Chuck Brown, Godfather of Go-Go, missed by family and fans one year after death

The Godfather is gone.

Daddy is gone, too.

When those realities collide onstage — during performances by Chuck Brown’s band, without the Godfather of Go-Go, who died one year ago — Takeesa “KK” Donelson often breaks down.

“I get so emotional, I start crying,” said Donelson, a go-go rapper who spent years sharing a stage with her famous father. “I have to walk off, get myself together and come back — every time we perform.”

Chuck Brown died May 16, 2012, of complications from sepsis during a long hospitalization for pneumonia. He was 75, a local legend, the progenitor of a homespun strain of funk that became the sound of black Washington.

Thousands packed the Washington Convention Center for Chuck Brown’s funeral. But if anyone wanted to shed a tear for Chuck they needed to squeeze it in between dance sessions — the funeral was a party. Brown’s family and a VIP crowd including Mayor Vincent Gray and former Mayor Marion Barry paid respects to the man who developed a rhythmic form of funk that Washington claims as its own. Brown was 75. (Brad Horn for The Washington Post/The Washington Post)

His fans lost a cultural icon. His family lost a husband, a dad, a provider.

A year later, one group is getting on better than the other.

“Everybody who connected with Chuck misses him,” said Darryl Brooks, a concert promoter who was close to Brown. “But for the family, it’s like somebody taking the foundation from under you. I pray for them.”

Before he became ill last year, Brown was everywhere, maintaining a full schedule of performances and public appearances.

Demand for his services — and songs — was robust: He earned $235,000 to $285,000 annually, according to documents filed with the Prince George’s County Register of Wills.

“He was working all the time, and he loved it,” said his manager, Tom Goldfogle. “Working was his life.”

Brown is still being mourned and celebrated. A tribute band, including many of Brown’s old bandmates, will perform some of his songs Thursday — the anniversary of his death — at the Howard Theatre. A second concert is scheduled for Friday at Rams Head in Annapolis.

They’ll do “Bustin’ Loose” and “Go Go Swing” and “Run Joe” and most of the rest of Brown’s best-known songs, just as they’ve done multiple times since he died, usually at the Howard, where Brown had shined shoes before finding stardom with his own sound.

Wiley Brown, who moved home from Virginia Tech to look after his grieving mother, will sing some of his father’s parts.

Nekos Brown, who keeps a memorial service banner in the car, will wear a suit and hat, the way Dad always did.

Donelson will try to keep it together while summoning her beloved stepfather’s spirit. “The music will be alive, even though he is gone,” she said.

It will be a dance party, not a wake: That came at the Howard last May, when thousands of people lined up around the block to view Brown’s open casket.

The singer is buried in an unmarked grave at Trinity Memorial Gardens in Waldorf. His final resting place is near a tree in the cemetery’s Garden of Christus. The family plans to put a footstone down sometime this year; there’s been talk of a graveside remembrance service around Brown’s birthday, which is Aug. 22.

During his career, Brown projected an image of wealth. He bought his own limousine, wore alligator shoes and tailored suits and sometimes draped fur coats over his shoulders.

The singer and his wife owned at least two homes, in Waldorf and Brandywine. But Brown did not necessarily die rich, the court filings show.

An inventory filed with the county lists just $53,000 in personal property — the market value of his shares in Raw Venture Records and Tapes and Swing T Publishing. (Raw Venture was Brown’s record label and also handled his live performance fees. Swing T licensed a fraction of Brown’s compositions, including his signature hit, “Bustin’ Loose,” and “Hot in Herre,” Nelly’s hip-hop smash, which used the “Bustin’ Loose” hook.)

Brown owed more than $75,000 to creditors at the time of his death, most of it to Johns Hopkins Hospital for his care, according to the filings.

“Financially, my father was old-school; he believed in putting money in a box,” said Nekos Brown, one of the singer’s five surviving adult children.

There are four heirs named in the will: Nekos and Wiley, the sons of Chuck and Jocelyn Brown; and stepchildren “KK” Donelson and William Thompson. The will excludes an estranged adopted daughter, Gequita Gray, born to Brown’s first wife, Eleanor. His first-born son, Charles Louis Brown Jr., was killed in a car crash in 1990. Eleanor Brown died in 1992, four years after she and Chuck Brown divorced.

The estate is being managed by Brown’s widow, Jocelyn, who has struggled since her husband’s death, according to the family.

“They were [together] for 27 years,” Nekos Brown said. “You can’t replace that.”

Wiley Brown said he has spent much of the past year with his mother, “trying to make sure that she is doing okay to the point that she is not really lost in her grief. I try to do whatever I can to make it easier for her. It is still hard on her.”

She has maintained a low profile since Aug. 22, when she joined the family to accept a Chuck Brown Day proclamation from D.C. Mayor Vincent C. Gray (D). (That same day, Gray announced plans to name a Northeast Washington park after Brown, whom he called “one of the greatest Washingtonians.” The plan — which included a major renovation — has been met with significant community pushback.)

Jocelyn Brown will not be at the memorial concerts this week, the children said.

Brad Clements, part of Chuck Brown’s old horn section, said he had called Jocelyn Brown to offer his support. But he could never reach her. “She is very reclusive,” he said.

Monday night, the old band convened for rehearsal in an industrial section of Hyattsville, hard by the John Hanson Highway. Brown had practiced at Perfect Sound Studio for more than two decades; it still felt like home, albeit much emptier in Brown’s absence.

“It’s very different; he was the soul of everything that we did,” said vocalist Donnell Floyd. “The first couple of months after he died was really hard. The grieving process takes time. As time goes by, it will get better. But anytime you play his music, you feel something.”

Some of the deacons of go-go — leaders of other bands that thrived in Chuck Brown’s wake — came through, to figure out how they’d fit into the tributes.

Everybody wanted to perpetuate the legacy. Nobody was sure it was possible.

“It definitely feels like a void,” said “Sweet” Cherie Mitchell-Argus, a longtime keyboardist in Brown’s band. “It’s like James Brown’s band without James Brown. But we are trying.”

Then, Chuck Brown’s band played on, without Chuck Brown, keeping his go-go beat going.

Matt Zapotosky contributed to this report.

Hamil Harris is currently a multi-platform reporter on the Local Desk of The Washington Post.
J. Freedom du Lac is the editor of The Post's general assignment news desk. He was previously a Local enterprise reporter and, before that, the paper’s pop music critic.
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