Chucky Thompson had to lie about his age to play with Chuck Brown. It was 1984, and Thompson, 16 years old and already one of the best musicians in Washington, wanted to play with the biggest act in town: Brown, the godfather of go-go. Thompson insisted he was 18, and Brown took him on a European tour. Thompson soon moved on and eventually produced big hits for Mary J. Blige, Notorious B.I.G. and Faith Evans, but he never forgot that he got his start with Brown.
“In New York everyone wanted to play with Miles Davis,” Thompson says. “In D.C. everyone wanted to play with Chuck Brown. Just being affiliated with him gave you stripes. I learned the business of music from Chuck — the side that involves money and keeping other people happy: the audience, the promoters, the musicians. I was surprised that even though he was Chuck Brown, he always acted like he had a job to do.
“I’ll tell you like this: Everybody’s been fired by Chuck, but everybody still loves him. How is that even possible?”
It’s possible because Brown’s music and personality radiated so much infectious celebration that it was impossible to maintain a bad attitude. Even as Thompson was crafting hit records in New York and Los Angeles from the early ’90s onward, he kept his ties to Washington and vowed that he someday would repay Brown. Thompson produced Brown’s final two albums, “We’re About the Business” (2007) and “We Got This” (2010), before the legendary bandleader died in 2012. And now Thompson is helping to keep that legacy alive by co-producing a recent posthumous release, “Beautiful Life.”
The album combines five unfinished, unreleased tracks Brown was working on when he died with four brand-new tracks featuring his biological and artistic heirs, but not Brown himself. The Chuck Brown Band, which continues under the leadership of singer-guitarist Frank Sirius, will mix these new songs with Brown’s hits when it plays the Bethesda Blues & Jazz Supper Club on Saturday.
Brown’s own vocals are featured on the five tracks finished by his last producer, James McKinney. Those tracks includes remakes of Edwin Hawkins’s “Oh Happy Day” with the Howard University Gospel Choir and Lou Rawls’s “You’ll Never Find Another Love Like Mine.” Faith Evans and Raheem DeVaughn join Brown on “Best in Me,” while D.C. rapper Wale appears on the title track. But the standout cut is “Pop That Trunk,” a hard-grooving go-go number with a chant-along, double-entendre hook as sharp as those on such Brown classics as “Bustin’ Loose” and “Wind Me Up.”
Thompson got involved by producing the four tracks by younger vocalists poised to carry on the godfather’s legacy. Rapper Doug E. Fresh talks about Brown’s impact on hip-hop over a go-go groove. Sirius leads the way through a go-go remake of Ziggy Marley’s “Love Is My Religion.” Go-go veterans “Ms. Yendy” Tia Brown and Kanja Muchoki take over the party anthem “Lighters.” And Brown’s daughter Takesa “KK” Donelson raps with road-tested authority on “Still Crankin’.”
“KK is his daughter, so she has a lot of the force he embodied,” Thompson says. “He would throw her onstage when she was young and she would just keep going.”
“Beautiful Life” isn’t the only new album keeping Brown’s music alive. Washington native Lafayette Gilchrist has just released “The GoGo Suite: Live at the Windup Space, Vol. 2,” a brilliant, four-movement composition dedicated to Brown. Leading his nine-piece Baltimore band, the New Volcanoes, Gilchrist uses the key elements of the go-go music he grew up on — blues guitar, Latin percussion, relaxed funk groove and repeating hooks — as the basis for jazz improvisation.
“Vernon Reid from Living Colour, the first out-of-town guy to encourage me in music, put the idea in my head,” Gilchrist explains. “He said go-go was my folk music, and I should use that as the basis for composition, the same way Duke Ellington used the dance music of his day to create cues for solos.
“They’re all different versions of the blues, and the blues was always part of Chuck’s mix. Even though my piece is instrumental, I used the horns like the vocals on a go-go record. I extended the conversation between the conga drum and the trap drum. I extended everything because the music has to induce cats to improvise.”
Thompson believes the Chuck Brown Band can carry on without its late leader. As Thompson knows from his own experience, Brown hired the best musicians — including former P-Funk horn players — and trained them in the go-go sound he created.
“It was definitely a collective, just like George Clinton’s or James Brown’s bands,” Thompson says. “With James, everything was about what he wanted; George was more about letting you do what you want to do. Chuck gave a lot of freedom as long as you kept it simple. The percussionists would get tired of doing the same thing over and over, and Chuck would say, ‘Look at the dance floor; people like this simple, so keep playing it. That’s all I’m asking of you.’ ”
Saturday at the Bethesda Blues & Jazz Club. Show is at 8 p.m. 7719 Wisconsin Ave., Bethesda. 240-330-4500. $25.