The ride began last November, the joyous roller-coaster ride of success that musician Chuck Brown had been praying for through the years of laying bricks, driving cabs and sparring with light heavyweights. "We have," says Brown, his vocal rubble soothed by a mid-morning rum on the rocks, "We have busted loose."
From the creator of "Bustin' Loose," the smash hit that has taken Chuck Brown and the Soul Searchers from Sheriff Road to "Soul Train," that's no finger-poppin' slogan. It's a thanks-giving; he's ecstatic that the years of playing Washington's cellars and cabarets paid off in a burst of screaming ovations few local artists enjoy. His song has been No. 1 on Billboard's Rhythm - and - blues chart for six weeks and has broken into the pop music category at No. 20.
"We have been on the road opening up for Evelyn "Champagne" King, the Bar-Kays, Bohannon, Rolls Royce and Mother's Finest," says Brown, rattling off the current honor roll of soul disco acts. "In Chattanooga, Tenn., we played before 10,000 people and since Peabo Bryson was the headliner, only 1,000 were men. We opened with a fast one, they got off, and then we did a slow one, and they ripped off the stage," says Brown, obviously heartened at the thoughts of becoming a sex (or at least excitement) symbol at age 42. Or 47, since he upped his age five years to join the military briefly at age 13.
But his bravado is confined to the stage. All day yesterday, as Mayor Marion Barry, the City Council and Del. Water Fauntory issued proclamations and threw parties for the first "Local Entertainers Day," Brown was nervous.
He left one television studio set, this tough man who retains callouses on his hands from brick laying and braids his hair for performances so the female fans can pull on it, nervously relieved. "No one told me it was live," he kept saying to the promoter and record-company executives. At District Building, where Marion Barry did a split-second version of "the Rock" with City Councilwoman Nadine Winter, Brown hung in the background.
"This has broken the ice," enthused Ronald Yar-borough, whose group Positive Change has been around town for 15 years. "With the support of the city officials, we can show what Motown did in Detroit can happen here."
Marva Hicks observed, "Churck has attracted the attention to a city that has the talent but doesn't have the outlets."
Crossing the bridge from the federal rat race of Washington into the platinum fishbowl of entertainment has never been easy for the local talents. Only Duke Ellington, Billy Eckstine, Roberta Flack, Marvin Gaye, the Clovers, the Blackbyrds, and, recently, Peaches and Herb have made it. It has taken Chuck Brown 11 years and several personnel changes in the Soul Searchers. Their moment came when disco needed a nongimmick soul band and when a new label, Source Records, backed their faith with good promotion.
"It's extremely hard to make it. Until recently the studio space, the promotion apparatus wasn't available. The radio stations are generally cool to local talent," says Brown. "If you are a band, you have to be extremely consistent, make the people dance and feel good. During that 11 years we had reached our peak more than once in this town but nothing happened."
He credits his birthplace, Garysburg, N.C., as the place that fave him the toughness that saw him through the lean years. When he was 3, Brown moved to the Washington area but returned frequently to North Carolina, learing to Plow, to pick cotton, to cut pug wood. When he was 13 he tried to join the service, instead started digging ditches, and then became a professional sparring partner for light heavyweights and middleweights. When he was 17, he joined the Marines, stayed 11 months, rejoined the construction crews, and earned some cash as a pool shark.
"Music didn't become an interest until 1965. Then I started playing guitar and got may first paying gig with Jerry Butler in 1966,"says Brown. When he wasn't working, he hustled gigs at the Howard Theater, ending up as a sideman with Billy Stewart, Mary Johnson, Jackie Wilson, Lloyd Price and Maxine Brown.
The first attempts at forming a band failed. "I kept trying. Then in 1968 started the Los Latinos and shortly after three men became the Soul Searchers," says Brown. For one year he played local clubs, sometimes for barbecause and beer.
Four years after the first Soul Searchers formed, singer Bill Withers backed the group in two albums and four singles for the Sussex label.The songs were modest hits but the label folded. A brief stint with Polydor followed. "That didn't go and what I learned was that you have to know about the entire music business... including the monies," Brown says.
For four years, Brown stayed away from recording, searched from new players, drove a cab to help support his wife and two children, aged 17 and 11, and continued to play dances. "Thank God, we played those dances. We made more money than the average band on the road and worked even through the disco phase," says Brown. Then last year he began to hear the screams and the cash registers.
The initial critical reaction to the Soul Searchers' national performances has been mixed. Carole Carper, a Los Angeles radio executive who writes for a black radio trade publication, says "They are a real basic soul act that hasn't been energized or snythezied. It's a relief." Marc Shapiro, the editor of Soul Magazine, says, "They are no better, no worse than the others who are funk. I thought their act was leaden."
"When I'm home now, I go down to my basement, where I have a round room. I pray, let me get one more hit record, let me put this one in the hands of the right people. 'Bustin' Loose' only took off because the right people were behind it," says Brown. He brightens up from the thought that this success could be a fluke. "Now we are treated just like a new group, an overnight sensation."