This article was originally published August 14, 1994.
...and Chuck Brown Made It Go-Go
Bygone days: There was a beat that stuck in the little boy's head. He carried it with him, around town, on the streetcar and in the shower back home in "the country" -- Fairmont Heights, just over the District line in Prince George's. The beat never changed: a gospel rhythm he heard Sunday mornings, the regular thud of the bass drum, a clash of the cymbals, accented by a snare's pop. Krosh, pop, krosh, pop.
Chuck Brown, 8 years old, fresh up from North Carolina, his parents having traded migrant farm life for the capital city, ran with the other kids, selling the Washington Times-Herald and the Pittsburgh Courier (the great black weekly) in front of the Greyhound station downtown. And the beat always going in his mind. He stayed downtown until dark, and beyond. Stayed till the cops came and shooed him home. In those days, the police actually hauled kids off the streets after 10.
He shined shoes down near the Navy Yard, buffed them to satisfy a drill sergeant. Later, running with the bigger kids, he stationed himself outside the country-western joint across from the bus terminal, where there were famous shoes to be polished -- Hank Williams, Les Paul. Chuck heard their music leaking out the door, and he wrapped that music around his beat.
Chuck sang and played some piano then, joining his harmonica-blowing mother in song at Mount Zion Church in Fairmont Heights. He studied with Sister Louise Murray, the piano teacher who opened her star student's ears, dragging him along to Philadelphia church-music conventions. In 1941, when the world was blowing up, word came over the radio about Pearl Harbor. "Mama made me get up under the bed," Brown remembers. "It was thousands of miles away and I looked out to the window, looking for the bombs."
Krosh, pop, krosh, pop. Straight-ahead gospel, no funk yet, rice without the beans. The missing ingredient was Grover Washington's mellow '70s number, "Mr. Magic," a gift on vinyl. It featured an upbeat that juiced the rhythm Brown had kept going since boyhood. He transferred the upbeat to a conga drum, syncopated the whole sequence, and created go-go.
Not girls in white boots dancing in cages, but a music that would separate first Brown and then a generation of D.C. bands from the numbing sameness of the cabaret scene. Brown took those cabaret Top 40 covers and pumped them up with James Brown-style funk and layers of African-style percussion. To make the shows livelier, his band didn't pause between songs; the result was a nonstop party groove that was distinctively D.C. Go-go was as unrelenting as the beat in ChuckBrown's head. Other bands -- Trouble Funk and E.U. among them -- picked up the beat, and by the time Brown scored a national hit with "Bustin' Loose" in 1979, the Capital City had spawned a new kind of black music.
Brown's creation became a point of pride ("The D.C. Sound"), frustration (never quite breaking out beyond the city) and failure (the music was unfairly blamed for drug trade violence of the late '80s). Through two decades, as dance music thumped off in other directions, Brown always managed to keep his beat going. There were generational strains, kids who preferred to play the harsh rap that Brown calls "noise," but for a 59-year-old, he still commands extraordinary loyalty from young musicians.