Chuck Brown: Musician hailed as the creator of the Latin-tinged genre of funk known as 'Go-Go'
Known as the "Godfather of Go-Go", the bandleader, guitarist, vocalist and songwriter Chuck Brown was the originator of the infectious, Latin-flavoured, percussive-heavy, call-and-response funk variant from Washington, DC.
In 1979, Brown and his group the Soul Searchers spent a month atop the Rhythm & Blues charts in the US with "Bustin' Loose Part 1", a track built around an irresistible groove they had tried and tested for three years during a punishing schedule around the East coast – "seven nights a week, and double, triple gigs on weekends," as he put it. "Bustin' Loose" crossed over to the US Top 40 but didn't make much of an impact internationally.
However, Brown's career enjoyed another boost in the mid-1980s when the Island Records supremo Chris Blackwell heard the title track from his fifth album We Need Some Money and began delving further into Go-Go. Blackwell licensed "We Need Some Money" for inclusion on the Go Go Crankin' compilation which also included tracks by Trouble Funk and EU (Experience Unlimited), two other exponents of the genre he also signed. By September 1986, Trouble Funk were on the cover of the New Musical Express and Blackwell had bankrolled Good To Go, a movie starring Art Garfunkel and set in the Washington clubs where Go-Go thrived. Unfortunately, the film experienced production difficulties and didn't deliver on the expectations that it would introduce Go-Go to a worldwide audience, much like The Harder They Come had put reggae on the map in the 1970s.
Yet the popularity of Go-Go never abated in the Washington and Baltimore area and Brown remained in great demand as a live act. In recent years he enjoyed belated recognition and financial recompense when several of his '70s tracks were sampled by hip-hop acts Eric B & Rakim, LL Cool J, Run-DMC, Public Enemy and most famously Nelly, whose 2002 smash "Hot in Herre" leant heavily on "Bustin' Loose".
Brown also played a part in the emergence of the song stylist Eva Cassidy, whom he first heard in 1992. They recorded The Other Side, an album of standards, among them Cassidy's version of "Over The Rainbow" included on her best-selling Songbird collection in 2001, five years after her death.
Born in Gaston, North Carolina, in 1936, Chuck Brown grew up in poverty. "We'd go to somebody's house and my mother would say: 'Please feed my child. Don't worry about me. Just feed my child,'" he recalled. His father died while he was an infant and his mother and stepfather struggled to raise a large family. In the 1940s they moved to the US capital and he began cutting school and doing odd jobs to make ends meet. He showed considerable musical ability and played piano in church but in 1951 he ran away and attempted to support himself. With jobs in short supply he drifted into petty crime and was convicted of murder, though he maintained he had acted in self-defence and only served part of the 11-year sentence.
Lorton Penitentiary in Washington enabled him to break the circle of poverty and crime. "Back then, Lorton was like a school. You could get your mind together, learn a trade. I got my high school diploma. I hope none of you will have to do that," he recalled during the school visits he later undertook.
The jail was also where he took up the guitar after a fellow inmate made him one in exchange for five cartons of cigarettes. Brown's impromptu sessions became so popular that he started to believe he could make a living as a musician. "I could take a bunch of convicts and make them jump up and down. That told me I might be able to do that when I got out of there," he said.
The terms of his parole didn't allow him to perform where alcohol was served so he drove trucks and worked on building sites and as a sparring partner while playing the occasional barbecue. In 1964 he was allowed to join Jerry Butler and the Earls of Rhythm. The following year he teamed up with Los Latinos and in 1968 put together the Soul Searchers. By the time Bill Withers recommended the group to Sussex Records, Brown was honing a repertoire that blended blues, jazz and funk covers with original songs on the much-sampled albums We The People (1972) and Salt Of The Earth (1974). In their natural habitat, the sweaty clubs of the predominantly African-American city Washington had become, as they segued from the pulsating rhythms of "Blow Your Whistle" to "If It Ain't Funky", and kept the dancefloors packed, the Soul Searchers became unstoppable.
"Bustin' Loose" captured the raw excitement of Brown's live act. "It was just so tight we couldn't make any mistakes," recalled the bandleader with the gravelly voice. "And that's the one that opened the door to the Go-Go sound, and got musicians to understand its simplicity, its effectiveness ... The music just goes and goes."
Brown recorded a further 18 albums that never matched the commercial heights of Bustin' Loose but sold around 60,000 copies each. Last year, "Love", a collaboration with singer Jill Scott and bassist Marcus Miller, was nominated for a Grammy for Best R&B Performance by a Duo or Group with Vocals, but lost out to Sade's "Soldier Of Love". A well-known and well-liked Washingtonian, Brown fronted advertising campaigns for the city's lottery and The Washington Post. He also had a strong following in Japan, where he appeared regularly.
Charles Louis Brown, bandleader, guitarist, singer and songwriter: born Gaston, North Carolina 22 August 1936; twice married (two sons, and one son deceased, two daughters); died Baltimore, Maryland 16 May 2012.
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