my father did not produce.). “Bustin’ Loose” hit the national charts, but Brown felt cheated out of $13 million. “I just felt bad. I couldn’t do nothin’ for five years,” he said. He continued performing seven days a week around D.C., but he couldn’t write. Then in a snap one day, he wrote a song in 15 minutes. It was called “I Need Some Money.”
“I was deeply inspired with empty pockets,” he said, laughing.
The song became a national hit. Meanwhile, he continued his fight with his previous record label and prevailed after 27 years.
When I spoke with him in 2007, he was 71 years old and so much in his life had come full circle. As a teen, he had sold Washington newspapers — the Washington Herald and the Washington Afro — earning pennies. But in his 70s he had a lucrative Washington Post contract, starring in their commercials. He had played “the numbers” before there was an official lottery, playing two cents for a chance to win $3. But in the end he was paid big bucks to endorse D.C. Lottery. His career had begun for pennies as a little boy. Brown eventually included his children and grandchildren on one of the albums that would do well in the marketplace.
Facebook and Twitter began buzzing with well wishes for Brown last week. Community activist Elwood Yango Sawyer (a.k.a. “Yango”) has been posting stories and insights from their 40-year friendship on his Facebook page, and last week launched a prayer vigil for his dear friend.
Sawyer hopes Brown’s tenacity and determination to succeed will inspire others. “Chuck shows us what can happen, if you give yourself a chance to enjoy the beauty of life,” Sawyer posted. “A guy made a guitar for him in Lorton, and he took that skill and became world known.”
Sonsyrea Tate Montgomery is a blogger for The Root DC and The Washington Post. She is author of “Little X: Growing Up in the Nation of Islam” (Harper) and “Do Me Twice: My Life After Islam” (Simon and Schuster). Follow her on Twitter @Sonsyrea.
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