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Chuck Brown dies: The ‘Godfather of Go-Go’ was 75

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Chuck Brown, the gravelly voiced bandleader who capitalized on funk’s percussive pulse to create go-go, the genre of music that has soundtracked life in black Washington for more than three decades, died May 16 at Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore. He was 75.

The death, from complications from sepsis, was confirmed by his manager, Tom Goldfogle. Mr. Brown had been hospitalized for pneumonia.

Known as “the Godfather of Go-Go,” the performer, singer, guitarist and songwriter developed his commanding brand of funk in the mid-1970s to compete with the dominance of disco.

Like a DJ blending records, Mr. Brown used nonstop percussion to stitch songs together and keep the crowd on the dance floor, resulting in marathon performances that went deep into the night. Mr. Brown said the style got its name because “the music just goes and goes.”

In addition to being go-go’s principal architect, Mr. Brown remained the genre’s most charismatic figure. On stage, his spirited call-and-response routines became a hallmark of the music, reinforcing a sense of community that allowed the scene to thrive. As go-go became a point of pride for black Washingtonians, Mr. Brown became one of the city’s most recognizable figures.

“No single type of music has been more identified with Washington than go-go, and no one has loomed so large within it as Chuck Brown,” former Washington Post pop music critic Richard Harrington wrote in 2001.

Mr. Brown’s creation, however, failed to have the same impact outside of the Beltway. The birth of go-go doubled as the high-water mark of Mr. Brown’s national career. With his group the Soul Searchers, his signature hit “Bustin’ Loose” not only minted the go-go sound, it spent four weeks atop the R&B singles chart in 1979.

“Bustin’ Loose” was “the one record I had so much confidence in,” Mr. Brown told The Post in 2001. “I messed with it for two years, wrote a hundred lines of lyrics and only ended up using two lines. . . . It was the only time in my career that I felt like it’s going to be a hit.”

It was Mr. Brown’s biggest single, but throughout the 1980s “We Need Some Money,” “Go-Go Swing” and “Run Joe” became local anthems, reinforced by radio support and the grueling performance schedule that put Mr. Brown on area stages six nights a week.

While rap music exploded across the country, go-go dominated young black Washington, with groups including Trouble Funk, Rare Essence and Experience Unlimited (also known as E.U.) following in Mr. Brown’s footsteps.

Mr. Brown performed less frequently in his final years but still took the stage regularly. He would often comment on his golden years in rhyme.

“I’m not retired because I’m not tired. I’m still getting hired, and I’m still inspired,” he said in 2006. “As long as I can walk up on that stage, I want to make people happy. I want to make people dance.”

Charles Louis Brown was born in Gaston, N.C., on Aug. 22, 1936. He never knew his father, Albert Louis Moody, a Marine. He took the surname of his mother, Lyla Louise Brown, a housekeeper who raised her several children in poverty.

“We’d go to somebody’s house and [my mother] would say, ‘Please feed my child. Don’t worry about me. Just feed my child,’ ” Mr. Brown recalled tearfully in a Post interview in 2011.

Mr. Brown was 8 when his family relocated to Washington, where he abandoned his schooling for a childhood filled with odd jobs. He sold newspapers at the bus station and shined shoes at the Navy Yard, where he recalled being tipped kindly by entertainers including Hank Williams and Les Paul.

As a teenager, Mr. Brown began to flirt with petty crime and stumbled into a disastrous situation in the mid-1950s when he shot a man in what he said was self-defense.

A Virginia jury convicted Mr. Brown of aggravated assault, which was bumped up to murder when the victim died in the hospital six months later. Mr. Brown served eight years at the Lorton Correctional Complex. There, he swapped five cartons of cigarettes for another inmate’s guitar.

Upon his release, Mr. Brown returned to Washington, where he worked as a truck driver, a bricklayer and a sparring partner at local boxing gyms. He also began to play guitar and sing at backyard barbecues across the area. His parole officer wouldn’t let him sing in nightclubs that served liquor.

In 1964, he joined Jerry Butler and the Earls of Rhythm and, in 1965, a group called Los Latinos. Both local acts played top-40 hits at area nightclubs; in 1966, Mr. Brown formed his own group, the Soul Searchers. He originally considered taking the stage name “Chuck Brown, the Soul Searcher.”

With the Soul Searchers, Mr. Brown scored minor hits in the early ’70s — “We the People” and “Blow Your Whistle” — but eventually decided to emulate James Brown by trying to create his own sound. Inspired by the percussive feel of Grover Washington Jr.’s “Mister Magic” and rhythms that Mr. Brown internalized as a child in church, he settled on go-go’s loping, popping cadence.

Mr. Brown sang gospel in childhood and was a guitarist fluent in jazz and blues who could toggle between gritty riffs and fluid solos. But he truly excelled behind the microphone, bringing a warm voice that he could punch up into a hot shout or tamp down into a sandpapery purr or a gentle croon as the drummer’s conga popped and rumbled along.

The influence of jazz and pop standards could be heard in much of Brown’s go-go material. Motifs from jazz staples “Moody’s Mood for Love” and “Harlem Nocturne” became a part of his “Go-Go Swing,” and Brown reshaped Louis Jordan’s calypso “Run Joe” into a go-go classic.

In turn, go-go would have its influence on jazz when trumpeter Miles Davis plucked longtime Soul Searchers drummer Ricky Wellman for one of his last touring bands. Many spotted go-go rhythms on Davis’s 1989 album “Amandla.”

And while hip-hop raced past go-go in the ’80s, Mr. Brown eventually influenced that genre as well. He was sampled by various hip-hop artists, most notably in Nelly’s 2002 hit “Hot in Herre.”   

But his impact was felt most acutely in the Washington area, where his sound spawned a generation of bands who would pull go-go into focus in the ’80s. Mr. Brown was always the genre’s champion, but he was quick to acknowledge the importance of other band leaders, Andre “Whiteboy” Johnson of Rare Essence, “Big Tony” Fisher of Trouble Funk and the late Anthony “Lil Benny” Harley, among them.

“These guys were the pioneers of go-go, and they each have their own distinct sound and identity,” Mr. Brown told The Post in 2001. “Everybody has something to offer.”

In 1992, Mr. Brown helped launch the career of the late singer Eva Cassidy, recording and releasing an album of duets, titled “The Other Side,” that confirmed his talent as an interpreter of standards.

Formal recognition came late in Mr. Brown’s life. He was nominated for his first Grammy Award in 2011, when he was 74, for best rhythm-and-blues performance by a duo or group with vocals for “Love,” a collaboration with singer Jill Scott and bassist Marcus Miller.

In 2005, the National Endowment for the Arts presented Mr. Brown with a Lifetime Heritage Fellowship Award. And in 2009, the District named a segment of Seventh Street NW “Chuck Brown Way”; it was a strip near the Howard Theatre where he used to shine shoes as a child.

He appeared in advertisements for the D.C. Lottery and The Post and became the city’s unofficial mascot, known for his extroverted warmth and willingness to flash his gold-toothed smile for any fan hoping to join him for a snapshot. An appearance on U Street NW outside Ben’s Chili Bowl could stop traffic.

“I really appreciate that I can’t go nowhere without people hollering at me,” Mr. Brown said in 2010. “I love being close to people.”

Mr. Brown was married multiple times and had several children. Aside from his wife, Jocelyn Brown, a complete list of survivors could not be determined.

Mr. Brown leaves behind a still-standing genre that, as he once told MTV, embodied the highest of human emotions.

“It’s about love, the communication between performer and audience,” Mr. Brown said of go-go. “When you’re on stage, the people put that love to you and you give it back. There’s no other music like it.”

© The Washington Post Company