Not so long ago, Reginald “Polo” Burwell would bound to the stage nightly as the leader of TCB, the band that pioneered go-go’s bounce beat groove. He had created a sound that strayed from the conga-based percussive that had been a staple of the music that got its start in the District.
And it was divisive.
The band’s percussionist played with rototoms or drums with no shell. The higher-pitched percussive attack was a stark contrast to the traditional deep-toned polyrhythmic thump older listeners knew. Some criticized it as noise. Authorities tied violent episodes that sometimes occurred at concerts to the band.
But Burwell, his band and their new sound were in demand.
Sometimes the group would split into two — TCB and the second band, Polo and The Boyz — so they could play locally and out of town on the same night.
Friends and family members said the hectic schedule and public scrutiny took its toll on Burwell, who had high blood pressure. They suggested he take some time off.
“Man, I got to go,” Burwell would tell them.
Two years ago, all the traveling, late nights and long gigs exacted a price. Burwell had a severe brain hemorrhage that left him in a coma.
Sometimes, he tries to pull his legs away when his mother tries to massage them. Recently, she noticed throat movement as if he’s trying to swallow again.
The band continues to perform, but some fans wonder whether TCB can regain its “Bounce Beat Kingz” title without him.
But Clara Shields isn’t worried about his career. She’d be happy to have her son out of a rehabilitation facility and back at home.
“I know it’s a matter of time,” said Shields, 58, a spiritual woman who has faith that her son will recover. But “if God never does anything else [with him], I’m more than grateful.”
As a teen in the late 1980s, Burwell was interested in two things: football and music. He formed a band with some friends and played regularly throughout their Eckington neighborhood in Northeast Washington.
The band constantly tinkered with its sound. It stripped it down, similar to what punk music legends the Ramones had done to rock music in the mid-1970s.
They debuted the new, “bouncy” sound in 2003 — at the risk of alienating fans of traditional go-go, said Eric Hinnant, a former manager of go-go band Mambo Sauce.
“Bounce beat created a great divide,” Hinnant said. “When he started, I don’t think people took it serious.”
Not everyone was a fan of the band’s popularity. After an 18-year-old man was killed leaving a concert at a club on Central Avenue in December 2009, former Prince George’s County police chief Roberto L. Hylton said: “Although nightclub violence has been significantly abated in 2009, events featuring TCB continue to harm our communities. The PGPD stands shoulder to shoulder with our community leaders against the proliferation of violence masqueraded as entertainment.”
On April 10, 2010, the band had two shows: an afternoon gig in Philadelphia and its regular Saturday night show in Waldorf.
Burwell collapsed onstage during the night show and was taken backstage. Band members said he looked weary and grimaced as he complained of headaches. They agreed that he should go home to rest.
Burwell began to shake violently as a childhood friend, Eric Ellis, was driving him home. Ellis raced from Waldorf to United Medical Center in Southeast without stopping for red lights or stop signs.
“I couldn’t stop,” he said. “If it was me, he would’ve broke every law to get me some help. That’s how Reggie is.”
Burwell was unresponsive when they reached the hospital. A CT scan revealed bleeding in his brain. According to medical records provided by his parents, hypertension was a possible cause.
His blood pressure spiked as high as 272 over 173. He was transferred to Washington Hospital Center in critical condition.
Ellis drove to Burwell’s parents’ home in Northeast to tell them of their son’s condition.
James Shields, Burwell’s stepfather, gets emotional thinking about when he first saw his son at the hospital. “It crushed me,” he said.
But Shields, 64, said he found the resolve to say, “You’re not going to die.”
Burwell has dealt with bouts of intestinal bleeding, tracheal bronchitis and high fevers. His legs were fitted with inflatable compression sleeves to avoid blood clots.
Now, he is at a treatment facility within a 10-minute drive of his parents’ home.
Rising medical bills have caused James Shields, who had retired from his job as a contract specialist with the federal government, to return to work full time.
The band still relies on Polo’s image. They often perform with a life-size cutout of him behind a microphone onstage. Flyers promoting TCB shows bear his picture.
Moving on has been difficult. Ben Abba, the band’s manager, said the band misses Burwell’s leadership. “Polo was the general,” he said.
On Sundays, after church, the Shieldses visit their son.
James Shields grabs a flask of olive oil from the night stand, places a dab on his index finger and wipes a cross along his son’s forehead. He whispers a prayer. Clara Shields usually brings fresh washcloths, towels, pillowcases and new toiletries.
On every visit, his parents grab their son’s hand and pray. Burwell’s eyelids are closed. A catheter inserted in his chest is attached to a ventilator to aid with his breathing, only when necessary.
Just before leaving, James Shields makes one last plea: “I’m missing my calls, man. I’m missing my calls. It’s time for you to wake up,” he said. “I feel you holding on. I feel you holding on.”