By Robin Rose Parker
Sunday, October 4, 2009
Chuck Brown is on his way to work. He's not performing his beloved go-go music today, but his duties are a kind of extension of his regular gig. In the spring of 2008, Brown is among the local celebrities who have agreed to visit D.C. schools and deliver pep talks for students to do their best on upcoming tests. The hope is that the message will be more persuasive coming from someone the teenagers admire.
Just outside the hall at D.C.'s H.D. Woodson Senior High School, two female security guards are standing at their posts. The women wear wide, radiant smiles and continually steal peeks from behind the school's yellow doors with eager anticipation of the arrival of D.C's local legend.
"I ain't never seen him before," says one of the guards. Her spiral curls bounce around her ears.
"You've seen him on TV," her taller co-worker says.
"Only on the Lottery Board," she answers, by which she means his TV spot for the D.C. Lottery. "Is he gonna play his guitar? I wanna dance."
"She's been living here 30 years and ain't never seen Chuck," her co-worker says, shaking her head.
Right on time, Brown drives his silver Mercedes coupe into the parking lot. The Woodson welcoming committee begins to grow with word that "Chuck is here." Within moments Brown, his wife, Jocelyn (who graduated from Woodson in 1980), their son Wiley and grandson Derrick emerge from the car. Brown is dressed in a brown suit with a matching chocolate-colored hat and gold-tipped boots. He ambles down the sidewalk with a slightly pigeon-toed gait.
"Hey, ladies," Brown says as he approaches the guards.
"You a legend, Chuck," the shorter guard says excitedly. "Can I get a picture with you later?"
Brown agrees and continues toward the small, waiting crowd as he offers handshakes and small talk; he flashes the gold-toothed grin that is as much a part of his image as his ever-present hat. The teachers, administrators and maintenance crew at the school are the usual Chuck Brown fans: 30- to 40-something African Americans. Many of them have been followers since Brown broke out with his 1979 song, "Bustin' Loose" -- decades before his high school audience was born.
A representative from D.C. Schools Chancellor Michelle Rhee's office introduces him, and Brown walks into the auditorium occupied by 10th-graders, who fill about a third of the hall. Gasps of astonishment ring out as Brown, who is known as the "Godfather of Go-Go," enters the room. Many of the students are laughing and smiling, and most seem to recognize Brown.
Brown frequently shows up at events with family members in tow, and as he is handed a microphone, his wife demurely glides into a front row seat, while Wiley and Derrick flank him.
"Tell me what ya' feel like doin,' ya'll," Brown immediately sings out to the crowd.
"Tell me what ya' feel like doin,' ya'll," the students answer back, playing their expected role in the call-and-response chant.
Brown gets around to his talk, which focuses on the importance of education, but it's off-the-cuff, and after 10 minutes, he exhausts his advice.
"What questions do you have for me?" Brown asks the students.
The hands are slow to rise. "When did you graduate?" someone finally asks. Brown says that he left school in the seventh grade, but he got his GED later.
The questions are few and the energy slows. Brown shifts his weight from one foot to the other, and the assembly feels on the verge of falling apart when a young man yells out from the crowd, "Sing something."
"Sing something?" Brown laughs and flashes a sheepish grin. "I'm not good at a cappella," he says. "Next time, I'll bring my band."
"Can I have your autograph for my grandmother?" a young man asks. The students around him laugh.
On its premise, expecting a man in his 70s to motivate 15-year-olds may have been an ill-conceived idea. Perhaps a visit from younger sports stars such as the Wizards' Caron Butler or the Redskins' Santana Moss would have generated more enthusiasm. But Brown is not your typical septuagenarian. Songs such as "Run Joe," "We Need Some Money" and "Go Go Swing" are synonymous with growing up in black Washington. Still, being familiar with his music and relating to the man himself are not the same thing, and the awkwardness in the room grows thick.
One woman attempts to assist. "Can you tell us more about how old you were when you got your diploma?" she asks.
"Oh, I got it when I was incarcerated," Brown says. "Back then, Lorton was like a school. You could get your mind together, learn a trade. But I hope none of you will have to do that," he says. "Any more questions?"
"Come on, if you all don't have questions, Chuck's going to leave us," principal Gwendolyn Jones warns the students.
"Okay, do ya'll wanta hear a song?" Brown finally relents.
"Run Joe," he calls out.
"Run Joe," the students echo back. With one small phrase they are roused from their iPods and conversations.
"Run Joe," Brown continues.
"Run Joe," the students sing.
They jump to their feet clapping their hands and hoisting their cellphones in the air to take pictures.
"Run Joe/Run Joe/Run Joe/Run Joe/The policeman's at the door/Run Joe/Run Joe/And I gotta go," Brown improvises.
With that, Brown waves to the principal and backs away as Jones jumps in and thanks him for coming. She adds that if anyone wants an autograph, they had better come quickly. Many of the students come forward, and Brown patiently greets them one by one. But his people, like the eager security guard, are waiting outside the auditorium door.
"Is he coming? Go check," the guard says. "I need the picture to be somewhere cute." She looks around for an idea. "It's gonna be my screensaver."
She hesitantly approaches when Brown comes out. He puts his arm around her, and she quickly turns to the side and bends her knee, posing like a superstar. Brown grins wide. "Be sure to get my teethies," he says. His fans erupt with laughter, and after the picture is taken, the guard shrieks as she raises her hands victoriously. Brown smiles, turns away and steps out of the yellow doors back into the sun.
Few musicians have single-handedly created a genre of music, but Chuck Brown did just that when he developed go-go. Blending syncopated Latin beats with elements of jazz and African rhythms, Brown produced a sound that also derived directly from the music of African American churches. The inspiration led Brown to slow down the up-tempo of disco, which was popular during this period. "I just cut the beat in half," he says. And to compete with the DJs, who were able to keep people on the dance floor continuously, Brown ignored the traditional stops in a set and began dropping percussion interludes between songs, twining them together so that there were no breaks. He called his new music go-go, "because it goes and goes," he says.
Brown created go-go in the early 1970s. He is now 73, and he has never stopped working. He is no closer to living in a retirement community than he is to recording a polka album. He performs regularly, mostly up and down the Eastern Seaboard, from New Orleans to New York, often with annual trips to Japan, where he's surprisingly popular.
Other musicians in other genres have defied the limits of age. The Rolling Stones, well into their 60s, still play stadiums. Country singer George Jones keeps belting out his songs in his late 70s, and while bluesman B.B. King, 84, sits in a chair onstage, he and his beloved guitar, Lucille, still wow crowds in his 200 concerts a year. But Chuck Brown has not had the commercial success these artists have enjoyed. For many years, he played seven days a week and sometimes two shows a Saturday night. Now he performs between four and eight times a month, 12 months a year, and if he spends less time on the road, it is only because he is increasingly hesitant to be away from his family.
With a considerably younger wife and five children in their teens or 20s (his oldest son, Chuck Jr., from a previous marriage, died in car accident at the age of 23), Brown is surrounded by youth. His daughter KK, a rapper who regularly performs with Brown and his band, believes that family is the secret of Chuck Brown's vitality. "We keep him young," she says. "If he didn't have anybody to love him, he probably would be gone."
Brown is almost always the oldest person in the room, and he likes it that way. His band is made up of musicians that are nearly a third his age. Most of them call him "Pops."
"They gotta crank if they're with me," he says. "I'm old. I'm older than all of them, and I don't need nobody old out there with me."
Brown says energy has never been an issue for him. He maintains excellent physical condition despite the fact that he refuses to give up his cigarettes. "I've been smokin' since I'm 7," he says. "Whatever I got -- I got it." He does calisthenics regularly and boasts about his prowess at push-ups. "My doctor ... said 50 a week would be good. I told him, 'Shucks, I did that this morning.' "
Brown also credits his manager for improving the quality of his life. After nearly a decade of working with Brown on a part-time basis, Tom Goldfogle, 50, officially took the reins of Brown's career in 2004. Goldfogle, who is Brown's fifth manager, has won his client's devotion because he has been mindful of the man, not just the musician. "Nobody else cared about me," Brown says of the other managers. When Goldfogle took over, he stopped Brown from working every day and helped him retrieve money he was owed from his earlier recordings. He managed to get Brown a portion of the publishing rights to earlier songs and also secured licensing rights for the national hit "Bustin' Loose." (In 2002, rapper Nelly released, "Hot in Herre," which proved to be a huge hit and liberally sampled "Bustin Loose," earning platinum records for both artists.)
Though Brown has recorded nearly 20 albums, Goldfogle says he has no idea how many albums the legend has sold. Brown has worked with many labels, some of which didn't provide him sales statements. And Brown refuses to discuss how much he makes from touring.
Goldfogle says he is still making plans and setting new career goals for Brown. Intent on "bringing his career to a bigger audience," Goldfogle says their plan is to build on the success of his last CD, "We're About the Business," which debuted at No. 2 on the R&B/Hip-Hop charts in 2007 and went on to sell 65,000 copies, according to Nielson SoundScan. (His 2001 release -- "Your Game ... Live at the 9:30 Club, Washington, D.C." -- has sold 72,000.)
But Goldfogle can't really say how they plan to achieve these goals. Brown enjoys a significant regional following, but making the leap into a larger, national status seems extremely remote for a man his age. Goldfogle acknowledges that while Brown has received support from high-profile DJs such as Tom Joyner and Steve Harvey, it has been a struggle to get his music into regular radio rotation around the country. "Songs are geared to a much younger audience," Goldfogle says, "and he doesn't fit in the artist demographic that those stations have."
Part of the problem is the nature of the genre Brown created. Goldfogle says go-go -- the vitality, the energy -- loses something without the live crowd. "It's very difficult to make the music work in a studio setting," he says.
In addition to the commercial challenges of the genre, Goldfogle recognizes the limitations of managing an artist older than 70. "I don't know how long he'll be doing this," he says. "You know, it could be two years, five years, 10 years." He and Brown seem to agree that the point is to make the most of the party while they can. And in the end, Goldfogle thinks Brown will better survive the years ahead. "I'll be following him around in a walker."
Chuck Brown has always been on the go. Born in Gaston, N.C., in 1936, Brown spent most of his childhood moving up and down the East Coast with his mother, Lila Louise Brown, and stepfather, who searched constantly for work. (Brown's biological father, Albert Moody, died when Brown was an infant.) The family often lived in shanties while Brown's stepfather did farm or construction work.
Settling in the D.C. area did little to quell the family's nomadic ways. "We lived in every corner of Washington, D.C.," Brown remembers. As a young boy in the 1940s, he regularly worked the streets selling newspapers or polishing shoes at 10 cents a shine. Brown's childhood hustle brought him in contact with many prominent black entertainers; in fact, he says he shined the shoes of jazz trumpeter Louis Armstrong outside the Howard Theater.
While times were hard and little was stable for the family, there was at least one constant in Brown's life. "I've been in music all my life -- my mother had me singing in church when I was 2 years old," Brown says. "Everybody in my family -- aunts, uncles, cousins -- could play harmonicas, or accordions, or guitars or something like that." Church was the family's only stage, though, and having learned to play piano by ear around the age of 7, Brown regularly began playing at Sunday services.
The hurt and shame of poverty, however, drove him toward adolescent exploits that included minor delinquencies such as stealing food when he was hungry and fighting with schoolmates who teased him in front of girls about the poor condition of his clothes. As a growing young man, he found the opposite sex an increasing distraction. His devotion to chasing girls would have him in and out of his home until he finally ran away at the age of 15.
After leaving home, Brown says, he was a hobo, catching freight trains and sleeping wherever he could. And in spite of his age, he always managed to find some small job, often by convincing his employers that he was older so that they would allow him to work during school hours. But his strong work ethic did not help him avoid trouble; his teens and early 20s were turbulent. After serving jail time for various crimes, he found himself behind the bars of D.C.'s Lorton Penitentiary for assault. Accounts of the shooting incident and charges have varied, but Brown says he acted in self-defense. He served 3 years of an 11-year sentence.
While locked up, Brown reconnected with his childhood love of music. After a fellow inmate made him a guitar in exchange for five cartons of cigarettes, Brown taught himself to play. With a natural predisposition for performing, it wasn't long before he was putting on shows for his fellow inmates. Brown says that his popularity became so great that if his peers had the choice between chow time and Brown's shows, "wouldn't be nobody in the mess hall." His jailhouse fame was a revelation: "That told me something ... anytime I could take a bunch of convicts and make them jump up and down. I might be able to do that when I get out of here."
He counts those years as a turning point in his life. "I'm one of the few people who can say I'm deeply grateful that I went to Lorton," he says. "Lorton taught me; Lorton got me my high school diploma. Lorton was a schoolhouse. You could become whatever you wanted to become in there. ... It was like a college. When I came out of there, I was ready."
Once he was out on parole, Brown became a hustler again, but this time he was hustling gigs. Because the conditions of his parole wouldn't permit him to be in clubs that served alcohol, Brown would play his guitar in back yards and churches, and he didn't work for money -- he entertained for food. Soon he began performing with Jerry Butler and the Earls of Rhythm, and by 1965 he had joined Los Latinos, a local cover band that played top 40 music with a Latin vibe.
In the early 1970s, Brown put together the Soul Searchers. But his aspirations went further than starting his own group; Brown was looking to produce a new sound. While creating his go-go formula, he borrowed from the call-and-response tradition customary in black churches, and during performances he would give shout-outs to D.C. neighborhoods and people he knew in the crowd, engaging the audience in chants and back-and-forth communication that transformed the shows into participatory events. The music was vigorous and energetic. People came ready to dance, shoulder to shoulder, jammed tightly on dance floors.
In 1972, Chuck Brown and the Soul Searchers recorded "We the People" and soon afterward "Blow Your Whistle." In 1979, Brown's music connected nationwide when his song "Bustin' Loose" hit No. 1 on Billboard's R&B charts. By this time, Brown and his new genre had produced followers. Local bands such as Trouble Funk, Experience Unlimited and Rare Essence had adopted the go-go sound. Go-go parties were popping up all around town. Brown's genre no longer belonged to him exclusively, but had become part of the culture of black Washington.
Yet while the genre has found an audience in various pockets around the world, it has failed to make a significant connection to a nationwide audience.
Donnie Simpson, the longtime host of WPGC's morning show, says that while he is unsure why go-go hasn't broken into the big time, he thinks there is something special about it belonging primarily to the District and its residents. "In a selfish kind of way, it's kind of cool that it's just ours," he says. "You can judge a person's knowledge of the area by their familiarity of its signature music. If you know go-go, then I know you've been through D.C."
Brown, his wife, Jocelyn, and their baby granddaughter, Nakia, are sitting in the dressing room of the Carter Barron Amphitheatre in Rock Creek Park as a steady stream of people float in and out. The dressing room is made up of two small, stark cubicles, and it is devoid of any signs of luxury or indulgence, just a few six-packs of soda set up in the corner.
Brown and his wife are expecting their oldest son, Bill, and his wife to arrive shortly. While Jocelyn feeds the baby and chats with a family friend, Brown walks in from the side room and quietly removes the baby food and wipes that are resting on his guitar case. He strums a quiet serenade as his granddaughter twists and bends on Jocelyn's lap, craning her neck to look at Brown.
An employee from the amphitheater sticks his head in to say that they should get ready to move to the stage within the next five minutes. Seconds later, the door opens again, and Brown's grandson, Derrick, 9 at the time, walks in wearing a large green T-shirt and shorts.
"Hey, black man," Brown says and grabs him for a quick hug.
The little boy is followed by his mother, KK, who is dressed for the stage in a body-hugging green dress.
When showtime arrives, Brown and his family emerge from the underground hallways and cross the stage. But a storm threatens to break open, and with lightening and hail expected, a voice over the sound system advises the audience to head to their vehicles for shelter. The crowd moans. Few people stir, particularly those who have pressed their way to the stage, but finally the pelt of heavy rain scatters them to the parking lots.
Brown and his band ride out the storm on the side of the stage. When the rain eventually subsides, Brown, dressed in black from his hat to his pants, with green boots that match the clothes of his daughter and grandson, walks into the light and begins playing the chords to "Love Theme from The Godfather."
The crowd of 3,500 is made up of mostly 30- and 40-something African Americans, and they are on their feet. They bounce up and down almost in unison, shoulders shrugging and shaking, heads bobbing back and forth unabashedly. Brown dances in place but rarely strays far from the microphone. He leaves most of the dancing to the audience and to grandson Derrick, who has joined him onstage to give a performance of his own. Brown moves in time, on the same beat as the audience, but his movements seem constrained next to those of the young boy, who twists and spins, bends and jumps.
Standing next to his grandson, Brown looks like every bit the old man, but he watches with an admiring smile, often laughing, and it's clear that he is proud to share the spotlight.
Just down the street from the spot where Chuck Brown used to shine shoes, a street is being renamed in his honor. Previously a section of 7th Street NW, from T to Florida, it is a little like the man himself -- urban and down-home, gritty and unpolished, with a past that holds both glory and shame. The Shaw neighborhood has seen both the heydays of the Howard Theater and the dark days of the '80s and '90s, when prostitutes, dealers and drug addicts made it dangerous to walk there. The gentrification that has come nearby has not made it down to this block.
The event is coinciding with Brown's 73rd birthday. It was meant to be a block party; there were going to be street vendors, even a moon bounce for the kids, but on this Saturday in August, the elaborate plans have been washed away in the persistent rain.
Still, the weather has not chased everyone away. A devoted band of Chuck Brown fans has arrived early to stake out their spots and dance in the rain to the stream of Brown's songs blasting from the large speakers. High above the crowd is a paper-covered sign that will reveal the street's new name: Chuck Brown Way.
As the crew works to get the stage ready for Brown's arrival, a man in a blue shirt with a book bag -- and few teeth -- slaps his hand on the stage and yells to them, "Where is Chuck Brown? This is bull[expletive]! Where is Chuck Brown? We need Chuck Brown!" No one pays him much attention.
A man who is assisting with the sound comes to the microphone to speak to the growing crowd. "We are not going to let the rain stop us," he calls out. D.C. Council Chairman Vincent Gray arrives and is soon joined in by Council Member Harry Thomas Jr.
The man with the blue book bag returns, but this time he is more insistent. "Where is Chuck Brown?" he yells angrily. "We need Chuck Brown!" Three police officers approach and move him away from the stage. As they usher him along, he looks stunned. "What did I do? What did I do?" he yells.
"We don't want this brother locked up or detained," the man at the microphone calls out. "We just want him to calm down, but we don't want him detained or arrested.
"Chuck Brown will be here," the man adds. "He is on his way." Then he leads the crowd in familiar go-go chants until Brown finally arrives. Brown and his family walk onto the platform, bouncing across the stage in time with the music. Brown greets the crowd, which begins to chant a phrase from a Bootsy Collins song that Brown used to regularly perform called "Wind Me Up."
"Wind me up, Chuck," the crowd yells out. This has become the phrase that Brown fans recite preceding his shows or even when they see him walking down the street.
Brown jumps right into the chant. "I can't hear you."
"Wind me up, Chuck."
"A little bit louder."
When Brown is ready to make his speech, it's a rambling mixture of reflections and rhymes. He speaks of his gratitude to the city that has been devoted to him and his music, amazed at how a poor boy that shined shoes down the street could grow up to have a street that bears his name.
"I love ya'll so much," he says. "I remember when the only people that wanted to take a picture of me -- 50 years ago -- was the police," he laughs. "You understand what I'm sayin'? Thank you to the city and to all of you for giving me all this love, all these years."
When the Chuck Brown Way sign is revealed, the crowd cheers, Brown's face, behind his large black sunglasses, crumples with emotion. He reaches for his wife and pulls her in for a tight embrace.
The fans at the foot of the stage strain forward, reaching out their hands toward Brown. He bends over, shaking hands and offering thank yous.
"I'm not going nowhere," he says, looking out over the crowd. "Like I said before, 'Every time I hit this stage, I become enraged.
"'Ya'll party so hard, I forget about my age.'"
Robin Rose Parker is a writer in Maryland. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.