The go-go community bids farewell to Reggie ‘Polo’ Burwell, the ‘Bounce Beat King’

In tailored suits and baggy sweatshirts, the go-go community assembled inside a crowded Lincoln Theater on Thursday morning, dressed to pay their respects.

One man’s hoodie was plastered with white capital letters that demanded we put our “Ls up” for ’Lo.

“Ls” — sticking out your index finger and thumb and pointing it toward the sky.

’Lo — short for Polo.

Polo — the nickname of Reginald Burwell.

Burwell — the pioneering go-go musician who died in a rehabilitation center on Nov. 26 at the age of 42, more than three years after suffering a brain aneurysm that would put him in the coma he’d never emerge from.

The District native was eulogized at Thursday’s service as a talented barber, a savvy entrepreneur, a loyal friend and a loving father. But most remembered him as the “Bounce Beat King.”

As the influential vocalist and leader of the band TCB, Burwell helped keep Washington’s indigenous dance music alive for a new generation of fans by introducing a slower, heavier iteration of go-go known as “the bounce beat.”

It all started ten years ago at a fire station gig in Riverdale. With the electricity on the fritz, TCB percussionist Eddie “Luv” McCoy and drummer Neal Thomas decided to improvise. The moment Burwell heard the juggernaut rhythm they’d been secretly working on, he knew to put it at the center of the band’s sound. Soon, a new class of go-go bands were pounding out the bounce beat.

“This brother created a sound and he mastered his craft,” said Backyard Band leader Anwan “Big G” Glover from the stage Thursday, sharing memories in his baritone rasp. “He wanted to be so great in his music.”

TCB manager Ben Adda spoke next, choking up as he recounted the group’s against-the-odds ascent. “By the time we looked up from all that grinding, we had fans,” Adda said. “And we built a bond.”

In his passionate eulogy, Rev. Tony Lee of Community of Hope AME church explained Burwell’s impact plainly and emphatically: “He made the whole city bounce!”

There was only one interruption during the service — an announcement that mourners’ cars double-parked out on U Street were being ticketed. Out in the seats of the theater, Salih “E” Williams of Optimystic Tribe said under his breath: “This is a go-go funeral — they will tow you.”

The Metropolitan Police Department hasn’t made it easy for go-go music to flourish, musicians and fans note, historically targeting venues that host the music. But on Thursday, city officials recognized Burwell’s contributions. A representative from the Mayor Vincent Gray’s office declared the day “Reginald Burwell Hypertension Youth Education Day,” and said that a foundation would be established to teach District kids about the dangers of high blood pressure and heart disease.

There was music throughout the service — much of it loud and in the pocket, thanks to the go-go-gospel troupe from Community of Hope. Behind them, a slide show was projected onto a screen that included portraits of Burwell, his family and friends.

One snapshot jumped out: A smiley huddle that included the late “Godfather of Go-Go,” Chuck Brown; “Big Tony” Fischer of Trouble Funk; E.U. leader Gregory “Sugar Bear” Elliott; the late Anthony “Little Benny” Harley; James “Funk” Thomas of Rare Essence and Burwell.

Three of those go-go heroes are now gone — and one, far too soon.

Chris Richards has been the Post's pop music critic since 2009. He's recently written about Bjork's radical humanity, the spiritual endurance of Willie Nelson and the secret utility of rock star trash talk.
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