As the tributes to Chuck Brown continue to pour in following his untimely death this week, this much is clear: He was much more than just a popular musician. He was a D.C. original who gave expression to the city’s soul and, in the process, became a unique and beloved institution.
As a native Washingtonian and marketing executive who first came under his spell decades ago, I suddenly find myself exploring: What accounted for his extraordinary ability to inspire legions of loyal fans, particularly among generations of D.C. residents, even as other musicians came in and out of style?
Sure, his pioneering brand of music — go-go — and his raw showmanship were a huge part of what drew us. But it was more than that. He understood his audience and maintained an ongoing and close relationship with that audience through the years.
In a sense, the godfather of go-go, as he was affectionately called, had an intuitive grasp of marketing and branding. And while there will never be another Chuck Brown, anyone who is seeking to achieve even a small measure of his success (in any field) might do well to follow a few of his examples:
●Chuck was accessible to his fans. It was not uncommon to see Chuck Brown travel without a swarm of bodyguards and occasionally stop to chat with fans. In fact, he established such a deep connection with his audience that people often referred to him as “Pop” when they saw him. At concerts, he was known to ask the police to move the barricades so that fans could come closer to the stage. He thrived through personal connection.
●Chuck was an original who created a demand for the niche he established. At a time when funk was a dominant force on the black music scene, Chuck could have followed the crowd. But he didn’t. Instead, he pioneered a new genre of music — go-go. It employed a mix of Latin rhythms, spontaneous call-and-response and the nonstop beating of drums. It is a sound that formed the musical backdrop for generations of D.C. residents. And it is as quintessentially D.C. as the Lincoln Memorial and Cherry Blossom Festival.
●Chuck was authentic. He was always plainspoken about who he was and where he came from. He did not hide the fact that he experienced severe poverty as a child and had brushes with the law as a young adult. Nor did he let fame go to his head. He remained true to who he was, reinforcing his connection with fans.
●Chuck was different. Indeed, he seemed to embrace the things that set him apart. There was his music, daring and innovative. There was his raspy voice, which eventually became as identifiable as go-go music itself. And then there were his dark shades and top hat. He understood the power of standing out.
● Chuck reached back. The loyalty he engendered was in no small part due to how freely he gave back to the community that nurtured his talents and success. He was said to play free concerts and mentor local musicians. He also lent his voice to local causes, like the movement for D.C. state rights.
All of this may explain the enduring legacy of Chuck Brown. More than making music, he had a long relationship with the city that loved him.
Shrita D. Sterlin is chief executive and brand officer of Penn Strategies, a Bethesda-based branding, public relations and marketing firm.