Great concerts can make fantasy and reality feel like one and the same. George Clinton emerges from the hatch of a spaceship. Prince comes strutting out of the purple mist. Stevie Wonder takes us to higher ground. It’s as if we’re suddenly in the presence of supernatural beings.
But there are often a few detail-oriented human beings orchestrating these spectacles from behind the curtains, too. And in Washington, for more than 40 years now, their names have been Darryll Brooks and Carol Kirkendall.
Before they were big-time concert promoters, the veteran business partners were community event organizers behind the Summer Hut, an arts-centric day camp for urban youth held in Anacostia Park in the ’70s. Each night around dusk, they would host performances from the likes of Chuck Brown and Gil Scott Heron. And that was the start of it. In the decades to come, Brooks and Kirkendall would bring bigger names (the Rolling Stones, the Jacksons) to Washington’s biggest venues (the Capital Centre, the Mall).
The duo have changed the name of their company numerous times during their four decades together, and today they’re working past retirement age under the banner of CD Enterprises. In many ways, their upcoming Summer Spirit Festival — an annual soul revue taking place at Merriweather Post Pavilion on Aug. 8 — reflects both their ambition and their connection to the community.
“I call it naivete now, but we didn’t fear anything,” Brooks says of the pair’s earliest days in the music business. (They met in their late 20s and have been working together ever since.) “She’s a hippie and I’m a beatnik, but whatever you wanna call us, we wanted to get things done.”
Here are some of those things.
Brooks and Kirkendall began working together at Compared to What Inc., a nonprofit group that, in addition to the Summer Hut day camp, organized an annual concert on the Mall dubbed Human Kindness Day. The first few events honored singers Roberta Flack and Nina Simone, among others. In 1975, Stevie Wonder was invited to perform the fourth annual Human Kindness Day. And he said yes.
“One of the motivations for Stevie was a political one,” Kirkendall says. “He was motivated to change the world and to fight the injustices of how young black people were being raised in the city. He knew what the arts could mean to those young people.”
During those years, Wonder also was urging lawmakers to honor the memory of the late Martin Luther King Jr. by establishing a national holiday in King’s name. He knew that high-profile concerts in Washington would help that cause, which meant this wouldn’t be the last time Brooks and Kirkendall would host Wonder in the D.C. area.
But the first time always feels special. “It may have been the most beautiful concert we ever presented,” Kirkendall says.
Sept. 16, 1977, was full of firsts. It was their first night as proper concert promoters, and they were doing it under their new name, Tiger Flower Concerts. It was their first gig at Landover’s Capital Centre. And it was their first of two nights presenting Parliament-Funkadelic, the visionary funk group that gave Washington its long-standing nickname with the title of its 1975 album “Chocolate City.”
“George [Clinton] had adopted D.C.,” Kirkendall says of the Parliament-Funkadelic bandleader. “And the streets had adopted George. He was a hero. He belonged here.”
Soon after the show, Tiger Flower was hired to book and manage Parliament-Funkadelic’s American tours, and the duo promptly hit the road with one of the most outrageous live acts of all time. And with the band’s various members living at no fixed address, the Tiger Flower offices effectively became P-Funk headquarters in Chocolate City.
Prince isn’t easily wowed, but he had no choice but to be impressed back in February 1983 after Brooks and Kirkendall got their crew to clear away a massive amount of snow outside the D.C. Armory so the singer’s Valentine’s Day concert could go on. When Prince returned to Washington in 1984 on his legendary “Purple Rain” tour, Brooks and Kirkendall booked him for seven nights at the Capital Centre in Landover, Md.
During one afternoon off, the duo helped arrange a free concert for students on the campus of Gallaudet University. And this was a full-blown Prince concert, with loud guitars and bright lights, and the student body stomping its feet to better feel the shaking through the floor. The vibrations stopped only briefly in the middle of the gig when the students presented Prince with an award of appreciation.
“I never seen so many hardcore road [crew] guys start crying,” Brooks says. “I think even Prince broke a tear. It was one of those moments that those kids would never forget. And Prince wrote the check for the whole thing.”
In 1986, Washington’s go-go scene was suffering a strange blend of high hopes and low morale. Chris Blackwell, the storied founder of Island Records, had recently descended upon the District to shoot “Good to Go,” a dramatic film that he hoped would do for Washington’s go-go scene what “The Harder They Come” had done for Jamaican reggae. But the movie cast the music in a negative light, depicting the go-go scene as a haven for street criminals.
Brooks says he remembers it well: “I ran into Chuck [Brown] and Sugar Bear [of the go-go band E.U.], and they basically said, ‘Hey, this movie is showing us like suckers. That’s not who we are.’ ”
So in 1987, Brooks and Kirkendall invited the city’s leading bands out to Landover for the biggest concert in go-go history. What they caught on camera became “Go-Go Live at the Capital Centre,” a concert film that immortalized the high water mark of go-go on VHS.
“Once someone sees something on film, it gives it its majesty,” Brooks says. “I think it gave those guys a reason to stick their chest out.”
In the ’80s, Brooks and Kirkendall changed their company’s name to G Street Express and began launching national tours for young artists specializing in an emerging style of music called hip-hop.
They organized early tours for Grandmaster Flash and Run-DMC, and they worked closely with Salt-N-Pepa into the ’90s. Remember that infamous 1989 concert in Detroit where gangsta rap pioneers N.W.A. performed their notorious hit “F--- Tha Police,” and a swarm of police officers rushed the stage as the rappers fled the scene? Brooks and Kirkendall were the ones backstage who had to sort that out.
But they were usually pretty good at heading off trouble at the pass — like in 1987 when the Beastie Boys had decided to use a giant inflatable penis as a signature stage prop. A few days before the Beasties’ concert at the Capital Centre, Brooks and Kirkendall visited the office of Abe Pollin, the owner of the venue. “We cut a deal,” Kirkendall says. “He said it was okay if we could inflate it horizontally.”
When Brooks and Kirkendall first met Erykah Badu at a concert of hers they had promoted at the 9:30 Club back in 2000, they felt a chemistry. “She’s very eclectic and we’re very eclectic,” Kirkendall says.
In 2005, they organized Badu’s Sugar Water tour, which morphed into the Summer Spirit festival and has taken place at Merriweather Post Pavilion every summer since 2008. The Roots, Common and the late Chuck Brown all made regular appearances on the bill, and this year, it’ll be soul crooner Anthony Hamilton, a reunited Tony! Toni! Tone!, go-go legends Junkyard Band and others — with Badu in the headlining slot, of course.
And if you get a nice spot to lay your blanket down on the Merriweather lawn, it might feel a little like 1975. “With Human Kindness Day, you had a day for the arts with [socially] conscious entertainment that whole families could attend,” Brooks says. “Summer Spirit has those same principles 40 years later.”