The “Godfather of Go-Go,” Chuck Brown, passed away in May and the nation’s capitol mourned. Chuck had to cancel several performances after falling ill, including an event at the newly restored Howard Theater, a landmark where he had played in its earlier heyday before it was long shuttered. Sadly, he was not to play there again, rather to lie there in repose and be paid last respects by approximately 11,000 fans, friends, and family members who kept coming for hours from morning into evening.
Two days later there was a “home going” celebration for Chuck held at the Washington Convention Center. Chuck was feted with much speechifying by such politicos as Mayor Vincent Gray, Congresswoman Eleanor Holmes Norton, Council Chairman Kwame Brown, and Ward 8 Council Member Marion Barry. A proclamation was given declaring August 22nd (his birthday), Chuck Brown Day, in D.C. Legislation has been put forward to name a park after him and an ebullient Kwame Brown hopes to see a “Go-Go Hall of Fame” in that park.
And there was music. There was gospel and go-go and more. And the love kept coming. The acoustics of the convention center do not make it the best place for music, but I don’t know of any other venue that could hold the 14,000 plus people who came to celebrate Chuck. There were fellow musicians, radio personalities, older folk, younger folk, police, people of all walks of life. And celebrate they did. Celebrate we did.
Though I had seen and heard Chuck at various festivals over the years, including the Smithsonian Folklife Festival, I only met him a couple of years ago when we both started serving on the Board of the D.C. Chapter of the Recording Academy together. He was a truly humble, and off-stage, a quiet man, and I’m pleased to have made his acquaintance. At one meeting, he gave signed copies of his latest CD to board members, and I now have a treasured gift. That was at about the same time as when the D.C. Lottery ad featuring Chuck hit the air. I looked forward to seeing that ad every morning while watching the news with breakfast.
His influence on a particularly local level is legend. The go-go beat can be heard throughout the city, including in the rhythms of the bucket drummers who entertain by playing on found objects such as 10-gallon drywall buckets, trash cans, and grocery carts. While there are bucket drummers in other urban centers, the beat they play in D.C. is go-go. You can even go to http://www.drumsallday.com/gogo, a website I stumbled across, and learn to play the go-go beat on your own buckets.
Chuck Brown may be gone, but his influence remains and he won’t be forgotten. Washington will always say, “Wind Me Up Chuck.
The Festival, in collaboration with the Chuck Brown Foundation, Inc., presents a go-go tribute day to Chuck Brown on July 7, with artists of multiple genres commemorating his life and artistry. Among those scheduled to perform are Cold Hearted Band, No Question Band, and Junkyard Band. Read more about this event.
Pete Reiniger is sound production supervisor and chief engineer at Smithsonian Folkways Recordings.