This article was originally published August 14, 1994.
Bygone days: There was a beat that stuck in the little boy's head. He carried it with him, around town, on the streetcar and in the shower back home in "the country" -- Fairmont Heights, just over the District line in Prince George's. The beat never changed: a gospel rhythm he heard Sunday mornings, the regular thud of the bass drum, a clash of the cymbals, accented by a snare's pop. Krosh, pop, krosh, pop.
Chuck Brown, 8 years old, fresh up from North Carolina, his parents having traded migrant farm life for the capital city, ran with the other kids, selling the Washington Times-Herald and the Pittsburgh Courier (the great black weekly) in front of the Greyhound station downtown. And the beat always going in his mind. He stayed downtown until dark, and beyond. Stayed till the cops came and shooed him home. In those days, the police actually hauled kids off the streets after 10.
He shined shoes down near the Navy Yard, buffed them to satisfy a drill sergeant. Later, running with the bigger kids, he stationed himself outside the country-western joint across from the bus terminal, where there were famous shoes to be polished -- Hank Williams, Les Paul. Chuck heard their music leaking out the door, and he wrapped that music around his beat.
Chuck sang and played some piano then, joining his harmonica-blowing mother in song at Mount Zion Church in Fairmont Heights. He studied with Sister Louise Murray, the piano teacher who opened her star student's ears, dragging him along to Philadelphia church-music conventions. In 1941, when the world was blowing up, word came over the radio about Pearl Harbor. "Mama made me get up under the bed," Brown remembers. "It was thousands of miles away and I looked out to the window, looking for the bombs."
Krosh, pop, krosh, pop. Straight-ahead gospel, no funk yet, rice without the beans. The missing ingredient was Grover Washington's mellow '70s number, "Mr. Magic," a gift on vinyl. It featured an upbeat that juiced the rhythm Brown had kept going since boyhood. He transferred the upbeat to a conga drum, syncopated the whole sequence, and created go-go.
Not girls in white boots dancing in cages, but a music that would separate first Brown and then a generation of D.C. bands from the numbing sameness of the cabaret scene. Brown took those cabaret Top 40 covers and pumped them up with James Brown-style funk and layers of African-style percussion. To make the shows livelier, his band didn't pause between songs; the result was a nonstop party groove that was distinctively D.C. Go-go was as unrelenting as the beat in ChuckBrown's head. Other bands -- Trouble Funk and E.U. among them -- picked up the beat, and by the time Brown scored a national hit with "Bustin' Loose" in 1979, the Capital City had spawned a new kind of black music.
Brown's creation became a point of pride ("The D.C. Sound"), frustration (never quite breaking out beyond the city) and failure (the music was unfairly blamed for drug trade violence of the late '80s). Through two decades, as dance music thumped off in other directions, Brown always managed to keep his beat going. There were generational strains, kids who preferred to play the harsh rap that Brown calls "noise," but for a 59-year-old, he still commands extraordinary loyalty from young musicians.
Even now, Brown's nonstop beat -- boom-pa-chukka-boom-chuk -- is the rhythm track of a city. Little kids bang it out on plastic drums on F Street NW and in front of D.C. General Hospital. Two UDC students, one from Northeast and one from Nigeria, play it on a newspaper box and a pile of textbooks on the college campus. And over at the Stouffer Concourse Hotel in Crystal City, Chuck Brown, just gearing up at 1:45 on this particular Sunday morning, plays it for 600 kids, some of whom haven't a clue that the man they are hearing is the inventor, the master, the Godfather of Go-Go.
Out of His Element
Go-go nights: A dozen large, thick men dressed in black patrol the dance floor, occasionally muttering commands into their headset microphones. Everyone in the room has been frisked and been passed through a metal detector. You can't be sure enough, even in the burbs, even in a good hotel, far from streets where shots ring out so often that mothers must remind their children to stay clear of the windows.
The go-gos, the all-night dances that attract thousands of area kids along with the occasional itchy-fingered executioner, became a convenient scapegoat in the late '80s. Shootings had a way of happening near go-gos, as they would later explode near schools and pools. In fact, wherever large numbers of young people hung out. No matter: Clubs and public halls where the go-gos flourished were hit with curfews and closings. Some lost liquor licenses. Cops were under pressure to do something, anything.
Chuck Brown and the Soul Searchers watched night after night from the bandstand while the crews posed, cocked and ready. Dangerous scene. One night in '92, at Kilimanjaro in Adams-Morgan, right in front of Brown, a man walked in and blew away Dannie Rogers, a 20-year-old from Northeast. Irony was, a bunch of cops had just walked into the club a little before the shooting. And this: Brown was playing at Kilimanjaro, in supposedly safer Northwest, because a bunch of go-go clubs in Southeast and Northeast had been shut down as a result of the violence.
Brown won't play go-go in the city anymore. He has learned over the years exactly which tunes get the audience too riled up. "Sometimes the music makes them fight, if we play too loud or too hyper," he says. "People start bumping and we have to cool it down. After a while, it scared me too much and I stopped playing those shoot'em-up joints. It got so bad, even in places I'd played for 20 years. I pulled out. I don't need the guns. I just want good joints -- hotels, nice clubs, nice rec centers. I want a crowd that dresses right."
Now, two years later, Brown is in Virginia. The crowd is from all over, mostly just kids -- late teens, early twenties -- forking over $ 25 each for a dance. There are some guys packing beepers and cold stares, hanging back from the dance floor, nodding silently to the beat. The dancers are almost all girls, done up in lame' and heels, showing lots of leg.
"Who the [expletive] is Chuck Brown?" says a girl whose three-inch-high gold necklace spells out "Charille." "I just want to hear the go-go."
But up front, a small cluster of fans waits for the man. "I used to watch Chuck Brown 20 years ago outside on the street in Fredericksburg," says a 35-year-old hotel manager from Alexandria. "He loves to play, play all night. Man has the funk."
Brown is an old man in this line of work. He gets away with it because the sound is his. He drives up to a gig in the white stretch Lincoln Town Car limousine he bought when the music was good to go. That was in '87, after "I Want Some Money," the tune the whole town was singing, the chant that unfortunately -- inevitably? -- became an anthem for killers and hustlers. Brown had a chauffeur then. Flush times.
But it slipped away. So there is no more driver. Chuck drives the limo himself. No passengers, no one lounging in that great expanse of white leather. The man likes the car. Chuck is a tough guy up onstage -- cowboy hat, bronze shades, silver-studded black alligator boots, a sharp, wispy goatee. He's slim, taut, with strong hands and a trim, tight ponytail.
But he fools no one. He is a softy, a throwback, a guy who pumps a wad of Juicy Fruit between his Marlboro Lights. Go-go is call and response. Chants shoot back and forth during percussion breakdowns: "Do the Right Thing," "Wind Me Up, Chuck." If the crowd offers something rowdy, Chuck goes along. But mostly, he treats them like the kids they are. Chuck shouts, "Let's scream!" and the crowd screams.
He picks up scraps of paper handed up to him, and he calls out messages like a Top 40 deejay. "The boys are here from Addison Road." "Bladensburg's in the house." "Latisha's ready to play." And then Chuck segues into something shockingly sweet, "A Foggy Day" or "My Funny Valentine." His voice dives into his Arthur Prysock tones, all husky baritone. He slips in 10 bars of Billy Eckstine, even a snatch of Gershwin. He lifts the guitar and gets off some tasty licks in the manner of Charlie Christian or early George Benson.
An audience raised on rap can't catch the references. Brown cites the jazz masters nonetheless. He hires musicians who can solo smartly, guys who can play the "Woody Woodpecker" song and then work the changes for eight minutes each. He has worked with some of the best, including the horns from Parliament Funkadelic.
They love all that in Japan, where Chuck Brown is available on collector-quality CDs, complete with discography and photo album. When he tours Europe and the Far East, Chuck still lives large. Here, where he started it all, his distributor is in a small warehouse in Laurel. He's a regional act.
"Chuck is a survivor," says Breeze -- real name, Daniel Clayton -- a longtime District music entrepreneur (currently he owns Deno's in Northeast) who gave Brown one of his first big breaks. "Chuck has the disadvantage now of playing for people who just don't understand what he's trying to do. But he's got to come back to the city. The go-go is part of our heritage. The kids might like reggae now, but the basis is that stomp-down funk of the go-go sound, and Chuck is that sound."
But Chuck has escaped the city. Now he's splitting his performance time between go-gos and the upscale club scene, where he plays jazz and blues with a 30-year-old smoky soprano from Prince George's County, Eva Cassidy. "The Other Side," released 1992, is their first recording, sounds the kids don't care to hear, tunes Brown needs to play.
In an exasperated moment, Brown swears, "I'm not going to do the weekly go-go anymore. I'm doing what I'd always wanted to." With Cassidy and solo, he's belting out standards, his smoker's voice husky, his intonation rich with the Carolina countryside, his energy a throwback to Ray Charles at his peak. He swings on Charles's "Drown in My Tears," Lionel Hampton's "Red Top," Billie Holiday's "God Bless the Child."
" 'The Other Side' is what he's really about," says Joe Manley, who teaches martial arts in Fairmont Heights these days, but once ran Los Latinos, a Top 40 band with a salsa touch. Brown played with the band, and Manley has been his mentor since the early '60s. Manley believes Chuck's return to jazz is his only path.
"I often felt for him being up there with all those young toughs," Manley says. "Those kids know him for the go-go beat and that's all they want to hear. I don't want to be with that crowd, and I don't think Chuck does either."
A Prison Epiphany
Hustler times: After the war, the District was filled with kids up from the Carolinas. There were dances at Turner's Arena and the Suburban Garden, streetcars to take you home, doo-wop on the corner. Chuck's friends sang -- and boxed. They fought over girls, they fought over the wrong kind of stare. They fought like the stars they saw on screen at the Dunbar and Alamo theaters, where kids went when they played hooky from school. They'd draw thin mustaches under their noses, the better to fool the movie-house ushers.
Chuck had to help his parents raise the $ 3 they needed for groceries each week. Besides his shoeshine box, he worked the watermelon wagon, still horse-drawn then, singing "Watermelon, watermelon." Later, Chuck cut logs, delivered ice and drove a truck.
He first realized work could be lovely when he pocketed $ 30 one day for sparring with a prizefighter. "I had good skin, didn't cut easy," he says. Brown was the punching bag for Harold Smith and Bobby Foster, later a light-heavyweight champion.
"No shooters then, we used fists," Brown says. "Kids now seem to hate each other. We fought 'cause the girls used to like to see us fight. But then you'd get up, shake hands and go out together. We didn't fight over drugs. We drank wine and fought over girls. If anybody reached for a rock or into a pocket, the whole crowd would be on you."
In 1948, when he was 13, Chuck left home. His mother fretted that her boy had strayed from the church. Chuck already fancied himself a hustler. Shot craps, played pool for food money. Lied about his age, did a stint in the Marines and got tossed out. By the time he was 17, he was in jail for armed robbery. As a robber he worked solo, and not with his fists, knocking over jewelry stores and pawn shops. New York, Norfolk, Richmond -- he could write a Fodor's Guide to penitentiaries of the East Coast. He did the whole act: gold teeth, big gun, prison bravado.
And then he landed at Lorton. Did four years for assault with a deadly weapon, which was bumped up to murder when the guy Brown shot -- in self-defense, he says -- died after six months in the hospital. Brown says he was a fool-headed hustler back then. And then, something you won't hear much these days: "I loved Lorton. Last jail I ever went to. Best jail I ever went to. That's where I started playing guitar, on an instrument made by a guy in the carpenter shop. Worked in the tailor shop, model prisoner. A guy inspired me. I listened to Sister Rosetta Tharpe. I learned to play like Charlie Christian. I became the number one entertainer at Lorton."
Can't Catch a Break
Bustin' Loose: The '60s, mythologized as years of innovation and anarchy, were more a time of suffocating conformity on the music scene. Aside from a handful of revolutionaries, musicians were sentenced to play an endless series of covers. Brown and his guitar landed spots with Jerry Butler, the Earls of Rhythm and Los Latinos, cover bands on Washington's Top 40 circuit.
Chuck could play Lou Rawls, the Four Tops, Jimi Hendrix, Chicago -- whatever the radio ordained. He played back-yard cookouts and hotel dates, school gyms and neighborhood rec centers, the Rocket Room and the Coat Lounge. With Los Latinos, Brown did three and four gigs a night, cocktail hours and cabarets, weddings and breakfast shows where headliners from the Howard Theater -- Gene Chandler, Sammy Davis, Isaac Hayes -- turned up after hours.
His friend Manley pushed him out front as a singer and then, in 1966, as a band leader. Chuck Brown -- now with his Soul Searchers -- played the Ebony Inn in Fairmont Heights for $ 10 a man, plus beer and barbecue. Before long, the guys wanted a raise. They got a boost to $ 12 each, but had to sacrifice the chow.
Along came Breeze, already an operator in the District music scene. Breeze wanted Chuck to play Pitts Red Carpet Lounge at 15th and Belmont NW. Brown and the guys in the band liked Breeze's swagger -- and his offer: $ 15 each, with barbecue and beer.
Pitts was a happening place. In those days of dashikis and dreams, Marion Barry and the whole Pride Inc. gang were regulars. Music and politics were converging, and Brown met the future mayor and dozens of others who would one day become players after the dawn of home rule. Brown played benefits for Pride, the youth program that made the future mayor famous, and Barry's people got gigs for the Soul Searchers.
Tired of Top 40, Brown was ready to break the rules. "They all wanted what was on the radio," he says. "I gave it to them, but I'd keep the congas and drums going between songs. I added chants. I could talk to the audience over the beat and hear if they said something slick. We got the call and response going."
The beat became endless, and Brown called it go-go. Breeze put Brown on TV, on "Teenorama," a local dance show. At school dances, he layered licks and hooks over the percussion, and he and the kids fed off each other. Chants became songs. There were a couple of hits, first "We the People" and then the first national go-go seller, "Bustin' Loose."
The Question then remains The Question now, 15 years later: When will the music go wide, break the bubble of D.C.? Brown is still waiting, still recording. His first studio go-go album in four years is due out this fall. He troops up to Trammp's in New York every month or so to keep his beat going there. But he knows: Go-go's national breakout has never happened and -- face it -- never will.
"The purpose of the music has been defeated," Brown says, and it hurts to say it, because this is his music. "I don't know how to say it without offending other musicians, but where are the other bands? It's just noise out there. Some of these young [go-go] musicians have never learned to play their instruments." And with rap, the word and the beat are all. Melody, improvisation, the expression of emotion through a horn or some strings -- things of the past.
But Reo Edwards, producer of many of Brown's early hits, believes Chuck still connects to a generation many older musicians have dismissed. He's got the beat, now he needs a message.
"I'll tell you why it didn't happen for go-go," Edwards says. "For years, go-go didn't tell a story. If I'm a teenager and I want to say something to a girl, I'll go buy a record that says what I need to say. It ain't too late for Chuck. He's just got to have stuff they can relate to now, today."
After 20 years of go-go all-nighters and audiences that seem less and less interested, Brown is still there. At the Stouffer that Sunday morning, he would have played till 7 if the cops hadn't ordered him to shut down at 4.
He takes his jazz act to the older crowd at Wolf Trap and Carter Barron, at the new Fleetwood's in Alexandria and to the Birchmere. And he still plays go-go for the kids. Neither is quite the audience he wants, but Chuck Brown can't stop going out. That's what he does. The beat's still in his head.
He looks down from each stage, searching in vain for the cats he grew up with. Like Chuck Brown, they, sadly, have left the city. Unlike Chuck, they have pretty much stopped going out.