May 31, 2012

On Tuesday, I paid my respects to Chuck Brown. Now I know who Chuck Brown was. Twenty-two years ago, I did not.

I’m a drummer from New Zealand. In 1990, producer Chris Biondo hired me for the Eva Cassidy Band. He mentioned working on an album with Eva and a singer named Chuck Brown.

I had no idea who Chuck Brown was.

Two weeks later, Chris called. “We need you for a Chuck and Eva session. His drummer can’t make it.”

When I arrived, Chris asked, “Do you know who Chuck Brown is?”

“Not a clue.”

“He’s the Godfather of Go-Go . . . a legend in this town.”

“Um . . . Godfather? Go-go? Legend?”

Chris sighed. “Do you remember a tune, ‘Bustin’ Loose’?”

“Uh . . . maybe . . . vaguely . . . not really.”

“That was his big hit, and in D.C. he’s a superstar.”

I began to feel nervous. Chris didn’t help.

“This is big. Chuck agreed to do a jazz album with Eva, and he can open a lot of doors for us. Just do whatever it takes to make him feel comfortable. Okay?”

I walked in. Eva said “Hi,” and then I saw Chuck. Hat, fringed jacket, dark glasses, guitar — and a big smile. Chris introduced me.

“Chuck, this is Eva’s drummer, Raice.”

The legend, the Godfather of Go-Go, looked me in the eye and said in his unique, sibilant, gravelly voice, “Raaaiccccce . . . SO nice of you to help us out.”

He shook my hand, then said, “Alright. Now we gonna get some songs done.”

Someone suggested we do “Fever,” and Chuck asked me to come up with a groove. After a few minutes I began to play and saw a big, gold-toothed smile through the drum-booth window. Chuck liked it. Whew! A quick talk through the arrangement, and we were recording.

We laid down one more track, then called it a day. Chuck turned to Chris, “Can Raice do the rest of the album?”

Chris looked at me. “Sure.” I said.

But I still didn’t really know who Chuck Brown was.

After we finished the Chuck/Eva album, “The Other Side,” Chuck’s manager booked some engagements, but there was a worry. What about Chuck’s fans? This jazz experiment was a labor of love for Chuck, but hard-core go-go fans might not appreciate the switch, so he asked us to learn a couple of his go-go classics. Our first gig was in Columbia. The room was packed, and for the first time I heard the chant, “Wind me up, Chuck!” The stage was lined with girls. Chuck and Eva walked out to a tumultuous welcome, and we began the first tune.

The crowd was puzzled. The advertising had stated that this was not a go-go event, but this was Chuck Brown — right? Determined, Chuck stuck to the game plan for an hour, then called a go-go song. We began the famous groove, and I watched in amazement as the crowd began to sing, dance and call and answer. Now I saw Chuck in his element. He had the audience in the palm of his hand, and he held it there as long as he wanted. It was a revelation.

I was beginning to learn who Chuck Brown was.

During the next year, the Eva Cassidy Band featuring Chuck Brown worked many venues. Wolf Trap, the Carter Barron, Blues Alley, local jazz festivals and more. While still playing go-go with his own band, Chuck presented a different side of his talent, and we in Eva’s band benefited from the support and exposure he gave us. But “The Other Side” was to be a one-off experiment. Chuck needed to remain with his go-go roots. A little sad to see the venture end, we played one last festival in Virginia and said our goodbyes.

Since then, Chuck’s career went from strong to stronger. We lost Eva Cassidy to cancer in 1996, but her music enjoyed enormous posthumous success in Europe. I started a book about the Eva Cassidy Band and needed Chuck’s memories, so in 2008 he and his lovely wife, Jocelyn, granted me a long interview about our days working together. Chuck was unfailingly gracious and generous in his comments. He had enjoyed working with Eva, he told me, and felt he had been the perfect match for her onstage. His verve was the ideal counterpoint for her shyness, and he made sure her astonishing voice received its due. The combination of Eva’s crystal power and Chuck’s mellow purr make a remarkable blend. “The Other Side” holds up well in any Chuck Brown or Eva Cassidy collection.

The last time I spoke to Chuck was at Blues Alley in 2011. The room was packed with hard-core Chuck fans. The band was first-class; the groove never weakened; and Chuck was in control of every soul in the place. It was classic, vintage Chuck Brown go-go. Afterwards, I chatted with him briefly, then stepped outside. The line for the second show stretched out to the street and someone had a boom-box. “It don’t mean a thing if it ain’t got the go-go swing.”

He was a generous soul. He was an original. He was a legend. He was go-go. Now I do know who Chuck Brown was, and I’ll never forget him.

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