Chuck Brown is still performing live at age 75. All photos by John Shore.
After 49 years in the music industry, native Washingtonian Chuck Brown wanted to spend his recently celebrated 75th birthday doing what he’s become legendary for in his hometown: performing to a sold-out crowd and jamming to his signature musical genre, go-go.
The “Godfather of Go-go” helped create the genre — an infectious hybrid of Latin beats, African rhythms, soul, jazz and funk music — in the nation’s capital in the late 1960’s. The music foreshadowed hip-hop and many of the popular R&B styles of the past four decades. Brown’s legendary live shows are built around heavy percussion beats and ample audience participation.
Brown began his career playing guitar for a Washington, D.C.-based Latin band, Los Latinos in the ’60s. He scored his first #1 hit in 1978 with “Bustin’ Loose,” landing the top spot on the Billboard charts. The song was sampled in Grammy winner Nelly’s 2002 hit “Hot in Herre” and is still one of the most sampled go-go songs ever (it was even recently featured in an ad campaign for Chips Ahoy).
Recently, Brown and two other D.C. musical legends, John Philip Sousa and Duke Ellington, were honored by the National Symphony Orchestra with a performance on the west lawn of the U.S. Capitol.
Art Beat recently chatted with Brown at the Gibson guitar showroom in Washington, D.C.:
Can you tell our audience what go-go music is and how it began?
Well, it’s just another form of funky music with crowd response. We have a little Latin flavor to it, a little African flavor to it. I always admired James Brown, Muddy Waters, B.B. King, George Benson, Wes Montgomery, everybody you could name, Ella Fitzgerald, Nancy Wilson.
I played a little jazz, too, so I always wanted to mix a little jazz with that groove, and so that’s what we started doing. By the second week we were breaking down and playing that beat, call and response to the audience. The second week, they came in with no more mink coats and suits and ties, and the tables and chairs — moved all them out of there, because there was standing room only, dancing room only. They started coming through the door dancing while we was playing that beat every time.
They had go-go girls, go-go clubs, but no go-go music. So that’s how it came about. That’s why I started calling it go-go music.
The first record that I cut was “We the People.” I was trying to get my own sound then. But it became a sound for the town after we did “Bustin’ Loose” and that was it. And when I was doing “Wind Me Up Chuck!” every time we got to the end of the song, they started hollering “Wind Me Chuck, do it again, Chuck, do it again!” So we played the same song about an hour, about four times in a row. I said, “This thing is going and going.” And I started calling it go-go. That’s all it is.
Then a lot of the other bands jumped up on it, and when other young bands jumped in it, I knew that we had something. And then you’ve got these new bands with their own concept of go-go. The new bands they are taking it to another level. And all that makes me very happy, very happy. Go-go is just going. That’s why we call it go-go.
Is go-go really a hybrid? You mentioned there are Latin influences, there are African influences, so is go-go really just a hybrid of all of those musical genres coming together to make this beautiful sound?
At first I didn’t know what was happening. I said, “Oh no, this ain’t my sound.” I was looking for my own sound, but it ended up being a sound for the town. Once I realized that, I was pretty happy about it. I said, “This is a sound that belongs in this town.”
What do you think about how the music reaches across generations?
Absolutely. There are people that say, ‘Chuck, I’m 55 years old and my mom used to beat me sneaking out to see you.’ That makes me feel good, that your momma used to beat you. My momma used to get me, too. So that’s how old I am, sneaking out to see me, you know. But I’m just kidding when I say that. But anyway, I’ve had people tell me, ‘Chuck, I’m a product of you.’ I say, ‘Ok, how’s that?’ ‘My mother and father met at your show when they were 16 years old, and they got married and here I am. If they hadn’t went to your show, I might not have been here.’
I love it when people tell me things like that. It’s why I love helping young musicians anyway I can. If you got a band and you need some help, you need me to come out there and give you some kind of advice or listen to your band or try to get you some bookings or something like that. I’m all for that. And I like getting young guys and putting them in my band and keep them out of trouble. Some guys, young people out there in my band, they were capable of getting into all kinds of trouble. Put them in the band and they are ok. Give them something positive to do.
What are some of your proudest moments being a native Washingtonian?
I think back when I used to shine shoes as a little kid 8, 9, 10 years old. I shined shoes around the Howard Theatre. I used to shine shoes all up down 14th street and up down 7th street, down 12th and New York Avenue and down in Foggy Bottom, the Greyhound Bus Station, 12th and New York Avenue. There was a club called the Rocketroom sitting right there on 12th and New York Avenue. It was a country and western club. I shined Hank Williams’ shoes in front of that club. Yeah, that was one of my proudest memories up till today, you know. And Cecilia’s nightclub. I had the pleasure of shining Louie Armstrong’s shoes there. And he gave me a nice little tip.
You kind of mentioned it, but who were some of your musical inspirations?
My mother. My mother could out-sing everybody in the family. And when I was a kid she didn’t let me sing nothing but gospel. I was 2 years old. And I can remember that far back, but I can’t remember what happened yesterday. I’ve always been around musical instruments. Everybody in my family could play some kind of instrument. Harmonica, accordion, piano, guitar, but I never was interested. As a matter of fact, I didn’t truly get interested in music until I was like 24 years old. That’s when I decided that I really wanted to be a musician and entertainer. My mother had me singing in people’s houses when I was a little boy 2, 3, 4 years old, at little house gatherings and things like that, a little backyard cookout, just me and my acoustic guitar. At another house gathering, people was telling me, ‘Chuck, you ought to get in a band!’ And I said, ok. So I got in a band. When I really got more experience, then people started saying, ‘Chuck, you ought to get your own band!’ I said, ok. And so I started working on that in 1966 and by the time ’68 rolled around I was doing pretty good with that.
You’ve collaborated with some pretty amazing people throughout your career. Anyone in particular just really was amazing?
Eva Cassidy. I did a jazz album with her. We’ve lost her, you know, she passed quite a few years back. But when I first heard her sing, I knew that I wanted to cut a record with that lady. And so we did. We did, and it came out very well. A matter of fact it’s still selling. It’s still selling all over in Europe.
What do you attribute to your longevity in this industry?
Well, God, obviously, that’s number one. I stayed focused once I made up made my mind that I wanted to become an entertainer. I stayed focused, and I kept a positive attitude. My concept was this is what I want to do, there is where I wanted to go. It wouldn’t have mattered to me if the go-go hadn’t went outside of Washington, D.C. It wouldn’t have mattered. The point is it took off. It took on here. Same thing with the Grammy nomination. It doesn’t matter whether I won it or not. The thing is I’m nominated, and that will always be there. I thank God for that. And I’ve donated four of my guitars to different places, one to the Virginia State Museum, one to the Library or Congress, one to Smithsonian and one to Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.