Chuck Brown’s musical impact: Deep into Washington, and beyond

All songs must end, but not when Chuck Brown played them.

He spent the early ’70s trying to make a name and a living, knocking out top-40 covers in District nightclubs and cabarets. One night, in an attempt to keep the dance floor from thinning out, he told his band to fill the dead air between songs with a beat. So his drummer kept the sticks moving. His percussionist kept slapping at the conga. His audience kept their heels on the parquet. His beat connected the songs.

Then, his songs connected the city.

A proud community formed around Brown’s music. He called it go-go because it wouldn’t stop. Day-Glo concert posters stapled to telephone poles in the ’80s promised 4 a.m. curfews, but Brown was happy to play his guitar past sunrise. His music endured through the dawn and through the decades, into the 21st century, but never too far outside of Washington, where he loomed so large.

“Chuck was like the Washington Monument,” says radio and television personality Donnie Simpson. “He was like Ben’s Chili Bowl. He was the big chair. He was all of that. Chuck Brown was Washington D.C. . . . People feel you when it’s genuine and Chuck was always that.”


(Marc Burckhardt/For The Washington Post)

He gave Chocolate City its own sound and made fans a part of it through call-and-response routines that would send them home hoarse. Night after night — at the Howard Theatre, at the Masonic Temple on U Street, at Kilimanjaro, at the Ebony Inn, at Pitts Red Carpet Lounge — they’d scream: “Wind me up, Chuck!” It was a plea. A prayer. An exaltation. He’d sing back in a rough, rumbling voice that was soaked in charisma.

“He was a symbol of D.C. manhood, back in the day, because of the authority that he spoke with,” says Darryl Brooks, a local promoter who worked with Brown across the decades. “He just spoke from a perspective that black men could understand.”

As go-go bloomed in the early ’80s, New York City musicians were using drum machines and turntables to mint a futuristic new sound called hip-hop. Down in Washington, Brown was sneaking Duke Ellington melodies into his urgent young music. He may have been pioneering a new funk dialect, but he kept one foot in tradition, refusing to let go of the blues licks he learned during his stay at Lorton Correctional Complex.

As the ’80s blurred into the ’90s, rap music became a global phenomenon, but go-go stayed staunchly local — and Washington anointed Brown as “the godfather.” Has American music ever produced a figure so singular? He was a man who could stop traffic in his city but could stroll down the sidewalks of the world unnoticed.

But Brown’s music would still bleed into pop music from time to time. A drum break from “Ashley’s Roachclip,” a song he released in 1974 with his band the Soul Searchers, was sampled by everyone from Ice Cube to the Geto Boys to Duran Duran. Elements of “Bustin’ Loose,” Brown’s definitive 1978 hit, were reincarnated in Nelly’s 2002 chart-topping rap single “Hot in Herre.”

Elsewhere, Brown’s musical influence was more intravenous. Competing funk bands admired him, and his sound spilled into jazz when Miles Davis snatched up Brown’s drummer in the late ’80s.

But in Washington’s go-go scene, he remained a giant who leaves no heir.

“I lost a musical mentor and very personal friend,” says “Big Tony” Fisher of go-go’s legendary Trouble Funk. “I don’t think I met anyone who made me laugh more than him and made me dance — made us dance — more than him.”

“He’s like a musical father to all of us,” says Andre “Whiteboy” Johnson, leader of veteran go-go troupe Rare Essence. “He obviously influenced generations of people — not just one — a few generations of musicians around here. I know what he wanted was to see the music get bigger and better, so that’s all we can do — just keep pushing forward and try to do him proud.”

In the ’90s, Brown expressed concern about the direction of go-go. He worried about his legacy and whether the sound would ever thrive outside of the District. But in his later years, he showed nothing but pride in his creation. As younger bands torqued his beat into more aggressive shapes, he was still quick to applaud them, grateful that go-go was still going.

The sound spanned generations, and so did Brown’s fan base. “Some people remember a Friday night in 1984. Some people remember a show from 2011,” says local R&B singer Raheem DeVaughn. “There are so many memories.” (DeVaughn also says Brown’s illness prevented the godfather from joining him and rap superstar Snoop Dogg in the studio two months ago.)

The music still courses through Washington. Even if you never dropped a bead of sweat at a Chuck Brown concert, you’ve heard his voice blasting from open car windows, at the ballpark, maybe even on a television commercial for the D.C. Lottery or Chips Ahoy.

There was a musicality to everything about the man — even his voice-mail message: “Thank you for calling, now here’s what you do/Leave your name and your number and I’ll get back to you/Have a niiiiiiiice day.”

He stretched the penultimate word out like it was music. Like it was another song that he didn’t want to end.

Chris Richards became the Post's pop music critic in 2009. He has covered D.I.Y. house shows, White House concerts, go-go and Gaga.
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